Formula 1

Drive to Survive creator on the Christian Horner scandal – and the secrets behind his Netflix phenomenon

Drive to Survive creator on the Christian Horner scandal – and the secrets behind his Netflix phenomenon

With Drive to Survive, James Gay-Rees put key Formula One figures that fans don’t usually see much of, like Christian Horner, at the heart of the story – Hayleigh Longman | Netflix

It is fair to say that the phenomenally popular Netflix series Formula 1: Drive To Survive has completely changed the profile of the sport. No longer can motor racing fans be stereotyped as middle-aged petrol heads in terrible clothes; Drive To Survive has changed all that. Now, the drivers are like pop stars: Lewis Hamilton has a whopping 36.5 million followers on Instagram, most teenage girls know who Charles Leclerc is, and the Grand Prix circuit is flooded with more fans and cameras than ever before.

It is also fair to assume that without Drive To Survive the recent scandal involving Christian Horner, principal of the Red Bull team and husband of Geri Halliwell, might have attracted a lot less attention than it did – landing on newspaper front pages and causing endless speculation in the press.

‘Yeah, that’s what Christian said to me: “This is all your fault,”’ says James Gay-Rees, who is the show’s executive producer and creator, and responsible for some of the world’s most innovative documentaries in the sporting world and beyond.

‘But apparently Lewis losing the 2021 championship was all our fault too,’ he adds, referring to the final race of that season, when a controversial application of race regulations enabled Max Verstappen to clinch the title over Lewis Hamilton. ‘There were some elements of the press at the time who said that Formula 1 was engineering a more dramatic outcome in order to keep Netflix happy.’

Gay-Rees smiles. ‘Obviously this wasn’t true.’

Drive To Survive has engaged more people in the sport, and has inspired other Netflix series

Drive To Survive is now in its sixth year. Series five clocked up an astonishing 90 million hours of viewing time in the first half of last year; series six has appeared in Netflix’s top 10 TV shows in 61 countries. Quite a result for what is a fairly niche sport. Was Gay-Rees surprised by its success?

‘Yes, definitely. It started big, or Netflix wouldn’t have recommissioned it, but by series three it really took off. Then four and five were massive. The timing was right – and the sport needed something. I don’t think we can fully ascribe all its success to that, but it was definitely a factor. It was there to be done.’

What the sport needed was some younger fans, and a bit of diversity. (Almost a third of DTS viewers are under 30.) It also needed American audiences. Before the show, most Americans knew very little about Formula 1 – Nascar racing was their thing. ‘Which of the races is the actual Grand Prix?’ an American friend asked me once.

Even now, Logan Sargeant, of the Williams team, is the only American driver in F1, and was the first for almost a decade when he arrived last year. But the investment stakes have been raised: there are three races in the calendar for America this year, including one at Las Vegas.

Drive To Survive is fun. It made the sport more engaging, and hot on the heels of its success came more Netflix series: Break Point (tennis), Full Swing (golf), Tour de France: Unchained (cycling) and, this year, Six Nations: Full Contact (rugby). There are others in the pipeline. None have done quite as well as DTS, and Break Point was cancelled after two seasons, somewhat surprisingly, though Full Swing has so far thrived.

The series has succeeded in rendering the characters, relationships and rivalries of Formula 1 more relatable

What is the secret? ‘It is one of the peculiarities of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive To Survive phenomenon that it remains so popular despite being so far behind the news du jour,’ wrote Tom Cary, The Telegraph’s F1 reporter. Because each series inevitably tells the story of the previous year’s season, suspense is a challenge.

But the episodes are curated into stories, and the focus is on characters, and their friendships and rivalries, not just the sporting outcomes. ‘It’s not making the sport digestible, it’s making it relatable,’ says Nat Grouille, director of non-fiction series at Netflix.

‘We all have bad days at the office – James’s genius is making you realise that Toto Wolff, Zak Brown and Guenther Steiner all do too… their stakes are just a little higher.’

It’s true that F1 fans can get ‘backstage’ clips and information from other sources – podcasts, X (formerly Twitter) – but it’s not the same as having it all packaged into an easily consumable format. Yes, you can see the moment when Haas driver Kevin Magnussen told teammate Nico Hülkenberg to ‘suck my balls’ on YouTube if you know where to look, but it’s helpful to have a bit of context to their rivalry, as in episode four of the new series.

And with hindsight, of course it’s diverting to watch the sequence in the Horner family home when Father Christmas asks Horner’s children, ‘Has Dad been good this year?’ given the scandal that was to unfold. Or to see Lewis Hamilton asserting that ‘there just never feels like [there will be] a time where I’m not going to be a Mercedes driver’ a few months before he announces his departure to Ferrari.

I meet Gay-Rees in the slick Clerkenwell office of his current company, Box to Box Films. He has spent the morning overseeing the edit of a documentary about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto; earlier, in the day, on the train from Sussex (where his partner lives), he was watching the latest edit of Tour de France: Unchained. As soon as our interview is over, he has a call with a writer for their first foray into scripted drama. James Gay-Rees is a busy man.

‘James is great with talent; he garners enormous trust very readily,’ says Grouille, who has worked with Gay-Rees since the first series of DTS. ‘This is the basis of all good documentary journeys. But lots of producers can do that. What makes James unique is his uncanny ability to see around corners creatively. He seems to know instinctively how stories are coming together and his ability to present them elegantly to the audience is second to none.’

Surprisingly, Gay-Rees studied accountancy and economics at university. So how did he end up taking this route? ‘Because, much to my dad’s dismay, I wasn’t very good at economics and accountancy.’ Still, he got his degree and reluctantly went to work for Arthur Andersen. ‘I was terrible at it and failed my exams. Then I thought, “Film sounds cool.”’

James Gay-Rees: ‘The product is great but everything is very measured. There are not a lot of big personalities being outrageous any more.’ – Hayleigh Longman

Gay-Rees’s stepfather was the actor and comedian Mel Smith (‘a lovely man’). ‘He had made a film for Miramax called The Tall Guy, with Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson, and that was the only connection I had really to the film business. Mel had a contact for Harvey Weinstein, so I begged him for a job as an intern at Miramax. When I arrived in New York I realised I didn’t know anybody – but I cut out clippings and ran posters around town for $100 a week. Bottom of the pile.’

He then moved to LA and got a job on the Paramount lot, reading scripts for a small production company, and decided he wanted to become a producer. He set up his own production company in Hollywood, attempted to make a film with Mel Smith, which never happened, then came back to England to be with the woman who was to become his wife (they are now separated; he has two daughters, aged 19 and 22).

Back in England he was involved in producing Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature) and then hooked up with Tim Bevan from Working Title Films.

The first major film that Gay-Rees was hands-on in producing was 2010’s Senna, directed by Asif Kapadia, about the inspiring Brazilian racing driver who was killed at the Imola Grand Prix circuit in 1994.

Senna used archive footage to tell the driver’s story from his 1984 debut to his death in 1994 – WARDRNG FILM

It was the first time Ayrton Senna’s family had allowed a film to be made and it was pioneering in documentary terms because of its use of archive footage and its lack of talking heads. Senna won several awards, including a Bafta for Best Documentary.

Other documentaries followed – including McCullin, about the legendary war photographer, the Oscar-winning Amy, about Amy Winehouse, and TV series 1971: The Year that Music Changed Everything (the latter two also directed by Kapadia), all of which he is ‘really, really proud [of]. I do love them all in their different ways because you put everything into them but they’re unbelievably hard work – ’71 took up five years of my life, from idea to delivery, and Senna took seven.’

Box to Box was established in 2016, co-founded by Gay-Rees and his business partner Paul Martin (now based in LA). They employ 60 full-time staff and 2,000 freelancers across their various projects. Gay-Rees had long been a fan of Formula 1, and Drive To Survive was essentially his idea.

‘I was at a CAA [Creative Artists Agency] sport event here in London with my partner Paul, and we met the Red Bull F1 team marketing people. Because of Senna, Red Bull wanted to do something – so we took that to F1, which had just been taken over by Liberty [Liberty Media has a controlling interest in the F1 group], and they were already talking to Netflix about doing a series. I knew the F1 people and the Netflix people so it was relatively straightforward – luckily for us. But nobody anticipated the impact it was going to have. Continues to have – it’s still a massive show.’

But it’s a show that is entirely dependent on access – and initially it was hard to get that access (Mercedes and Ferrari didn’t appear in the first series). Now the success of DTS has brought investment and sponsorship. ‘Well, the penny’s dropped because the change is so tangible, and frankly the amount of money that’s come into the sport is enormous. Liberty knew they needed to get younger people involved, but I don’t think in their wildest dreams they thought 16-year-old girls in LA would be watching Formula 1 races.’

The new series has required the show’s makers to be particularly creative with storylines, because last year Red Bull won 21 out of 22 races, and 19 of them went to Max Verstappen. ‘It’s problematic from a narrative point of view because it’s so one-sided,’ says Gay-Rees.

‘But [engine] regulation changes are coming in 2026, so hopefully that will mean that maybe the playing field gets levelled. But at least there was a battle for second, third and fourth places, and some good team dynamics.’

Red Bull’s dominance in Formula 1 posed an editorial challenge – Courtesy of Netflix

Do they attempt to storyboard a season? ‘We do sit down at the end of every year and think what might happen. Because with some seasons you can be quite predictive. We probably get about half of it right and then the other half comes round to bite you and you have to think on your feet and do some tap dancing.

‘This year, for example, 13 or 14 drivers are out of contract and Lewis has obviously started the shenanigans already, so now the next most important person is Carlos Sainz [who will be displaced by Hamilton’s move to Ferrari] – what’s he going to do now? There will be a domino effect. So you can stay one or two steps ahead, but definitely there will be some unforeseen things. Though obviously it’s not all about the drivers’ market. You think you’re in control and then the schedule just goes crazy – Christmas is a write-off every year because I am editing Drive.’

He will not say who his favourite team principal is (‘I’d get lynched in the paddock’) but admits that DTS would have been fun to make in the old days, with its incredibly colourful cast of characters; when – according to legendary F1 commentator Murray Walker – James Hunt would wander on to the track after qualifying, holding a bottle of Champagne in his hand, and say, ‘What ho, Murray, who’s on pole today?’

‘And at the team principal meetings you’d have the big dogs – Bernie Ecclestone, Niki Lauda. Now it’s the revenge of the nerds, because the engineers are taking over. Which probably makes for better racing but those big characters are slightly falling by the wayside, which you could say is symptomatic of modern sport –everything getting a little bit blander. The product is great but everything is very measured. There are not a lot of big personalities being outrageous any more.’

There are still some good characters – Mercedes’ very droll Toto Wolff, Ferrari’s Fred Vasseur and the charming, foul-mouthed Guenther Steiner, formerly team principal of Haas, who was ‘let go’ at the end of last season. Steiner will be a sad loss to DTS. ‘Yes, he’s a lovely human being. He was the first person we sat down to talk with at the very beginning, and he said, “Ask me anything. I don’t care – you do whatever you like.” And he was true to his word. He would wear more mics than anyone else, he let us have access into more situations. He’s just really decent.’

Although the James Hunt days are over, the world of Formula 1 still has some ‘good characters’ – Netflix

And Christian? Will the Horner scandal be in the next series? (He has been investigated over allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and cleared by Red Bull, but at the time of going to press his accuser had lodged an official complaint with F1’s governing body. Horner has denied any wrongdoing.)

‘It will have to be referenced in some capacity, yeah. And they will all want it to be told in a particular way, so it’s about treading that line to keep everybody happy, and to keep Netflix happy, and us – so we can sleep at night with the decisions we’ve made.

‘You have to have balance. I think Horner is looking OK for the time being, but it doesn’t feel like it’s done yet. It will all depend on how it plays out. I don’t know what he got up to – and I genuinely don’t have an opinion on it, but he’s been through it and you wouldn’t wish that on anybody.’

Netflix, which has 260 million subscribers, has recently set its focus on sport. And inevitably Box to Box has had approaches from representatives of almost every sport to make a series. ‘We will look at everything but we have had to turn down a few because they are just too niche. Netflix only has an appetite for bigger things.’

He won’t say which sports they have turned down, nor will he specify the ones that have turned them down. ‘Cricket hasn’t been done, nor has the Premier League, and lots of people have had conversations about the America’s Cup [sailing] over the years. There’s one or two sports we’ve been in negotiation with for a long time and haven’t quite cracked, but will hopefully get done at some point.’

Shortly before our interview, Break Point’s cancellation was announced. Gay-Rees puts this down to the fact that there is a relatively small American audience for tennis. (But golf, for example, is hugely popular there, plus there has been an obvious enticing focus with the ongoing rivalry between the PGA Tour and the LIV Golf circuit, and Full Swing has done very well.)

Critics say some bad editorial choices were made in Break Point, which missed or sidelined certain key moments – Novak Djokovic being deported from Australia after his refusal to have the Covid vaccine in 2022; Michael Venus calling Nick Kyrgios an ‘absolute knob’; Alexander Zverev’s domestic abuse charge (which he denies); Carlos Alcaraz winning Wimbledon last year.

The first episode of Break Point looks closely at tennis ‘bad boy’ Nick Kyrgios – Courtesy of Netflix

Access to tennis’s big stars was hard and complicated. ‘Tennis is a funny world,’ says Gay-Rees. ‘It’s fascinating to be in and around it, but it’s a strange existence. People have this misconception that tennis is a nice game – it’s elegant and graceful, but it’s also very lonely. Unless you’re in the top 10, it’s a real grind, and you’re not making much money, you don’t have a huge support system and you’re travelling a lot, you’re probably losing every week. It’s an unusual world.’

His Six Nations series presented a challenge: to give equal airtime to six squads across two months. Access was essential and tricky to negotiate. ‘It was hard to convince the powers that be of the benefit of doing that series. They were a little bit scared, though they were in a similar position to F1 in that they knew they needed to move the needle a bit and appeal to a broader demographic than the typical rugby fan.

But the players in Full Contact are really great characters and much more diverse and interesting than people give them credit for – they’re elite athletes from a variety of different backgrounds, they’re not all public schoolboys. And the player engagement has been fantastic.’

What has sport’s super-producer got coming up next? ‘I’m really excited about the second Tour de France series. This was a sport I knew absolutely nothing about before we started making it and now I’m fascinated. It’s the most high-risk thing you could possibly do, but aligned to a game of chess – it’s dangerous and tactical and strategic.

The first season of Tour de France: Unchained followed the riders – with a particular focus on eight of the 22 teams – through the 2022 Tour de France – A.S.O./Charly Lopez

‘I’m also really excited about the true crime project we’re making in Miami. Its central character is a heavyweight mob guy on the run. He went to Miami in the ’90s and reinvented the South Beach scene and became its king, living the absolute dream. But the mob and FBI were closing in. Eventually he got caught and spent quite a long time in prison. We’re working with him and it’s going to be really cool and fun and scary – and all those true crime-y things.’

He is also making plans to rock the boat with a documentary about ‘an iconic sportsman’ –which hasn’t yet been announced – ‘and we’re determined to do it in a very different way. It’s been great to have been a part of the documentary wave which has happened over the last 10 years, when audiences have really engaged with documentaries in a way they never have before.

‘But I think we’ve definitely got to the point – and I may be partly to blame for this – where things have become a bit formulaic. The genre has slightly become a victim of its own success, whether it’s sports documentaries or music documentaries. It has got a bit tick-boxy… and it’s time to shake it up.’

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