Lost F1 talent Tommy back where it all began, at Mondello Park
Irish eyes were smiling last month when one of the most storied drivers in the island’s history made a dramatic return to the race track where it all began.
Tommy Byrne, who has become known as the ‘greatest driver you’ve never heard of’, raced James Hunt’s 1975 Dutch Grand Prix-winning Hesketh at Mondello Park as part of the circuit’s 50th anniversary meeting. But it wasn’t quite the fairy-tale return: although Byrne, 60, took pole position in the Derek Bell Trophy, beating Michael Lyons, he finished runner-up to Lyons in both races.
Byrne’s career has been the subject of much speculation. He began his FF1600 career at the County Kildare circuit more than 40 years ago before moving to England, where his pace was such that he was compared to a young Ayrton Senna. He went on to win the 1982 British Formula 3 Championship while competing part-time in Formula 1 with backmarker team Theodore Racing. But success was short lived: by his own account he blew it all in a whirlwind of drink and drugs. He has spent the past decades living in America working as an instructor. Byrne returned to racing this year, driving a 1977 Ensign N177 in the Masters Historic Formula 1 event at Silverstone in July.
The Mondello event also celebrated the life of track owner Martin Birrane, who died in June and Byrne paid tribute to the man. “Martin Birrane gave me my first test in NASCAR and had been a big supporter of my career,” said Byrne. “My friend James Hagan owns the Hesketh. I loved it.” It remains to be seen whether Byrne will step into the Hesketh for more historic single-seater races this year.
RYDELL RETURNS TO S40
Rickard Rydell returned to his Volvo S40 for the first time in 20 years at the Silverstone Classic in July, driving in the Super Touring Trophy. The 1998 British Touring Car champion qualified on pole but finished second in both Super Touring races, behind the Honda Accord of James Dodd.
“It took some laps and sessions to get used to [the Volvo] again, because they are more challenging to drive than the new [touring] cars,” said Rydell. “There’s more downforce and more grip, however, so they’re quite fast for 20-year-old cars.
“I like it, because you have to fight a little bit more as they’re less easy to drive than the new TCR cars, therefore it feels great to be back in it. There’s no traction control or anything – you can’t have that – so quite a lot is up to the driver. That Honda [Accord] is very fast here, I was less than 0.4sec quicker than him in qualifying, so I had to work hard.”
Rydell was invited to return to the S40 by fellow historic racer Jason Minshaw, and the Swede also drove Minshaw’s Volvo 850 estate in the BTCC parade on Sunday, to celebrate 60 years of the tin-top championship. This was Rydell’s first Silverstone Classic.
“Jason asked me to drive it because it has been 20 years since we won the title,” said Rydell. “I was talking with one of my former bosses at Volvo about doing something as it’s been 20 years, so it’s good timing.
“A lot of people like to see them and there are enthusiasts like Jason, who gave me the chance to come and drive it. Thanks to people like him, we get to see them on track.
“This is my first time at the Classic, it’s very nice. I’ve been walking round and looking at all the cars and I’m amazed to see them. It’s really good fun.”
This year, Super Touring has suffered a dip in entries. Compared to a grid of more than 40 cars in 2017, this year’s event attracted fewer than 30 amid a tricky season for the championship.
“It’s hard for me to know why,” said Rydell. “Engine restoration and things like that are expensive, but it’s difficult to change the regulations from what they were [in period]. We’ll see how long it can live on. We’re using Hoosier [tyres] now, and next year they’ll be using Dunlops. That will be better for everyone because the Hoosier is quite slippery and Dunlops, I think, will be a better choice.”
John Cleland, double BTCC champion, praised the size of the grid at the Classic and said that previous Super Touring events have been hurt by the difficulty owners have had in restoring their cars.
The Vauxhall Vectra driver recently took his first wins since ’93 at his local track, Knockhill. He won both Super Touring races against a field of nine cars, of which three finished the first race and four the second.
HERO TAKES OVER ERA
HERO – the Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation – will take over management of Endurance Rally Association (ERA) events. ERA runs long-distance rallies such as the Peking to Paris, Himalayan Challenge, the new-for-2019 Rally New Zealand and the 22-day Trans America Challenge; HERO’s rallies, such as Le Jog, the Royal Automobile Club 1000 Mile Trial and the London to Lisbon, take place in the UK and Europe.
The move comes after ERA founder Philip Young died in 2015, and HERO will now aim to continue organising long-distance rallies.
“At HERO, our approach can best be described as ‘for enthusiasts, by enthusiasts’,” said HERO chairman Tomas de Vargas Machuca. “There have been no greater enthusiasts than Philip Young and his colleagues at ERA.
“Philip was, and still is, a revered figure, and we are proud to be taking on the ERA’s portfolio of events. For HERO, this represents a significant expansion of our activities, especially longer distance endurance events, for which ERA has long been a market leader and innovator.”
A new race at the Virginia International Raceway, the ‘American Racing Legends Charity Pro-Am’, will star NASCAR winners Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte on September 22.
The race for NASCAR legends aims to build on the ‘Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am’, a historic race held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway which, in June 2018, was won overall by Matthew Brabham and Michael Donohue in a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette.
Elliott is the 1988 NASCAR Cup Series champion, won NASCAR’s ‘Most Popular Driver Award’ a record 16 times and earned an induction into the Hall of Fame. His son Chase recently won his first NASCAR Cup Series race, at Watkins Glen.
Labonte currently competes full-time in Euro NASCAR – he appeared in June’s American SpeedFest at Brands Hatch– and won the 2000 NASCAR Cup Series.
More NASCAR drivers are expected to fill the bill as Tony Parella, CEO of organiser the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, said: “I have thoroughly enjoyed my growing relationship with Ray Evernham, who has been instrumental in making this Pro-Am with NASCAR stars possible. Having Bobby join us for the first time at VIR underscores the level of interest in this event. Stay tuned, because there is plenty more to follow.”
The event will benefit a charity called IGNITE, which assists young adults with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, run by former NASCAR crew chief Evernham and his family. Evernham and Eliott will share a car and also raced at the last three Indy Legends races.
McGUINNESS AT REVIVAL
Twenty-three-time Isle of Man TT winner John McGuinness returned to racing at the Classic TT in August and will make an appearance at the Goodwood Revival on September 7-9.
The 46-year-old suffered career-threatening injuries in the 2017 North West 200, breaking his leg, vertebrae and ribs during practice in May, and has not returned to competitive racing since – though he completed a parade lap at the 2018 IoM TT and runs up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
He will compete in the Barry Sheene Memorial Trophy, a two-rider race where an aggregate result is taken to determine the winner after a pair of 25-minute contests. McGuinness last competed at the Revival in 2016, on a Manx Norton with 2004 FIM World Classic Bike champion Glen English, and won Sunday’s race and overall honours.l
Other entrants include Mick Grant, Gary Johnson, James Hillier and two-time World Superbike champion Troy Corser.
The Revival will also celebrate Rob Walker Racing with a parade of cars. The successful privateer team first competed in the world championship for drivers in 1953, becoming the first to win a Grand Prix with a mid-engined car and, notably, the first privateer to win at the sport’s top level. Walker died in 2002, aged 84.
Also confirmed for the Revival are Jackie Oliver, Richard Attwood, Jochen Mass, Emanuele Pirro, and successful Le Mans racers Derek Bell and Darren Turner. BTCC winners Jason Plato, Matt Neal and Ash Sutton will compete in the St Mary’s Trophy while Karun Chandhok – making his fourth appearance at the Revival Meeting – has also been confirmed to race a McLaren-Elva M1A in the Whitsun Trophy.
BIASION TO RALLYDAY
Two-time world rally champion Miki Biasion will drive a Martini-liveried Lancia Delta HF Integrale at the Castle Combe Rallyday on September 22. The Italian, commemorating his first WRC title earned 30 years ago with the works Lancia team, said: “I have to celebrate 30 years on from that first championship.
“To me, the Delta is like a baby. The memories are so special. I won two titles, but as part of Lancia we won six championships – that’s incredible.”
Biasion will drive Didier Auriol’s car that won the Finnish and Australian rounds in 1992, when Lancia won the makes’ title with semi-privateer entrant Jolly Club.
“To see a name like Miki Biasion confirmed for Rallyday is incredible for the event,” said organiser Tom Davis.
“But what’s even better is that he’s going to be driving a Martini-liveried Lancia – an Italian who won two world championships in an Italian car… it doesn’t get much better than that.
“To have Miki with us three decades on from his first title is something very special – something we intend to celebrate with him on the day.”
The event will also celebrate 50 years of the Ford Escort Mk1 and the 60th birthday of the British Rally Championship.