How poverty, snobbery and stubbornness stood in the way of Tommy Byrne and the riches of F1

At a Q&A session at Picturehouse Cinema in Piccadilly during the premiere of a new documentary named Crash and Burn – which details the raw, underplayed talent of Tommy Byrne – the star of the show recited a tale that emphasised both his phenomenal talent behind a wheel and his reckless love affair with alcohol.

The story, in Byrne’s own words, went a little something as follows. He was in France for an F3 race in the early 1980s, but qualifying was rained off for the day with little chance of that decision being overturned.

Not one to hesitate over taking a risk, Byrne took his crew of mechanics to a small French café and taught the staff how to make an Irish coffee.

Byrne, an Irish native himself, and his pit crew had “seven or eight” glasses of the stuff before being informed that qualifying was back on. They were told they must return to the track immediately or be disqualified from the race.

Well over the limit to drive any vehicle let alone an F3 car, Byrne went out on the track and qualified for the following day’s race. “I felt fine,” he shrugged, recalling how he went on to finish the race in sixth place.

Similar tales are widespread among the F1 fraternity of a certain generation, but not all are true. Indeed, only last year Byrne had to deny being the culprit who spiked Ayrton Senna’s drink on one of the rare occasions the Brazilian let his hair down.

Yet for all the truth about his self-admitted erratic drinking, Byrne maintains it never got in the way of him fulfilling his potential.

“It’s all a load of bullshit that I didn’t make it because of the partying,” he said, revealing how he and Gerhard Berger used to stay out all night the day before a race. Berger, of course, went on to make millions driving for McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton in F1.

So if it wasn’t the drinking that stood in the way of Byrne – by all accounts a phenomenally fast driver – becoming a sensation, what was it?

“People treat you differently when you’re poor,” he says in the documentary film, which will be screened on BBC this week ahead of the new Formula 1 season, which begins in Melbourne at the weekend.

Unfortunately for Byrne, and anyone else from an underprivileged background, F1 was and still is very much an elitist sport. However talented, a penniless, disobedient kid from Dundalk (a small border town halfway between Dublin and Belfast) was always up against it.

In most single-seater formulas, you must stump up cash to get a drive, and from there you earn your reputation. Byrne had nothing to offer other than his driving skills. But as word got around of just how fast he could go, teams began giving him drives without demanding the sort of sponsorship income normally expected.

Such was Byrne’s unique talent, he progressed from driving a Mini Cooper in a stockcar race to competing in F1 in just over four years, thanks to friends and businessmen back home who rallied to cover his expenses.

“Tommy got to Formula 1, of course because of his talent, but also by the help of his friends, who went beyond what is normally done by friends to get someone to F1,” said Crash and Burn director Sean O Cualain.

“They just really believed in him. And even this film could not have been made without all the personal archive from all his friends who had taped it on VHS. That’s all we had, because a lot of it had been wiped.”

Before making it to F1, Byrne rubbed shoulders with a man who would go on to win three world championships in the sport – Ayrton Senna.

“We pretty much lived together,” said Byrne, recalling how he and the Brazilian – who came from a wealthy background – never got on when competing at Formula Ford level in the early 80s.

“We were in the same factory every day, we had breakfast in the same lodge every day, we had dinners together with Ralph Firman and his wife; we were together a lot.

“He knew how good I was, and I knew how good he was, but I think he was the one who was a little bit more jealous of me than I was of him.

“He was the one who got pissed off about me winning the Ford Championship; I think that’s where it all went wrong between us.”

Senna eventually made his name in F1 with McLaren, a team Byrne may have joined had he fitted into their high-class, ultra-professional operation.

Given a chance to impress them on the back of qualifying a terrible car in the form of a Theodore for an F1 race – something no one else could do with that particular model – McLaren asked Byrne in to test drive their car.

“I drove the slowest car on the track, the Theodore, and I drove one of the fastest cars on the track, the McLaren. That was two different ends of the spectrum, and there was a four-second gap difference.

“I could have qualified on the front row of a Grand Prix with my times, but I went back to a Theodore.”

McLaren couldn’t argue with the times Byrne set, but his cocky persona didn’t quite sit so well with them.

His working-class background was also a concern for the snobbish McLaren crew, with Byrne recalling the moment he knew an offer would never arrive – when the boss Ron Dennis asked him what his parents did for a living.

But reflecting back on being beaten by the system, Byrne has few regrets.

“I went through my life knowing I was quick, and I proved it. Things have been pretty good (since retiring). I’m doing fine, I’m still alive.”

Now a driving coach with his own business in America, all without ever having altered his personality or forgotten his roots, the best driver you might never have seen has something money can’t always buy – peace of mind.

Pictures: Crash and Burn is available on BBC iPlayer here until April 19, 2017 and will be screened on BBC2 Northern Ireland on March 23 (11.20pm) and BBC FOUR on March 27 (9pm).