Acclaimed Formula One car designer Rory Byrne describes how his plans to retire and dive in Thailand were postponed by a call from Ferrari, which led him to join one of the most successful teams in the history of Formula One.
I was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and left for the UK in 1973 where I spent the next 23 years. Then I was in Maranello, Italy, for seven years, which is home to the Ferrari F1 racing team. For the past eight years I’ve been spending half my time in Italy and half in Phuket.When did you first come to Phuket?
I first came to Phuket about 1988 with my friend Alex Hawkridge, who had kindled my interest in scuba diving years before. We joined a two-week liveaboard trip that took us up the coast and all the way out to the Andaman Islands. I really enjoyed the trip as well as the hospitality in Phuket, so I returned several times on holiday. I nearly moved here in 1996 when my contract with the Benetton Formula One team expired. Having won the championship in the 1994-95 season I’d planned to retire, so I went to Koh Lanta intending to set up a scuba diving business. But then I got a call and 10 days later I was in Maranello working with Ferrari.What were the highlights of your long career as a race-car designer?
In 1980 I was with Toleman, which was later bought by Benetton, and we competed in the European F2 championship. Our drivers finished first and second that year. Then 1994 was the first time that Michael Schumacher won the Driver’s Championship with a car that I had designed. The great period of Ferrari was from 1999 to 2004, and what stands out is 2002 when we made a big step forward in car development; that year we won 15 out of 17 races. In 2004 we again won 15 races. This was the last car I designed for Ferrari, and one of them is now here at my home in Phuket.What kind of car do you drive here?
Up until recently I drove a Honda City. Now I have a Mitsubishi Pajero.
No, there’s no Ferrari dealership here and the road conditions don’t allow for it. I need the Pajero because I often have several people to transport. That’s what’s important here. I do own a Ferrari F430 which I use in Italy. When I first joined Ferrari in 1997 our President said that he would give me a Ferrari if I designed the car that won the World Championship, so I’ve had a couple of 360 Modena and I now have the F430.
Do you have family here?
Yes, and this is partly why I ended up living in Phuket. While in the UK in 1996 I was interested in learning Thai so I went around the colleges in Oxford trying to find a Thai teacher. I ended up at a Thai restaurant and a student working as a waitress there agreed to teach me Thai. She’s now my wife, Pornthip, better known as “Or”. My Thai, however, is worse than it was when we met! We have two sons, aged 4 and 11.
You’ve recently built a villa in Phuket – can you tell us more about it?
We moved in about 18 months ago. My wife has overseen the design and construction, and it’s in contemporary Chinese style with many antique and classic features including floors in recycled Burmese teak (Khun Or interjects: “People say that since I have an antique husband, I need an antique house!”). We’re surrounded by trees and right in the middle of the canopy in Nai Harn and with design elements including a double-height roof and water features on both sides, we have no air conditioning and don’t need it at all.
What do you like most about living in Phuket?
It’s a great place to live. I enjoy the outdoor lifestyle, being able to walk to the beach and go surfing. Years ago I had problems with my knee and was advised to give up running, so I took up golf. I now play about 300 days a year, and six days a week when I’m in Phuket, usually at Phunaka. There’s also a great expat community here.
What do you think the future holds for you?
I’m as busy now as when I worked full time. I’m still with Ferrari as a consultant, working about 100 days a year. I also have ongoing involvement with Discovery Insure in South Africa. It has developed a novel scheme for motor insurance where if you drive well you get 40% off your fuel bill. There’s a black box installed in the car that monitors driving habits. My job is to help develop a way to turn the box’s signals into a meaningful measure of driving behaviour.
My wife and I are also working on a business plan to start a rejuvenation centre. After I was diagnosed with prostate cancer 18 months ago I did a lot of research. I looked at both conventional and alternative therapies, and for me the alternative methods looked less intrusive. I did a pre-detox diet followed by 10 days of fasting and detox, and ever since I’ve stayed on a daily diet of 50% raw vegetables and fruit. I believe that detoxing and adjusting to a healthier diet frees up your body’s immune system to deal with the cancer. Not only has the cancer stabilised, but some chronic problems I had including a bad knee and an elbow problem have disappeared. For 20 years I couldn’t throw a cricket ball, but now I can. With the centre, we’re interested in sharing what we’ve learned about diet and health to help other people.
How do you evaluate success?
That’s simple. You just need to ask yourself, “Have I achieved my goals in life?” My goal was always to design a car that won a championship. After the tremendous run at Ferrari I felt I’d achieved my goals. Since then my goals have shifted. It’s much more about time with friends and family, having a healthy lifestyle. With golf, for example, it’s no longer about winning but more about enjoying the game.