Review: Crash and Burn

“When I was racing, I didn’t think I was the best driver in the world, I knew I was the best driver in the world.” A good number of you reading this have probably at the very least heard of Tommy Byrne’s fascinating autobiography, Crashed and Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw. Now, we have a documentary version of that tale, albeit minus the pun-tastic title.
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A co-production between the Irish Film Board, RTÉ and BBC Northern Ireland, and directed by Irish documentary filmmaker Seán Ó Cualáin, Crash and Burn tells the Icarian story of Tommy Byrne, the prodigious Irish driver of the early 1980s who drank and womanised his way up the junior ranks to reach F1 before everything came crashing down (and gave the film its title). From over-exuberant showings at Mondello in an FF1600 Crosslé, to ‘stealing’ Senna’s F3 drive, to his career-defining – even life-defining – moment testing for McLaren at Silverstone, all of it is there, told through interviews (with such names as Mark Hughes, Gary Anderson, Eddie Jordan, David Kennedy, Martin Brundle, John Watson and Tommy himself), archival footage of his races (featuring commentary by none other than Murray Walker), home videos and, where no footage is available, animated sequences recreating some of these events.

The film takes a chronological path through Tommy’s life. His childhood is touched upon (“a little bastard”, his friend Maurice Brody remembers) before moving into his racing career, launched by getting a bank loan to buy a Crosslé Formula Ford, his family having told the bank that it was to build an extension on their house for his pregnant sister. He regularly crashed this car at Mondello before moving to England in 1978 in the footsteps of fellow countrymen such as Derek Daly and Eddie Jordan. Tommy blitzed the field in FF1600 and FF2000 without a penny to his name; all he had to buy his drives with was his talent, which, it is alleged, greatly annoyed his Van Diemen teammate Ayrton Senna, who was paying up to £30,000 a year for his driving expenses. This led to F3 and eventually F1, where he drove a Theodore that could barely scrape through qualifying at the best of times. After winning the British F3 title Tommy reached what would turn out to be the pinnacle of his career: A McLaren F1 test. He was the fastest man there by some margin, but Ron Dennis was none too pleased with his cocky attitude and decided not to pursue a contract negotiation. Disillusioned with the snub from McLaren, Tommy eventually went over to the United States where he would be a regular contender for the American Racing Series title for much of the latter half of the 1980s. This was lastly followed by an insane spell in Mexican F3 where he decided it was too much even for him when he had a gun-toting, beer-drinking team boss and retired from racing.

But this film isn’t just a recap of a successful career that went down the drain, it’s an exploration of a man who had the ability to win the world championship – and knew it – but didn’t take it to a place where he could fulfill that promise, and he has had to live with that. From the very beginning we see a man who wants to move on from his past, but cannot completely let go, as Tommy dusts off an old box of yellowed newspaper and magazine cuttings depicting a younger version of himself, one that didn’t care what anyone thought. The film also serves as a reminder that talent alone can only get one so far in motor racing. Towards the end it is mentioned that Eddie Jordan tried to talk Tyrrell into signing Tommy at some point later in the 1980s, but they wanted several million dollars in sponsorship money, which he of course didn’t have. Personality also comes into it, as EJ says “Tommy Byrne deprived himself of the opportunity to be a world champion. Sometimes you just have to play the game. I often ask ‘did Tommy play the game well enough?’”, going on to suggest that had Tommy not given up and moved to America another window of opportunity would surely have opened for him in F1.

Still, Tommy has at least tried to move on from his past. There is a sense of bitterness when discussing Senna or his F1 chances, but he seems more at ease when discussing his American exploits and he now lives a more relaxed existence in the States, happily married and making a living as a driving instructor at Mid-Ohio. As he sums up “I met a lot of people on the way and a lot of friends. It hasn’t been a terrible life. I just lost all that and about a hundred million dollars. That’s all.”

All in all, Crash and Burn is an excellently put together documentary. The interviews are insightful, the archive footage revealing (his battle with Qique Mansilla and Dave Scott in a 1982 F3 race at Silverstone is amazing to watch), but the animated sequences are not so great. They are used to illustrate the moments for which there exists no footage, such as a confrontation Tommy had with Senna in 1982 and another incident involving his Mexican F3 team boss. The animation itself is slightly jerky and, while one can see why it was included, it feels somewhat unnecessary and the description provided by the interviewees may just suffice. Still, it’s only a minor detractor from what is otherwise a very fine film, an anti-Senna if one were to draw comparisons.

As for the film’s availability, for those living in the UK and Ireland Crash and Burn will be broadcast on BBC NI on March 20 and BBC 4 on the 27th. It will also be released on DVD on the 27th. This is highly recommended viewing for anyone who is a motorsport fan.

Rating: ★★★★☆