Vincent Hogan: Big screen looms for the man who could have been biggest name Ireland ever gave to sport
Published 14/11/2016 | 02:30
A quarter of a century on from his heyday, Tommy Byrne's humour still runs along the same dark faultlines of sarcasm and self-irony.
In the trailer for a biographical documentary on his life coming to Irish cinemas next month, he is staring impassively at the interviewer as he declares: "Hasn't been a terrible life. I just lost out on about a hundred million dollars. That's all!"
I haven't seen Tommy since he was in Dublin eight years ago, dipping in and out of book awards where his remarkable autobiography 'Crashed and Byrned' was creating such a stir. "See you for a beer after?" he said to me one evening in the Mansion House.
"Definitely!" I lied.
I'd been one of the journalists raising a din about Tommy back in the early 1980s when it's probably fair to say he was the fastest race driver in the world. But he was also routinely rough-edged and blunt, a man only too happy to play up to the "knacker from Dundalk" stereotype he himself summons so recurringly in his book.
So Tommy Byrne and "a beer" seemed like some kind of gateway metaphor to a night of hopelessly dissolute excess. One thing to like him, quite another to voluntarily choose his volatile company for the evening. With Mansion House formalities over, I ran.
He says he has found the tone of the film 'Crash and Burn' a little too maudlin and regretful for his own taste, given, "It's not like I died!" But there will always be an undertow of loss to the story of someone broadly accepted as the equal of superstars like Michael Schumacher and the late Ayrton Senna in terms of natural talent.
That that story is being taken to the cinema now seems entirely apt, given the best Hollywood imaginations would struggle to keep up with Byrne's habitual proximity to chaos during the years he might have become the biggest name Irish sport ever gave to the world.
He was nobody's role model, that's for sure. But there was a time when his talent was so compelling it threatened to over-ride all the angst and dysfunction that seemed to follow him about like an echo.
The world of Formula One, at least that part of it at the cutting edge of speed as distinct from that just feeding wealthy egos down the back, eventually baulked at giving Tommy Byrne a real chance however. It baulked because, in motorsport, talent is just the opening line to a long essay.
Byrne's famous test for McLaren in October '82 was mildly sabotaged by the team out of (what they considered) prudent concern that he might just try too hard and crash, a mechanic revealing years later the team's decision to dial back the throttle range on the car.
Yet Tommy still lapped Silverstone faster than a McLaren had ever done with some even suggesting that the times formally recorded were, in fact, slower than those registering on independent stop-watches.
John Watson, who partnered Niki Lauda in that McLaren team, admitted to Mark Hughes for Byrne's autobiography: "There is nothing other than phenomenal talent that can explain that series of lap times. There is no way around explaining it.
"Regardless of whether it was a good day or a good set of tyres, however you shape it, it was an unbelievable performance. I would argue actually a more impressive performance than Senna did in the equivalent test the following year, which everyone still raves about."
Yet, McLaren boss - Ron Dennis - did not even attend the test and Byrne's performance was subsequently downplayed by some of the more influential British motorsport media, seemingly under direction from the team. It was clear that they had no real interest in a driver who, for all his talent, turned up for the test with a friend and two girls they'd "picked up" the night before.
That was pretty much the tenor of Byrne's life back then. He was blazing a path through motorsport's junior categories (British Formula Ford champion 1980; British and European Formula Ford 2000 champion '81; British Formula Three champion '82) that Senna would replicate exactly in immediate succession.
But the Brazilian was backed by his family's millions. Tommy Byrne? "I had no plan, I had no money to make a plan."
Tension between the two would lead to a scuffle between them over missing wheels from a road car at the Van Diemen headquarters, Byrne referring to the Brazilian as "the rich, pain-in-the-arse Senna da Silva, who was even more arrogant than me".
Within just four years of starting as a race driver, Byrne had been fast-tracked into Formula One, but with the uncompetitive Theodore team whose track times at Silverstone would have been four seconds a lap slower than he managed when testing the McLaren.
Struggling to even qualify an uncompetitive car, he became enraged when the team arranged for a personal briefing from Jackie Stewart on the basis that Tommy, not the equipment at his disposal, might have been the problem. To this day, Byrne maintains unequivocally that he would have been winning races in a McLaren or Williams.
But F1 was soon looking the other way, towards a conveyor belt of young drivers happy to bring a colossal budget with their CVs. And Byrne - "I never begged for a drive in my life" - was lost to America where, eventually in Indy Lights, he never had the luck nor the car, being pipped for the Championship in '87, '88 and '89.
As a line in the book coldly declares, "Tommy's prospects were in the past!"
He ended up driving F3 in Mexico, having befriended "a playboy, alcoholic, manic-depressive bisexual" who would try to shoot him before being found dead in a swimming pool. By now, one of Tommy's routine contract demands was a full mini-bar in his hotel room.
His story stands as, arguably, F1's most fleeting (and unconvincing) flirtation with the concept of sporting fairy tale. A concept so far removed from today's world of Grand Prix racing as to seem faintly preposterous.
Lewis Hamilton is a phenomenal driving talent. but the idea - recently proposed by Bernie Ecclestone - that he also represents some kind of man-of-the-people, a throwback maybe to more glamorous times, tells you just how antiseptic the sport has become.
Image-messaging through Snapchat's 'bunny rabbit filter' during a 'boring' Japanese press conference has, arguably, been his most subversive gesture thus far, an act communicating bad manners rather than even the tiniest thread of charisma.
Maybe Hamilton is symptomatic of professional sport's increasingly blanched persona, the rinsing out of real individuality in service to a virtual world of social media supplanting any real connect with the people outside a containing fence.
And it's a moot point if the manifestation of Hamilton delivered to TV screens before and after an F1 race today is actually different in any important way to the shiny character now featuring in the video game, 'Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare'.
But that's not exactly breaking news in the realm of professional sport, is it? In Gordon Burns's 'Pocket Money', an exploration of snooker through the years it seemed to be populated by soap opera characters, Barry Hearn admits that the so-called "flamboyant" talents of the circuit, in other words Alex Higgins and Jimmy White, were actually commercial disasters because "no multi-national would touch them".
Talent has always been just that opening line.
There's a lot in Tommy Byrne's story that's not to like and, ultimately, he undeniably paid the price for much of it. In the movie trailer, he admits, "I ended up taking enough drugs to kill a buffalo".
And so, 13 years after squaring up to Senna at Van Diemen, the two outstanding F1 prospects of their generation would be remembered very differently. As Hughes writes, "One of them was now in his grave, deified like no driver ever has been. The other was a depressed, drunk, labourer."
Wildcard's 'Crash and Burn' releases to Irish cinemas on December 2.