South Africa’s Formula One great

30 November 2005

Ferraris, designed by South African Rory Byrne, have dominated the sport of Formula One in recent years, winning five consecutive World Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships.

A former student, Byrne was awarded an honourary doctorate by the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on Tuesday night.

He was honoured for his contribution to the sport of motor racing, and for putting South Africa on the world motor-racing map.

A lifetime in motor racing
Despite not having an engineering background, Pretoria-born Byrne has been one of the most successful designers of Formula One racing cars ever, having won six World Constructor’s Championships, including five consecutively.

He has spent a lifetime in motor racing, starting a company called “Auto Racing and Speed Den” not long after graduating with a BSc in chemistry and applied mathematics in 1964.

“It took me, from the time I started in motor racing to the time I started designing for Ferrari, about 31 years,” he said, speaking to the media before the award.

Those years saw him rise through the ranks of South Africa’s Formula Ford Championship before joining Britain’s Royale company, where he designed the 1974 Super Vee cars.

First world championship
He made the step up to Formula One in 1982, when Toleman racing moved into the premier motor sports league. The company was bought out by Bennetton in 1985. Here he began working with a technical director, Ross Brawn, and a promising young driver, Michael Schumacher.

It was with this team that Byrne won his first Formula One world championship, the 1994 Driver’s Championship. They repeated the feat in 1995, this time winning the Constructor’s Championship too.

Ferrari’s years
It has been with Ferrari, however, that Byrne has won the most recognition and acclaim. Schumacher and Brawn moved to Ferrari, then struggling in the middle of the pack, in 1996. Byrne joined them the following year.

Reunited, they went on to completely dominate the sport of Formula One in the last few years. Ferrari won both the Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships for five successive years between 2000 and 2004.

In 2002, Ferrari won all but two of the 17 races in the season.

‘Engineering exercise’
At Ferrari Byrne leads a team of over 100 engineers, all highly specialised at fine-tuning all areas of the cars. Byrne is ultimately responsible for thousands of decisions that all help to shave hundredths of a second off the lap times, and keep them ahead on the opposition.

“Motor racing is, essentially, an engineering exercise,” Byrne said.

His lack of an engineering background has certainly not been a handicap, although he said he’s “had to pick up along the way.”

Byrne’s contract with the Ferrari team will expire in February 2007, when he expects he will retire. Perhaps then, he said, he will be able to visit South Africa more frequently. He plans to settle with his wife and son in Phuket, Thailand, where they are building a holiday resort.

“Motor racing is just like life,” said Byrne, “Only it happens 10 times faster.”

Using SAinfo material Want to use this article in your publication or on your website?
See: Using SAinfo material