Seán Crosson zooms in on Crash and Burn, Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary about Tommy Byrne, who, for a fleeting moment in the early ’80s, was the world’s greatest driver.
The sports documentary has become one of the most familiar and popular documentary genres in recent years. While well-established as a part of TV schedules, films such as Dogtown and Z-boys (2002), Step into Liquid (2003), Riding Giants (2004), Murderball (2005) and Senna (2010) have also had considerable success in cinemas internationally. The prominence of sport in Irish life has also been reflected in the documentary form with some of the most successful theatrically released Irish docs over the past ten years focusing on sport, including Saviours (2007) and Waveriders (2008).
Seán Ó Cualáin’s Crash and Burn, focusing on the world of motor-racing, is the latest addition to this genre. It concerns Drogheda-born Tommy Byrne who briefly drove in Formula One after a stellar career at lower levels of motor- racing. However, this is no Senna (though the Brazilian makes an appearance at several points); this is a story that challenges the familiar upward trajectory of the sports film (whether in fiction or documentary), tracing the journey of a driver who had all the talent and more of his contemporaries but lacked the background, social graces, and particularly the money required of those who control Formula One.
Nonetheless, the respect with which Byrne was held by his contemporaries is evident in the prominent interviewees featured in Crash and Burn, including former Formula One team owner Eddie Jordan (who regards Byrne as ‘the best of them all’), and former Formula One drivers and current TV commentators Martin Brundle and David Kennedy. Byrne’s story is remarkable, from his rivalry with Ayrton Senna at Formula Ford and Formula 3 level to his final years as a driver for corrupt gangsters on the Mexican Formula 3 circuit.
Director Ó Cualáin claims not to have seen Senna and his documentary provides, in important respects, a more complex depiction of the world of Formula One than Asif Kapadia’s entertaining though rather superficial documentary. Crash and Burn shares with Senna, however, a dependence on archive footage, much of it captured on VHS by friends of Byrne’s. Where footage was not available, Ó Cualáin makes good use of animated sequences. Despite the low-quality of the original material, considerable work has been put into bringing consistency across the footage (both filmed and archival) in the final film. The archival material is intercut with interviews with Byrne who recalls his own journey from Drogheda to Formula One, offering in the process a fascinating and frank perspective on his sport.
Despite having been the fastest driver at all levels below Formula One, and proving himself the fastest when given an opportunity in the best car at that level, he was ultimately excluded from the sport, his life subsequently declining into excessive drinking and drug-taking and periods spent at the lower rungs of motor-racing in the US and Mexico. This is not, however, a tragic story despite Byrne’s failure to realise his own Formula One dreams. As he remarked in conversation at the end of the screening in Galway “life is pretty good right now. I just lost out on about $100m”. These words sum up a theme across Ó Cualáin’s film; Tommy continues to be unhappy with how he was forced out of the sport but nonetheless he has rebuilt his life and now works as a driving instructor in the United States.
Whether you have an interest in Formula One or not, Crash and Burn is an engaging, and at times moving account of an extraordinary life.
Crash and Burn screened on Sunday, 10th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.