Irish Formula 1 drivers


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Today, being St Patricks Day, we recall five Irishmen who made F1 starts. Who do you remember? Who in your opinion is the greatest Irish Formula 1 driver?

Tommy Byrne

Young Tommy Byrne had a colourful childhood that is well documented in the excellent Crashed and Byrned, co-authored by our own Mark Hughes. A rising talent of junior formulae, he won the British Formula 3 series in 1982 (despite missing several races). He entered five races in Formula 1 that year with Theodore, to little effect, with the Motor Sport report at Las Vegas stating: “First reserve was the little Irishman Tommy Byrne in the Theodore, so by Jarier’s bad luck he was lucky to start in the race. When Byrne arrived on the Formula One scene at mid-season he was rather confident, not to say cocky, and was quoted as saying that famous names did not interest him, as long as they didn’t get in his way! When he did actually qualify for a race the only time he saw some of them was when they lapped him and at Las Vegas he spun off while trying to keep out of the way of some of the famous names that were lapping him!”

After that race he burned his bridges with the Theodore team, knowing McLaren had a contractual obligation to offer him a test later that season. Tommy set very respectable lap times and waited for his offer of a drive, but it never materialised – his reputation made teams shy away.

Tommy had the pace but not the refinement for the F1 paddock. He eventually settled in the United States winning 10 races in the American Racing Series, now known as Indy Lights.

Derek Daly

Like so many young drivers with no budget Derek scraped by in junior series. Success at the 1976 Formula Ford Festival led to a drive in British Formula 3 in 1977, where he won the championship. He raced four partial seasons in European Formula 2 taking three wins and twice finishing third in the championship.

He made his Formula 1 debut in 1978 but unsuccessful drives in slower cars almost stalled his career. His F2 success with Project 4 managed to get him a late-season call-up in 1979 where a strong race saw him earn a full-time deal with Tyrrell in 1980.

His best results in F1 came that season: two fourth-place finishes in Argentina and Great Britain. There was the reprieve of a Williams drive in 1982 – and almost taking victory in the race no one seemed to want to finish at Monaco – but being outshone by eventual World Champion Keke Rosberg meant he was dropped for 1983.

Derek moved to the United States, making 65 starts in CART with a best finish of third at Milwaukee in 1987. However, he was lucky to still have a career after a huge accident at Michigan in 1984.

In 1988 he finished fourth in a TWR Silk Cut Jaguar at Le Mans and won the Sebring 12 Hours twice in 1990 and 1991 for Nissan. A generation knows him for his successful commentary work in the U.S. and he also works as a motivational speaker.

Ralph Firman

Son of Van Diemen co-founder Ralph Firman Sr., Ralph Jr. had success in the lower ranks, winning the 1996 British Formula 3 championship and the Macau GP in controversial circumstances, driving into the wall at the hairpin, blocking the track and causing a red flag which rolled the race back two laps to when he was leading.

He opted to move to Japan in 1997, unable to find the big budgets to compete in F3000. He raced in Formula Nippon for six seasons, taking seven wins and the 2002 championship for Nakajima Racing.

A chance meeting with Eddie Jordan resulted in a Formula 1 drive for 2003, with a best finish of 8th, scoring one championship point in an uncompetitive car. A rear wing failure at Hungary caused a massive accident that sidelined him for a race, and he found himself replaced in 2004.

Returning to Japan he won a championship in Super GT and raced for Team Ireland in A1GP in 18 races over the 2005-06 and 2007-08 seasons. Joe Kelly

Joe entered two Grand Prix: the first race of the newly formed World Championship at Silverstone in 1950 and again at the same circuit in 1951. Running his own Alta GP car he was not classified for either race, Motor Sport reporting: “Kelly’s Alta sounded dreadfully rough and noisy.”

He had better success in lower-level sports cars but his career ended in 1955 after a big shunt at Oulton Park.

After his retirement he built a successful car showroom business and impressive property portfolio

David Kennedy

After wins in FF1600 David Kennedy impressed on a grander scale in the European Formula 3 Championship in 1977. Finishing sixth in the series in 1978 led to an entry in the final race of the British Formula 1 Championship, taking victory in his first race at Snetterton in a Theodore Wolf WR3.

In 1979 he finished as runner-up in British F1 and signed with Shadow for the Formula 1 World Championship for 1980. David later told Motor Sport: “It was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen. Oh, how looks are deceptive. Being young and naive I thought it was going to be quicker than anything else out there just because it looked so good.”

He entered seven Grands Prix for Shadow without qualifying, though the record books do not show he did qualify and race in the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix which was later stripped of World Championship status.

After this he walked away from Formula 1 and raced in Can-Am, before returning to Europe in sports cars, most notably with Mazdaspeed. Moving into driver management he booked the 1991 winning Le Mans line up of Herbert, Weidler and Gachot.

In later years he has worked as an analyst and co-commentator for F1 in Ireland, penned a column in the Sunday Independent, is a director of Mondello Park and was part of the A1GP Team Ireland consortium.

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