Motorsport pundits like Eddie Jordan will tell you that Tommy Byrne was one of the greatest drivers to ever compete in Formula One. Byrne himself, now working as an instructor in the US, would tell you that he was the greatest.
On the other hand, he’s also a man who is remarkably candid about his career and the mistakes that took him to rock bottom. Where some filmmakers might be tempted to question every story he recounts, director Sean O’Cualain steps back and indulges his subject’s gift for spinning a yarn, filling his documentary with archive footage and interviews with friends and colleagues to provide a liberal pinch of salt.
It’s clear from the outset that, as a young outsider with bags of raw talent, Byrne had a substantial chip on his shoulder and a disdain for authority. While other drivers spent the time leading up to a race memorising every nook and cranny of a track, he would indulge in less gentlemanly pursuits – a series of stylish animated scenes show him fighting with Ayrton Senna, running from Mexican gangsters and taking illicit substances in quantities that would make Irvine Welsh wince.
Yet there is also the sense that the odds were stacked against Byrne from the very beginning. The world of finance in racing is a bizarre one, where the drivers themselves are expected to find vast sums of money to be allowed to compete. Pitted against wealthy young men like Senna, he never stood a chance.
Was Tommy Byrne a victim of the inherent class prejudices in the world of professional sport, or his own hubris? O’Cualain wisely avoids giving us a straight answer. Whatever your opinion on him, Crash and Burn is a fascinating look at a legend that almost was.
DIRECTOR: Sean O’Cualain
SYNOPSIS: For a fleeting moment in the early ’80s Tommy Byrne was the world’s greatest driver, the motor-racing equivalent of George Best and Muhammad Ali all rolled into one. His rise was meteoric and his fall spectacular.