When Drive to Survive first dropped, shortly before the start of the 2019 F1 season, it proved an eye-opener for many people within the F1 paddock: not so much for its polished and insightful depiction of life within the sport – the machinery of which was, of course, the lived experience for the people in question – but rather for the immediacy and completeness with which it generated an entirely new, often very different, fanbase: it’s one thing to be told that a new documentary series about your workplace is well received; quite another to be bombarded with questions about Lewis Hamilton’s driving style from the grandmother who, until now, had never shown the slightest interest.
With season 4 of the Netflix phenomenon about to drop, the experience has, to a certain extent, become normalised as a herald to the new season, providing an intimate portrait of the year just gone. Like any portrait, it’s an interpretation of the subject rather than a facsimile– but nevertheless, it provides an instant hit of recognition, functioning as part recap, part coda to the previous championship.
And while fans are binge-watching the new series, F1 moves swiftly on, welcoming the cameras back in to start filming season 5. This is another experience that has become normalised: having the ubiquitous Netflix camera teams roving around has simply become part of the sport’s fabric. So much so, it takes conscious effort to remember how radical a departure from the norm this was when they first arrived in 2018. McLaren were quick to embrace it, as were most teams, though there was early hesitancy in some quarters. That didn’t last beyond season one and having ‘Netflix in this weekend’ soon becoming an integral part of garage operation.
But how, precisely, does that work? Filming the 10-part serial is a year-long commitment. Like all expert documentary makers, the DtS crew are adept at hiding in plain sight, taking everything in without casting a shadow. That does, however, require careful planning and no small amount of negotiation, as Tim Bampton, McLaren Racing’s Chief Communications Officer, explains…
Q: Tim, you’ve just concluded your first meeting of the new season with DtS. What sort of things are on the agenda?
The agreement between F1, the teams and Netflix is done well in advance, so at this time of year, we’re sitting down for the first time to discuss the practical planning and the logistics of the actual filming. We start mapping out the races at which they think they’ll want to film McLaren and the likely storylines they – and we – see developing. Discussing the narrative is a very collaborative process. We’ve always been reasonably pragmatic and realistic: the narrative is going to evolve as the season unfolds.
Q: How much access do Netflix get to the garage and the team? How often were they filming the team in 2021?
We’ve always tried to provide as much access as we possibly can. Last year, in chronological order, they were embedded with the team in Bahrain, Imola, Monaco, Monza – that was fortunate – and Austin. The more they can do, the better they are going to be at capturing the real story. While it may be embellished in places for dramatic effect, fundamentally, if you give them open access with a fair amount of latitude, they get to tell the full story. That’s always been our approach. Having done this for four seasons it’s now a much more organic process than it was in year one.
Q: You use the word ‘embedded’, does the film crew get that close to the team?
Less so during 2018 and 2019 but absolutely during the Covid-hit 2020 and 2021 seasons. Pre-pandemic, they would arrive in the morning, do their job and depart in the evening. When we started rolling in bubbles, however, they were forced to embed in the teams for the weekend. It had a real impact in terms of how close they got: travelling with the team; eating with the team; staying in the same hotel; wearing team kit. To all intents and purposes, they were part of the team: becoming part of the furniture over the course of time which was probably ideal for their purposes and what any documentary maker would want.
The first two series are good, covering the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but we were able to work with them more intuitively in 2020 and 2021 and as a result, it felt like we could bring fans much closer to the team, and were better able to show everything that happened.
Q: The restrictions are being relaxed for 2022. Will the filming regime go back to the standard model, or will the filming crews still embed?
I suspect we’ll have a hybrid model, somewhere between the two styles. I hope it stays more towards the embedded route, because I think everyone’s accustomed to working like that now and there’s real value in having them baked into the team for a weekend – though in practical terms there is a trade-off with their ability to be nimble and move around the paddock, so I think we’ll probably get something in between the two models.
Q: Does opening-up the inner workings of F1 have a knock-on effect to other content the team will produce? Does it, for example, influence how McLaren Unboxed is made?
I would say other content is informed but not inspired by DtS. With regard to our short-form behind-the-scenes Unboxed series, we drew more inspiration for that from Premier League football and US sports than we did from DtS. Unboxed is purposely very raw, very real and doesn’t have any polish. It’s short-form and very much of-the-moment, tasked with bringing fans closer by allowing them to get a feel for the character and the personality of the team. DtS, on the other hand, is proper long-form content. They each have their own place in the ecosystem.
Q: How unvarnished is Drive to Survive? Is anything off-limits for the cameras, do you have the ability to veto sequences, and do you get to see the finished article before the season premiere?
The only things really off-limits are the team’s intellectual property and anything performance-sensitive. Obviously, they take the race footage and do a great job with that, but they always tie it back to the drivers and the human dynamic in the sport – so I suspect DtS viewers are not too concerned with the geometry of our bodywork or suspension set-up – but our competitors certainly would be, and so it’s understood that anything showing off our IP would come out. Beyond that, there isn’t much off-limits!
With regard to a preview of the material in the new series, we see any clip that relates to McLaren. Anything of our drivers, our people, our cars, we view in advance, though not in the context of the material around those clips. We also get to hear footage of other teams talking about us. There is some negotiation built into the process and there may be times when a team doesn’t like something from an editorial point of view but that doesn’t necessarily result in change. We’ve never needed to get to formal arbitration – not even close - but there are elements where opinions differ.
Q: The isolated interviews on the darkened set have been a notable feature of the series. Do Netflix arrange those with the drivers or is everything done through the team?
It’s all managed by the team for the drivers and the senior staff. We’ll coordinate the drivers against all of their other commitments – their schedule is so busy we have to plan it well in advance. That said, DtS might want to do shorter pick-up interviews later in the season in response to whatever is the story of the moment. They’ve got pretty good at rigging up the black sheets in a hotel or here at the MTC to make something indistinguishable from that classic DtS dark room set, if they need to fit in an unscheduled interview with the drivers, Zak or Andreas.
Q: Is McLaren Racing CEO, Zak Brown, a big fan of the series?
He is – and has been from the start. He sees it as another way to get fans closer to the team, closer to the sport and a way to bring new fans in who previously hadn’t ever been touched by the Formula 1. He has been interviewed regularly by mainstream media, about how the series has created fresh momentum for F1. It’s been called the DtS effect and has certainly played a major role in reaching a new audience. Even, I think for lapsed fans, we’ve seen the evidence of people who’ve gone away from F1 and come back through watching it. Zak hasn’t got a deep-seated urge to be on it – but he enjoys doing what he does, and I think he enjoys sharing his passion for the sport with fans. That’s an important thing for him.
Q: What will be the big draw in season 4 for McLaren fans specifically?
They’ll enjoy episode five - the Monza episode. We were lucky to have the crew embedded in Monza, right in the middle of it, so fans can expect to see a lot of what happened that weekend. There’s also the heartbreak of Lando’s near-win in Sochi and plenty of enjoyable McLaren moments across the series, both at the track and away from it, some of which will surprise and delight. I think people will get a real kick out of it. There’s also a good look at Daniel and how he coped last year. It peels back another layer of Daniel’s character and shows him as people perhaps haven’t seen him before: the resilience he has going through a difficult year, and what kind of a guy he is.
Q: Daniel’s been a highlight of seasons past – does he have the same free reign to speak as he wishes now he’s driving for McLaren?
There’s been absolutely no constraint from our side – don’t worry! Both drivers are authentic and genuine in this. They’ll be well prepared but, as in anything else we do, they’re free to be themselves. We believe in that fervently at McLaren. They’re the stars; the people who get into the cars and drive them, and with programmes like Drive to Survive ultimately people want to know about people.
Watch Formula 1: Drive to Survive (S4) on Netflix from 11 March.
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