Thursday, December 25, 2008

Crashed and Byrned

"Crashed and Byrned" is a good read but not a great book. Recommended to me by Ian Titchmarsh, the racing commentator, over dinner in Macau, it is written for a general audience. About the career of racing driver Tommy Byrne, it didn't quite live up to its billing. The book is maddeningly lightweight if you are a petrolhead. There is a clue on the cover - the strapline being "The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw" which of course is nonsense. I well remember seeing Tommy comfortably winning the F3 race at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1982.
Written by Tommy Byrne, with journalist Mark Hughes, it tells of the rise and rapid decline of Byrne, one of the many nearly-men of Formula One racing. His self destructive streak turned a sublime talent into the life of a born loser; only redeemed later when he calmed down. The book makes the case that he was a match for the great Ayrton Senna Da Silva. We shall never know.
There is more than a taste of sour grapes as we rifle through his back pages. The crowning achievement of his career was a stellar F1 test at Silverstone in 1982 for the McLaren team when he was clearly fastest in a 'doctored' car. Ron Dennis, the McLaren boss, could have 'made' Tommy Byrne, but was unimpressed. Dennis himself was dismissed by the F1 snobs as an 'oily rag,' a former mechanic above his station. Perhaps because of this he was the last person likely to be impressed by Byrne, a self-confessed 'tea-leaf' given to drinking, snorting, fighting and debauching. The book is full of scatological language which suddenly seems completely out of fashion.
Byrne is not the sympathetic character he, and his collaborator Hughes, would have you believe. In the words of Paul McCartney: "You took your lucky break and broke it in two." Going to the F3 awards ceremony stoned out of your mind was not the greatest career move, when F1 racing was turning all corporate.
Signing a three-year contract with the Theodore F1 team, against the advice of Ron Dennis, was cited as the start of the spiral. Yet Keke Rosberg drove for the team, winning the International Trophy race in the wet at Silverstone in 1978, and went on to an F1 World Championship with Williams. Racing is often about making the most of the opportunities that come your way. Ayrton Senna won the Macau Grand Prix for Theodore 'Teddy' Yip in 1983, yet Yip is dismissed in the book as a two-dimensional character. Real life is never that simple.
There are interesting insights into Byrne's early career - for example how the various Van Diemen drivers avoided competing against each other to share the spoils. This points to races, and championships, being fixed and only diminishes Tommy Byrne's Curriculum Vitae.

There are mistakes in the book:
Page 175 "Terry Borscheller" should read "Terry Borcheller"
Page 176 refers to a "Nacho" who is an unidentified character, presumably an editing error.

The book is short at 200 pages and easily read at one sitting. There are eight empty pages at the end of the paperback edition which could have been usefully filled with an index. There are no photographs or driver history. A cheap and cheerful production.

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