Aoife O’Neill was in pole position at the Cork Film Festival for a screening of Crash and Burn, Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary about Tommy Byrne from Dundalk, who, in the ’80s, for a moment was the world’s greatest F1 driver.
In the words of director Seán Ó Cualáin, Crash and Burn is one of the most “important sporting stories never told”, until now. The documentary follows the story of Tommy Byrne, a local lad from Drogheda with big ambitions and talent to match. From humble beginnings of driving a mini cooper, he wins every race that is set in front of him and finally gets the opportunity to race for Formula One.
However, getting to the Formula One platform was easier than staying there. This documentary is not just a sport film, this is a character portrait of a man’s struggles to come to terms with a career that has passed.
Born in the back of a car rushing to get to the hospital, it seems Byrne’s need for speed and cars was there since birth. According to himself, he learnt more from crashing than anything else, even though crashing for Byrne was rare. Driving each race as if it were his last, Byrne often struggled to finance his racing dream. Were it not for the support of friends and family financing his dreams from across the pond, Byrne may not have achieved what he did. His struggles to get from one race to the next adds suspense in the documentary and that audience constantly wonders how Byrne will be able to continue to race against his highly sponsored competitors.
Byrne’s, at times, abrasive personality rubbed many of the major names in the world of racing the wrong way. This is in conflict with the audiences appreciation of his blunt character, which makes for humorous viewing and honest critique of the sport. The documentary is comprised of interviews with Byrne’s colleagues and friends who helped with the documentary by supplying achieve footage and photographs of Byrne in his previous racing days. The mix of animation, interviews, live action and archive footage sequences enhances the documentary, with the archived footage giving a vintage, VHS charm.
It is through one animation sequence that we see the paths of Ayrton Senna and Tommy Byrne cross, as the once teammates didn’t have the most amorous relationship. Similarly, this film has parallels with that of Senna (2010), both films highlight the dangers and corruption that is involved in the world of racing. Unlike Senna, Byrne struggled to finance his races and didn’t have a choice between winning or not; either win or it is the last race.
Producer David Burke explains that the documentary humbly began with a series of emails. Although Byrne was skeptical of the documentary at first, he was told that at least it would be the “best home movie for your grandkids”. However, Crash and Burn is far better than a home movie and a must-see documentary. Byrne’s flamboyant character and good sense of humour is endearing and engaging. Having met him after the screening it is safe to say that he is the same in the real life as he is captured in screen.
Throughout the film we get an insight into the highs and lows of his career as he was beaten by the system despite being the “best in the world at what he did”. Byrne’s personality on screen makes for an enjoyable and captivating documentary, ironic as it is the same personality blamed for his career downfall. A documentary cleverly crafted for both an outside viewer and an avid fan of racing. Through interviews we are given a fascinating and unique insight into low-level racing. These interviews explain the sport and race system, ensuring the documentary doesn’t fall into niche markets. A truly riveting documentary, that allows for Irish viewers a look at the best racer probably in the world that came from a local town in Drogheda.
Crash and Burn screened on 19th November 2016
The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November