Designer, global citizen, F1 legend

2012-10-20 16:07

With 99 of the cars he helped design winning Formula 1 (F1) races and seven constructors’ trophies and an equal number of World Drivers’ Championships under his belt, it is no wonder that Rory Byrne (68) is recognised as one of the most successful F1 car designers.

Born in the suburb of Hatfield in Pretoria on January 10 1944, his love for cars started at an early age when “I used to listen to Formula 1 race commentaries and results on radio”.

After moving to Bedfordview in the East Rand with his parents in 1952, he finished his high school education at Queens High before going to study at the University of Witwatersrand.

His passion was not evident in his varsity days as he graduated with a degree in chemistry.

It was in the late 1960s that he set up a company called Auto Drag and Speed Den with friends – Dave Collier and brothers Doug and Ron Bennetta.

It had branches on Jules Street in Malvern and in Alberton.

“I still see Ronnie every year when I come here but sadly Dave passed away some 20 years ago and Doug followed about 15 years ago,” he said with a hint of sadness and nostalgia in his eyes.

Since those years, Byrne’s life story reads like a fairytale.

Before moving overseas, he constructed his first Formula Ford Racer that came second in a race in South Africa in 1972.

He moved to England early in 1973 and “first helped a friend run a Formula Ford in the UK” before joining Royale Racing as a designer.

His big breakthrough came in 1978 when he joined Toleman Group Motor Sport, a team which competed in the European Formula 2 Championship from 1978 to 1980 and then moved up to F1.

In 1984, legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna whom he regards as one of the best drivers of all time, joined the team, which led to the team’s most successful F1 season.

The team was bought by Benetton in 1986 and then by Renault in 2002. Today it is known as the Lotus F1.

It was at Benetton where Byrne started to work with then young Michael Schumacher of Germany.

To date, he regards Senna and Schumacher, as well as another Brazilian, Nelson Piquet, as the best drivers he has ever worked with.

“It has been very fulfilling to work with world champion drivers such as Ayrton, Michael and Nelson.

They all possessed some unique attributes and skills,” he reminisced.

Byrne struck a strong bond with Senna as they both shared a love for flying model aeroplanes.

The Brazilian was also a qualified pilot.

A similarly strong relationship was built with Schumacher whom he holds in very high regard.

“Michael was able to drive flat out while talking on the radio, yet other drivers slow down a bit when talking on the radio.”

Byrne was relaxing in Phuket city, an island province of Thailand, after retiring from Benetton when a call came through from Ferrari asking him to replace John Barnard as chief designer. Barnard had refused to relocate to Italy.

It took a while for Byrne – who was at the time looking at starting a scuba diving business – to agree as “I was enjoying the break after 23 years of high pressure”.

The rest as they say in the classics, is history.

From then until the end of 2004, the cars he designed for Ferrari won 71 races, five consecutive drivers’ titles for Schumacher and six consecutive constructors’ titles for Ferrari.

Byrne “retired” from car designing again but still serves Ferrari as a consultant and works for them “about 100 days a year.”

“From the time I started in F1, I have put in a combined 32 years for Benetton and Ferrari,” he said.

Asked about his recipe for success, the former chief designer said it was his ability to use the resources and time he had most effectively.

“The resources which result in the improved car performance are research and development,” he said.

“You need to use the time given very wisely and prioritise things correctly as the race or a car launch will not be postponed because you have not finished designing the car.”

Byrne lives close to the beach in Phuket with his wife Pornthip and their two sons Sean (12) and James (4).

Despite the many years he spent as a globalcitizen, his loyalty is still firmly with South Africa.

“I am a South African. My affinity is with my country of birth and when big sporting events such as the Olympics, rugby, soccer or cricket take place, I only support one country.

“In the 39 years that I have been living away, there is not a single one when I have not visited.”

He will be back in the nation in about two month’s time to join his parents, George and Gwen Byrne, as they celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary on December 19.

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