Ahead of the launch of Amazon Prime documentary series Grand Prix Driver, a four-part series following McLaren Honda as they embark on the 2017 Formula 1 Season, Jon Wilde caught up with series producer Manish Pandey to discuss how the project came together and what it meant to be part of a deeply challenging period of the McLaren story.
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Thanks for taking the time for this interview, Manish. Let’s start with a bit of scene-setting, could you explain a bit of background to how the documentary came together?
So the project was really created by three people including myself, you’ll see we are the three executive producers of the show, there’s Chris Connell, a guy called Anwar Nuseibeh, we have been trying to set projects up for almost three years, we wanted to do a contemporary behind the scenes show in Formula 1. We had actually approached a completely different team, for the sake of good politics I probably shouldn’t mention who they were, but at the last moment really it wasn’t going to work for them. Whereas the new management at McLaren had an approach that was much more open.
As an organisation, the sport is just extraordinary and I think that is what people really don’t understand about Formula 1, it’s the level of talent, but on top of that commitment that people have in what they do, you know. If someone’s going to make you a cup of tea it will be the best cup of tea you’ve ever drunk.
We win together, and we lose together.
One of the things that really surprised me about the documentary itself it was the level of access that you had, the transparency.
I think part of that was really Senna, the 2010 documentary I had done. Ayrton Senna and I had a really great relationship with McLaren and that was under Ron, but I knew a lot of the people that we were dealing with. I’ve known them since 2008 actually, so when we approached them about the show, they knew that we had a lot of integrity and they also knew that we are good at making what we say we are going to make. I believe they had a lot of comfort from the fact that I’m not making this for a tabloid newspaper. I’m not a reporter, I like to think of myself as a serious filmmaker who is very passionate about motor racing. Our approach is very honest, we say give us loads of access, let us ask questions and probe, and of course, you know there will be certain things linked to intellectual property we can’t show so there may be tiny bits of pixilation.
Here they are developing absolute state-of-the-art cars, but in terms of telling the story, they trust us, because in a sport where time is measured in a thousandth of a second and money is measured in hundreds of millions of dollars the pressure is insane. Things could have gone very right, as it worked out things here went totally the other way, but that is not because somebody is less talented, less brilliant and less incisive than anyone else, that’s just inherently the system within Formula 1, it’s just so very complicated.
You look at the technical team who put together the car this year, I mean this chassis is one of the best chassis there is. I think perhaps if there was something, I don’t want to use the word “fault”, and it’s easy to say in retrospect if there was something that perhaps people could have looked at and maybe would have changed for this year, I mean the fundamental decision to change the engine architecture in the first season. That’s a really big decision, but having said that, why did they make that decision? They didn’t make that decision because Honda is stupid, quite the opposite, they are an amazing company. The reason they did that is that they want to win, we have to admire that. Who do you admire more – someone who wants to be a barman forever or someone who wants to be a barman because he wants to be a top Hollywood actor and that pays for his lessons? In a way, that’s what Honda did. It’s so admirable what they did, they wanted to win, and they made the decision that the best chance they had was to go for it with this engine. Sadly, it didn’t work out, but if it had, it would have been a massive year.
It’s really interesting that you comment on that, that’s one of my observations throughout the series. Do you think that this perspective of the story necessarily comes across in the documentary?
There’s an ambition that perhaps we could have pushed that harder, but, in a way, because you are making a retrospective documentary, sometimes you meet people who have a habit of talking too much and not delivering. I think, you know, Honda are the exact opposite culturally and so are McLaren, even before the engine arrived. So we didn’t push because they didn’t push. Neither McLaren nor Honda talks too much, they like to do their fighting on the track. The restraint they show at the beginning is almost more admirable.
In our first interviews or stories, it would have been quite easy to take one of the Honda technicians aside, and say “so why are you doing this, why are you changing the design architecture” and put words in their mouths, but I think people can spot that and I don’t think people like it. I think the greatest strength of the show is reality. It’s natural, nothing was staged.
The scene was Jonathan Neale is talking to the collective team in the Technology Centre, talking about a line having been crossed. That’s a Goosebumps moment!
Yes. First, you’ve got to admire a boss that’s so frank with his team. It shows the incredible respect that he has for all of his employees, and all the bosses were also there, not just Jonathan. They were all there because they felt so responsible for every one of their employees and partners. You really have to admire them facing up to their own message and allowing us to film that and also to the fans because they know ultimately that’s who the show is for. This wasn’t for me, this was for the fans of McLaren, fans of Formula 1, fans of motorsport, fans of any kind of sport.
It’s commendable of McLaren to have been so transparent and to have given so much access. I almost have a concern for McLaren that they’ve shown too much, giving that level of access and transparency. Does it scare people? Can it scare engine manufacturers or sponsors away from the team and the sport?
Oddly, I think integrity is the biggest draw. Yes, honesty can be scary. Sometimes honesty can be unbearable. Long-term honesty or long-term lying, long-term covering up, long-term excuses… We know sometimes the truth is hard to bear, but the truth even if it destroys a moment, it offers you so much more opportunity to create and carry on in a positive way.
This is what I love about the reality work. It’s not a show like The Apprentice. There’s no format here. Nothing designed to provoke people into a certain behaviour. These people are consummate professionals. If you watch those early episodes you’ll see we’re actually not inside those meetings with Eric Boullier, Jonathan Neale and Zak Brown. We’re outside. But by the end of it, we’re in the meeting. So we earned that. What’s beautiful is that rather than lying to us or misleading us at the beginning, they rather have us outside, and once we earned the right to be inside, that’s when we’re inside and that’s what I love about the journey of the four episodes. We go from being slight outsiders to being complete insiders, and that’s a fantastic unconscious journey, that’s completely unprecedented.
If I had a standout line in this entire show, it’s actually what Matt Bishop (former head of communications) said: “We win together, and we lose together”. Ultimately it’s about the team because for me, that’s the show.
It’s so admirable what they did, they wanted to win, and they made the decision that the best chance they had was to go for it with this engine.
In the early episodes, you did a great job of bringing Stoffel’s character out. Because the team haven’t had a great year, he possibly hasn’t received the attention he deserved. Fans haven’t been able to get to know Stoffel as well as they might have done. In the first episode, in particular, the show does a great job of first of all showing him, but also showing the physical side what it takes to compete in Formula 1.
I just respect him so much. He’s relentless. There is an Alonso side to him. It’s hard to see him struggling, knowing how good he is. You could say Max Verstappen’s like that or Daniel Ricciardo. They know they are good enough and Stoffel is the same. Stoffel hasn’t come from money. He hasn’t had it easy, he’s had to wait, and he’s done it. He is a Formula 1 racer.
Finally, can we take a second to talk about what you have coming up next? After seeing what you’ve done with McLaren, I’d love to see you take a year following Chase Carey and his team around, managing Liberty Media and all the challenges they are facing within Formula 1.
Unfortunately, the management has taken a different direction with their behind-the-scenes stuff and I think they have a long term deal with Netflix, which means there won’t be any more Formula 1 work for us so far. That’s a pity since I feel like we had so many more stories to tell. That said, I am doing something else in the motor racing space with motorsport.com, so that’s the next project, that’s going to take up a big chunk of the next year of my life and I’m very excited about it.
Sounds good! I guess that’s what comes of being able to work with Zak Brown and his empire, so congratulations on that.
Well exactly. They are an amazing organisation, and I’m looking forward to creating something very special with them.