Chances are you won’t have heard of the mercurial Tommy Byrne.
Born in the Republic of Ireland in 1958, Tommy Byrne could, and really should, have had a glittering career in Formula One.
Tommy was brash, he was cocky, he liked a drink, he liked the girls, and he ruffled feathers in the establishment, but there was no denying his incredible talent.
Maybe Tommy was destined to be a racing driver – after all, he was born in the back of a car speeding its way to the hospital.
Crash and Burn is a film about Tommy’s life and career. As it’s released, we thought we’d take a look at the film and the man himself.
Tommy’s motorsport career rapidly blossomed as he raised eyebrows in every category he raced in. In a matter of only four years he went from racing a Mini Cooper, to winning the British Formula 3 championship, to competing in Formula One.
His rise was spectacular, but so was his fall. His chance in Formula One came with the lowly Theodore team and the car was very uncompetitive. Despite that, Tommy impressed in the two races he entered.
He was also given the chance to test for the mighty McLaren Formula 1 team and went faster than established stars John Watson and Niki Lauda – even though, as it later emerged, engineers had deliberately changed settings on the car to make it slower when it was Tommy’s turn to drive it.
Tommy had speed, but was his personality a problem? Stories arose, such as him threatening to take out a hit on a chief engineer, and maybe the powers-that-be in Formula 1 decided he was just too much of a risk.
Eddie Jordan, former Formula One team owner, said, ‘Tommy got a hold of the car and it was the fastest any driver had ever taken it around Silverstone, including Lauda and Watson, and he just blew the barn doors open. So the question is why didn’t he get another chance in Formula One after that? I suppose the answer is somewhere between his reputation and the fact he didn’t have the financial backing of other drivers.’
Tellingly, Jordan, who worked with the legendary Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, also said, ‘Forget Schuey and Senna. Tommy Byrne was the best of them all.’
In fact, Senna fell out with Tommy in the early 1980s. Senna decided to take a sabbatical from racing, and Tommy was asked to drive Senna’s car in 1981.
Much to Senna’s shock, Tommy won the Formula Ford World Cup in the car and was offered the seat that Senna was after in Formula Three.
The two drivers fell out, but eventually patched up their friendship before Senna lost his life at Imola in 1994.
After his brief foray into Formula One, it seems that Tommy became disillusioned, turning to alcohol and drugs and moving to the USA. Here, he competed in the American Race Series for a number of seasons, winning 10 races from 55 starts before retiring in 1992.
These days, Tommy seems to be settled and happy, enjoying a successful career as a driver coach in the USA. His story got some attention in 2008 and 2009 with the release of his autobiography (Crashed and Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw), which won the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year award in 2009.
The soon-to-be-released Crash and Burn is a documentary and charts Tommy’s remarkable story. We have a teaser for you courtesy of the promotional video below.
Interviews with the likes of the well-informed and respected Eddie Jordan, former Formula One driver Martin Brundle, and former Formula One car designer and chief mechanic Gary Anderson, mean that this film demands we take it seriously.
The racing world is full of people who ‘could have been’ or ‘should have been’ given a chance to shine, but Tommy Byrne is probably the only one who really should have made it to the top.
Crash and Burn was shown earlier this year at the Sheffield Doc Fest to much acclaim. Directed by Sean O’Cualain and produced by David Burke, this film is a must-see for any motoring enthusiast and anyone who loves an underdog.
We will never know if Tommy Byrne could have beaten Senna, Lauda, Prost and their ilk, but we can be pretty sure he would have at least given them a run for their money. It’s a crying shame that he didn’t get the chance to show the world what he could really do.
Crash and Burn, made by Dot Television, is out now.