Co-executive producer Tom Rogers discusses how “Drive to Survive” keeps every season of the documentary series on pace in real time.
Race car driving is much more complicated, exciting and potentially heartbreaking than just a series of left turns. Formula 1, the international motor racing series featuring the fastest cars left on the road, has produced dynasties, rivalries, chess tactics and epic overtaking moves for over 70 years. But, at least in America, the sport has long been a tree falling in the woods and no one there to hear whether it makes a sound or not. Now every season of F1 is a tree falling in the forest, filmed from every angle for the Netflix documentary series ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive’.
“We’ve always strived to create a show that transcends sports, which isn’t to say we don’t want existing sports fans to love the show. We absolutely have, but we wanted something that was accessible,” co-executive producer Tom Rogers told IndieWire. “I am a lifelong Formula 1 fan. But a lot of people on our team were new to Formula 1, and it’s about creating a show that appeals to all those different demographics. And I think, of course, with the global growth of the sport, we can’t say it’s all because of Drive to Survive, but hopefully Drive to Survive played a part in that process.”
Produced by sports documentary specialists Box To Box Films, “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” attracts one million viewers in the US who watch every single F1 race. But like the drivers themselves, the team behind the series has to work fast. Very quick.
Season 5 dropped on February 24, less than a week before the season climax at the Bahrain Grand Prix, and the filmmakers are already building the building blocks of Season 6. It’s a huge editing challenge that “Drive to Survive” with a lot of hands and a little bit of guesswork.
“The tricky thing is that in order to make an episode with a satisfying beginning, middle and end, you have to know how that person’s trajectory plays out throughout the season,” said Rogers. “So even for one [early] episode, you almost have to know what’s going to happen to that character by the end of the season. We try to start the edits early enough so that we don’t post everything too late in the season and it gets very stressed. But you inevitably want to have that ability to see the season as a whole.
Season 5, for example, sees the American team Haas take the spotlight in Episode 1, much earlier than usual, which explores Kevin Magnussen’s surprise return to an F1 driver’s seat and junior driver Mick Schumacher’s struggles in his second season – all with team boss Guenther Steiner’s signature candor. That episode serves as a strong season opener, effectively foreshadowing Haas cutting Schumacher down at the end of the season, but the surprise pole (the starting position of first place) that Magnussen wins in the Brazilian Grand Prix is grafted onto the end of a totally different episode. It retains that sense of a series that mimics the arc of real Formula 1 and shows how little time “Drive to Survive” has to soak up any end-of-season surprises.
Thanks to Netflix
For each episode, Rogers points to the “massive” team of editors at Netflix, Box to Box and Formula 1, most of whom converge on the final episodes of the season. “Once you see the episodes on Netflix, if you go to the credits, you can usually see which episodes are later in the schedule,” he said. “The list of editors is getting longer and longer, and they are supported by a team of edit producers who are like the story producer, team of researchers, loggers, story producers, a very large team of assistant editors and also post production people. .”
The editing team must react quickly to the twists and turns of the unfolding F1 season, while producers must make strategic assessments of where to devote time, resources and attention. The driver contract carousel known as the “silly season” looms during this season’s fifth and sixth installments, which is fitting given the sparks caused by Fernando Alonso and Oscar Piastri jumping from Alpine to Aston Martin and McLaren respectively.
Thanks to Netflix
That’s certainly not where anyone in the Formula 1 world thought the 2022 season would go, but the docuseries team developed strategies to both sharpen the areas of focus and capture the right level of coverage. While Rogers said the series’ trick is to create the perception that cameras are everywhere, “Drive to Survive” about the COVID-19 pandemic found that embedding shooting crews into teams, sometimes with just one crew at a race, led to better results than trying to be everywhere at once.
“One of those principles that we had to adhere to [for COVID] was this idea to embed into the teams, become part of their sanitation bubble,” Rogers said. “And we found that by reducing the footprint, but giving crews more intimate access, we got a better level of content, and that’s the principle we’re still trying to leverage going forward.”
Because the number of teams and drivers is relatively controlled, “Drive to Survive” treats the drivers, race engineers, strategists, and mechanics as recurring characters with the same care and sentiment as a long-running series. Daniel Riccardo probably feels pretty good right now that he paid $18 million to him not drive for McLaren in 2023, but the Australian’s absence from the grid eventually led to the end of “Drive to Survive” season 5, which included a montage of Riccardo from throughout the Netflix show’s run.
Thanks to Netflix
“It’s Danny’s voice that we hear in voiceover in that first episode [of Season 1] talk about what it’s like to drive a car. We spent time with his mom and dad at a race, and I think the beauty of a show like ‘Drive to Survive’ is that we’ve been on that journey with Daniel,” Rogers said. “He has been a huge part of the success and journey of the show. And he certainly leaves a big hole there. It felt appropriate that we should mark that exit, and it was actually quite a cathartic process for us as well, because you forget some of those great moments in the five years.
Have Rogers and his team looked ahead yet, do they have any idea where Season 6 might take viewers? After all, they knew early on in Season 5 that Miami would be one of the races that warranted a bigger footprint.
“Everyone is already talking about Vegas,” Rogers teased.
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