Feature F1 Unlocked
EXCLUSIVE: Inside the making of Drive to Survive, its impact on F1 and what the future holds
Drive To Survive took the F1 world by storm when it landed on our screens back in 2019, bringing both existing fans and those new to the sport to the heart of the action like never before. Fresh from the fifth season debuting, we sat down with Executive Producer James Gay-Rees to discuss its past, present and future…
If you’re reading this feature, the chances are you’ve watched Drive To Survive. A mixture of on-track drama, behind-the-scenes insight, heartwarming moments, laughs, anger, tears and much, much more, it has captivated viewers around the world for several years.
Indeed, for F1 fans old and new, watching the series has become a ritual of sorts before each season gets under way, with the previous year’s tour of the globe uploaded to Netflix in one fell swoop, adding fresh context to events, sending social media into meltdown and reinforcing the buzz that surrounds the championship.
Drive To Survive thrives
With the series more popular than ever and playing a key role in opening up F1 to new demographics, it’s a journey that Gay-Rees and fellow Executive Producer Paul Martin – co-founders of production company Box to Box – have cherished from the start.
“Genuinely, we are enormously proud to be a part of it,” says Gay-Rees. “There’s also a lot of satisfaction at being first with these things, and I think that it kind of does feel like the first main access show – certainly out of the UK anyway – that has had this profound effect.
“We’ve all had the statistics about the changing, younger demographic, and it’s tough out there for anybody, for any big organisation, to hold its ground given the amount of choices that are out there for the consumer. Bringing such a big new audience to a sport – which obviously was deserved, it just needed somebody to open it up – is massively satisfying.
“The fact that it wasn’t a fluke, the fact that it’s grown [with every season]… It’s a real honour and we love it. It’s a very difficult show to make, but we love the process, we love the world. Long may it continue!”
An award-winning format
With plenty of high-profile awards in the bag, from BAFTAs to Emmys, what are the secrets behind the magic Drive To Survive formula?
In Gay-Rees’s mind, it’s crucial not to get caught up in the tiny details that make up the sport and instead focus on emotive story-telling that resonates with viewers, many of whom have never watched an F1 race before and, as he touched on above, go on to become fans in their own right.
“I’m not a complete Formula 1 novice, but I’m also by no means a die-hard fan – I’m a sports fan in general,” continues Gay-Rees. “I think it’s such a difficult process, the creative process, to try and make something that people watch. But you can’t engineer it, you’ve just got to go with your instincts.
“I’m quite heavily involved in the edit, as is Paul, as are a lot of people, but I just go with what I think is the right story to tell, and I can’t really worry about what the die-hard fan to the novice are thinking, because you can’t keep everybody happy – it’s impossible.
“We definitely try to differentiate ourselves obviously from the broadcast. They do that, so there’s no point going into those [detailed] areas, which the die-hard fans love, about undercuts and all that kind of stuff, do you know what I mean?
“We don’t really have the time to explain those things and it’s done well already – it’s a different product. When you’re dealing with 35, 40-minute episodes, you’re painting with quite a big brush, so you’ve just got to kind of register fundamental, emotional arcs that hopefully a lot of people can relate to.”
The stars of the show
At the centre of those emotional arcs are the personalities up and down the paddock, some of whom have made quite a name for themselves in and out of F1 thanks to their on-screen appearances over the last five seasons.
Gay-Rees namechecks the likes of Haas’s Guenther Steiner – creator of many iconic soundbites and, subsequently, T-shirt slogans – and Red Bull’s Christian Horner – who has opened up the doors of his family home on several occasions – as particularly receptive characters.
Indeed, after some initial reservations about the series from Mercedes and Ferrari, who both sat out Season 1, along with Max Verstappen’s recent, brief absence, all 10 teams and all 20 drivers are now contributing to Drive To Survive in one way or another.
While there are natural challenges and obstacles in following athletes and team personnel operating under intense pressure and scrutiny, Gay-Rees says “everybody’s into it” as Season 6 takes shape, and can see the value the series brings across the board.
“I think the younger drivers kind of get it more, because they can see the uplift in it,” he comments. “But even Fernando Alonso is sort of coming into his own as this kind of cartoon villain in some ways. The fact that he’s like, ‘You need heroes and you need anti-heroes, and I guess I’m the bad guy.’ We all love that about him and he’s kicking arse.”
Gay-Rees continues: “I’m not sure everybody wants a camera in their face 24 hours a day, I totally appreciate that. But I think it’s pretty hard to not be able to recognise the impact of the show on the sport. Let’s be honest, it’s been pretty transformative.
“I’m not saying it’s entirely down to the show, but it’s definitely had a large part to do with finding that new audience. That was the point of the exercise in the first place, to open up the sport to a wider audience, and it’s been very successful in doing that.
“Obviously that translates into value in lots of different ways for the sport, for teams, and that’s how it should be – that’s the world we live in and that’s the market. I think the teams understand that and… they buy into the process.
“It’s never completely black and white, it’s not like they give us carte blanche to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it, but they do buy into the process enough to allow us make the show – that’s the bottom line.”
Knowing the off-track limits
Leading on from this, Gay-Rees is keen to point out that teams are “left alone” most of the time, given that cameras are not with every squad weekend in, weekend out. Instead, this happens only a couple of times per season, at events agreed upon by all parties.
And when his crew are embedded within a team for a weekend, they are sensitive to the balance that needs to be struck while capturing raw moments of drama as they unfold – specifically how long to keep the cameras rolling and the mics recording...
“When it’s their turn, [the teams] kind of brace themselves, take a deep breath and go, ‘Okay, what do you want to do?’, and we ask them, ‘Okay, well, what do you want to say?’” Gay-Rees explains, adding that there is a “rapid response unit” on standby for action outside of the teams they are following.
“Everybody’s got a cut-off point. Our teams have been doing it for long enough now, they know when it’s appropriate to turn the camera off or put the camera down. But obviously your instinct is to try and get as much as you can within respectful parameters.
“It sort of depends on the rhythms and the flows in the room at the time, what’s going down, reading the room… Sometimes it can feel really awkward but actually you can hang in there; sometimes it’s really awkward and you’ve just got to turn around and get out of there, so common sense sort of prevails.
“There are very few instances where people pick up the phone to complain and say, ‘What the hell was all that about?’ Truthfully, we get a lot of people saying, ‘You filmed a lot with us last year and you didn’t use very much of it!’
“These shows have an unbelievable high ratio of shot footage to what ends up in the edit. We shoot 20, 30, 40 times too much, because you have to. The problem is sometimes you try something in the edit and it just doesn’t work and we just can’t use it. That happens a lot and that’s just the nature of the beast.”
Grosjean’s crash etched in the memory
With five seasons and 50 episodes already in the can, there are plenty of memorable moments from Drive To Survive's life so far.
But for Gay-Rees, there’s one episode that stands out above the rest – #29, which tells the story of Romain Grosjean’s terrifying crash at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, his recovery and the effect it had on those around him.
“I mean, there are so many [standout moments], but I do think that that whole Grosjean episode, ‘Man on Fire’, was pretty remarkable,” he comments. “Obviously it was an insane crash, but really, seeing him walk back into that garage after what he’d been through…
“We’ve never done that type of interview before where it was him and his wife, and that was pretty authentic emotionally – I think I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it now! It was a privilege to tell that story; he’s a good dude and what he went through was extraordinary.
“To see him come out of it, obviously the fact that he survived was the most important thing, but to be able to tell that story, and just the sense of humour he had about it, his wife who obviously was shaken to her core by the whole experience. That, for me, was pretty memorable.”
From drama to comedy
While there have been plenty of spectacular, action-packed sequences, adventures away from the track also keep eyes glued to the screen, such as the surprise pairing of Haas team boss Steiner and then Ferrari counterpart Mattia Binotto, who opened up Season 5 with a road trip through the Italian countryside.
“I mean, who saw that coming?” Gay-Rees jumps in with a smile. “It was such a fresh way to open the series, it was so tongue-in-cheek, but it was really likeable and grabbed the audience, I think, in a really fresh way.
“Obviously Guenther’s a much-loved character and Mattia’s a good dude. That was a lovely sort of off-the-cuff way to get things going. I think things like that are really engaging and kind of not what you necessarily expect.”
A “lightbulb moment” for the future
Talking of new ideas, how are Gay-Rees and his team planning to keep the show fresh and relevant moving forward?
Just as F1 teams relentlessly push to improve each time they hit the track, Gay-Rees made clear that Box to Box are – to excuse the pun – always thinking outside of it, dropping an intriguing hint for the next season at the same time…
“There’s the macro and the micro narratives, basically, trying to coexist,” Gay-Rees says of the creative process and fundamentals of the show. “But we’ve got a few thoughts about this year, how we might make it feel more as one – I can’t reveal that yet!
“Some of the Netflix executives were over recently and we had a really good brainstorming session in their office and had a bit of a lightbulb moment about how to make the series feel different from the other series.
“It has lot of the same DNA, because it’s F1, [with] a lot of the same drivers… Obviously there are new drivers this year. But that was an exciting idea we had and we’ll see if we can land it – it would make sense if we could pull it off.”
On that note, Gay-Rees adds: “We also try to get the crystal ball out, try to imagine where the storylines are going to go. It’s like Aston Martin, who could have seen this popping this year? But where’s it going to go now? Are Lance [Stroll] and Fernando going to stay best buddies, or is it going to get a bit tasty?
“It’s the sort of questions that people around F1 are asking themselves. We have no idea: it could be A, B or C, and you’ve got to try to plan accordingly and then work out how to tell that. That’s your narrative, but then what point of view can you use to try and tell that story differently?
“Again, we don’t get a lot of time with [the drivers], so it’s not always that easy to reinvent the wheel [season by season], but that’s the ambition each time, to slightly shift the emphasis.”
Going from strength to strength
With Drive To Survive setting new trends in the sports documentary scene – prompting the arrival of tennis’s Break Point and golf’s Full Swing, also produced by Gay-Rees and Martin – what does the future hold for a series that shows no signs of slowing down?
“I think it’ll carry on for another a couple [of seasons],” he says. “It would be reckless to say it’ll be more than that, because I just don’t know. But I’d be surprised if we didn’t do another couple, hopefully.”
If the first five seasons are anything to go by, F1 fans have plenty to look forward to…