Much Like the Formula 1 Drivers It Covers, ‘Drive to Survive’ Is in a Race Against Time Each Season

Co-executive producer Tom Rogers discusses how "Drive to Survive" keeps each season of the documentary series on pace in real-time.
Drive to Survive S5. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
"Formula 1: Drive to Survive"
Courtesy of Netflix

Race car driving is far more complicated, suspenseful, and potentially heart-stopping than just a bunch of left turns. Formula 1, the international car racing series with the fastest cars still able to be driven on the road, has delivered dynasties, rivalries, chess match tactics and epic overtakes for over 70 years. But, at least in America, the sport has long been a tree falling in the woods with no one there to hear whether or not it makes a sound. Now, each season of F1 is a tree falling in the woods filmed from every angle for the Netflix docuseries “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.”

“We’ve always been aiming to make a show that can transcend the sport, which is not to say that we don’t want existing sports fans to love the show. We absolutely do, but we wanted something that was accessible,” co-executive producer Tom Rogers told IndieWire. “I’m a lifelong Formula 1 fan. But many people in our team were new to Formula 1, and it’s about creating a show that appeals to all of those different demographics. And I think, with the growth of the sport globally, we obviously can’t say that that’s all down ‘Drive to Survive,’ but hopefully ‘Drive to Survive’ has played its part in that process.”

Produced by sports documentary specialists Box To Box Films, “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” into a million viewers in the U.S. watching each F1 race. But, like the drivers themselves, the team behind the series has to work fast. Really fast.

Season 5 dropped February 24, not a week before the season’s culmination at Bahrain Grand Prix, and the filmmakers are already constructing the building blocks of Season 6. It’s a monumental editing challenge that “Drive to Survive” tackles with many, many hands and with a bit of guesswork.

“The tricky bit is, to create an episode that has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, you need to know how that person’s trajectory completes over the whole season,” Rogers said. “So even for an [early] episode, you almost need to know what’s gonna happen to that character towards the end of the season. We try to start the edits at an early enough juncture that we’re not putting everything too late in the season and it becomes really pressured. But inevitably you want to have that ability to see the season as a whole.”

In Season 5, for instance, U.S. team Haas gets its spotlight in Episode 1, much earlier than usual, examining 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 principal Guenther Steiner’s signature candor. That episode operates as a strong season opener while effectively foreshadowing Haas cutting Schumacher at the season’s end, but the surprise pole (the first place starting position) Magnussen wins in the Brazil Grand Prix is grafted onto the end of a totally separate episode. It maintains that sense of a series that recreates the arc of the actual Formula 1 and speaks to just how little time “Drive to Survive” has to incorporate any end-of-season surprises.

Drive to Survive S5. Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda in Drive to Survive S5. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
“Formula 1: Drive to Survive”Courtesy of Netflix

Rogers points to the “massive” team of editors at Netflix, Box to Box, and Formula 1 for each episode, most of them converging on the season’s final episodes. “As soon as you see the episodes on Netflix, if you go to the credits, you can normally tell which episodes have been later in the schedule,” he said. “The list of editors gets longer and longer, and they’re supported by a team of edit producers who are like the story producer, team researchers, loggers, story producers, a very large team of assistant editors and post-production people as well.”

The edit team has to react quickly to the twists and turns of the unfolding F1 Season, while producers need to make strategic guesses about where to put time, resources, and spotlight focus. The driver contract carousel known as “silly season” looms over this season’s fifth and sixth episodes, which is appropriate given the sparks caused by Fernando Alonso and Oscar Piastri jumping ship from Alpine to Aston Martin and McLaren, respectively.

Fernando Alonso in "Formula 1: Drive to Survive"
“Formula 1: Drive to Survive”Courtesy of Netflix

That is certainly not where anyone in the Formula 1 world thought the 2022 season would go, but the docuseries team developed strategies to both hone in on areas of focus and log the right level of coverage. While Rogers said that the trick of the series is to create the perception that cameras are everywhere, “Drive to Survive” found over the COVID-19 pandemic that embedding shooting crews into teams, sometimes with only one crew at a race, led to better results than trying to be everywhere at once.

“One of those principles that we had to adopt [for COVID] was this idea of embedding with the teams, becoming part of their sanitary bubble,” Rogers said. “And we found that by lowering the footprint, but having crews get more intimate access, we ended up with a better level of content, and that’s the principle that we still try to use moving 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 is probably feeling pretty OK right now about being paid $18 million to not drive for McLaren in 2023, but the Australian’s absence from the grid ended up guiding the end of “Drive to Survive” Season 5, including a montage of Riccardo from throughout the Netflix show’s run.

Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Riccardo, and Sergio Perez standing on the grid in Season 5 of "Formula 1: Drive to Survive"
“Formula 1: Drive to Survive”Courtesy of Netflix

“It’s Danny’s voice that we hear in voiceover in that first episode [of Season 1] talking about what it is to drive a car. We spent time with his mom and dad during a race, and I think the beauty of a show like ‘Drive to Survive’ is we’ve sort of been on that journey with Daniel,” Rogers said. “He’s been an enormous part of the success and the journey of the show. And he definitely leaves a big hole there. It felt fitting that we had to mark that exit, and it was actually quite a cathartic process for us, as well, because you forget some of those great moments over the five years.”

With Rogers and team already looking ahead, do they have an idea of where Season 6 might take viewers? After all, they knew early during Season 5 that Miami would be one of the races that warranted a bigger footprint.

“Everybody’s already talking about Vegas,” Rogers teased.

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