Racecar designer Byrnes up the track

Legendary multiple Formula 1 championship winning racecar de- signer, Rory Byrne, was in town last week to support his sister, Bronwen Lankers-Byrne who founded environmental education organisation, Thrive.

Relating highlights of his early life and what led to his amazing career, he held the audience of about 300 petrol heads spellbound as he regaled them with tales of the cars he built and the racing drivers he met, two of them in the audience – Kenny Gray who now lives in Simon’s Town, and Quintin Maine in Johannesburg.

The event was held at Crossley and Webb’s exotic car showroom in Gardens and was a fund-raiser for Thrive based in Hout Bay.

Tokai comedian Alan Committie warmed-up the audience by offering fascinating tips on fighting crime, such as wrapping your dog in fairy lights, flashing them a Blackberry and sleeping in a balaclava to confuse would-be thieves.

Retreat-based auctioneer Joey Burke said he loves supporting Bronwen.

“Her brother might be the world’s number one racecar designer but this humble woman arrives at meetings all sweaty, having walked there,” he laughed.

After the auction, Rory, in conversation with motor racing commentator Roger McCleery, said he would not get a job designing racecars today because he is not qualified.

Born in Pretoria, this semi-retired engineer and car designer spends half his time working in Italy and the other half playing golf and surfing with his sons, Sean, 14, and James, 7, in Phuket, Thailand.

Bronwen spoke of her brother’s early years, reminiscing about him being “a wild child”, getting into mischief and turning their pondok into a chemistry lab”.

And their brother Gavin almost lost his life when Rory and the neighbour made a rocket out of a golf club.

After graduating from the University of Witwatersrand in 1964 with a chemistry degree, he won two world championships for model aeroplane guidance.

Having a natural flair and interest in aerodynamics, he started out designing his own plane, initially from plan.

It was a natural progression to cars and after buying his first car, a 1964 Ford Anglia 105E, he saved the money to modify it and make it go faster.

Rory followed his ambition of building his own car but not satisfied with saloon vehicles, he moved on to racing cars.

In 1971 he built his own racecar in a house converted to a garage.

Named Fulmen – Latin for lightning – the Formula Ford finished well in the 1972 championship.

Following his success he relocated to England in February 1973 to pursue a career in racing car design and got a job at the Royale Formula Ford racing team.

An offer to join Toleman Group Motorsport’s design team followed and Rory was rapidly promoted to the Formula 1 team, which, he said, faced huge challenges.

“When we started we were seven seconds slower than the last team that qualified,” he said.

In 1986 Toleman was bought out by Benetton and it was here that Rory first teamed up with Michael Schumacher.

It was to become one of the most successful eras in motor racing history.

By 1996, Rory’s contract with Benetton was up and he decided to leave England, exit the track and start a scuba-diving business in Phuket.

But it didn’t last long. Soon after arriving there he got a call that would change everything.

It was 1996. Jean Todt had been given free rein to build a team of design engineers for Ferrari and he offered Rory a job. Ten days later he was in Maranello Italy, where Ferrari’s F1 is produced.

Rory joined the team and stayed with them until his official retirement in 2004.

Rory said he will never forget watching Michael Schumacher cross the finish line in the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix.

Michael went on to win more races and championships than any other driver, and Rory led his teams – first Benetton, in 1995, then Ferrari, from 1999 to 2004 – to seven constructors’ championships.

Asked if he had any information about Michael Schumacher’s current condition, after his December 2013 skiing accident, he said while he kept in touch with the family he must respect their wishes and not divulge anything.

And so, the man who started out in a souped-up Anglia, now drives a Ferrari F430. “It’s my favourite so far,” said Rory, who has owned three.

The charity raised over R500 000 through actions and other fundraising efforts on the evening.

For more information, visit www.thrive.org.za