Director Sean O’Cualain
Starring Tommy Byrne, Eddie Jordan
Released 30 December 2016
At the end of Crash And Burn, former racing driver Tommy Byrne is sanguine. He hasn’t missed out on much, he reflects, “I’ve just lost out on $100 million, that’s all.” But it isn’t all about money.
Motor racing, of whatever level, isn’t really my thing but even I’ve heard of the likes of Niki Lauda (his rivalry with James Hunt was the subject of Rush) and Ayrton Senna, whose life was the subject of a separate documentary. Senna, and Dundalk-born Tommy Byrne were contemporaries, both coming through the ranks with the aim of being Formula 1 Drivers. Only one of them made it – and it wasn’t Byrne.
Sean O’Cualain’s documentary introduces us to the driver who came and went in the space of four short years in the early 80s. Who, as we’re repeatedly told, had all the talent, but never made it to the top. The reasons why are apparent from early on – a wild, unruly nature, a love of partying and all that went with it, and a dislike of being told what to do. He was too big a risk for racing bosses – and his behaviour meant sponsors didn’t want to touch him either, so he rose through the ranks on a wing and a prayer. But his results were so good that the other drivers resented him for doing so well with next to nothing to his name.
His ultimate big chance was a case in point, as well as a watershed moment in his career. Part of his prize for winning the F3 championship in 1982 was a test with McLaren, a real shot at the big time. His driving was impressive but, as the story goes, his behaviour once he got out of the car was anything but and it sealed his fate. He never got a sniff of a chance again and ended up racing in Mexico which, in the motor racing community, was about as low as you could get. At the risk of a terrible pun, it was the pits.
Watching and listening to Byrne’s story, the likes of George Best and Alex Higgins come to mind, blessed with an inordinate amount of talent and cursed with temperaments that didn’t match. Byrne is still with us, in itself remarkable given the excesses of his lifestyle, but what we see is a slight middle aged man with a twinkle in his eye and who’s ploughing through memorabilia from his past. The film shows that he’s come to terms with his history, but he certainly hasn’t forgotten it. Yet it’s hard to equate the man we see before us with the behaviour that everybody talks about. The director needs a more extensive archive to paint such a colourful story and it simply isn’t there. There’s a certain amount of footage, the occasional track side interview and some photographs but it’s not enough. Black and white animated drawings are a clumsy effort to fill in the blanks and simply don’t work.
Essentially, it’s a hard luck story, but one that never feels sorry for itself. Byrne is endearingly honest about his shortcomings as a young man, although a twinge of resentment still remains, and anybody who loves motor racing will make a b-line for it. That, however, may be the limit of its appeal.
Crash And Burn is released on Friday, 30 December 2016 and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 5 January 2017.