Grand Prix Driver (2018) "Built to fail."

Grand Prix Driver (2018)

Film Genre: Documentary

Director: Adrian McDowell

Total runtime: 108 minutes (4 episodes)

Before I get into the review proper, I have to comment on how misleading the title of this Amazon-produced documentary is. Yes, Grand Prix Driver does pay lip service to its title by occasionally showing McLaren Formula One driver Stoffel Vandoorne in preparation for his first full season as a Grand Prix racer, but the real meat of the documentary has practically nothing to do with Vandoorne, or his double world champion teammate Fernando Alonso for that matter. None of that is even remotely what the fans came to see here. Instead, the main focus of the four episodes is following the McLaren team at their base in Woking, England as they get ready for the 2017 Formula One season. As it really should be.

If you've followed F1 since 2015, you should be very familiar with the situation at McLaren and why it might be interesting to follow their preseason, but if not, here's a brief explanation to get you up to speed. McLaren, one of the most prestigious teams in motor racing, have spent the last few seasons lurching from crisis to disaster, and have not as much as scored a top three finish since 2014. The main culprit for the once-proud team's recent decline can be found underneath the engine cover of their racecar, as McLaren's renewed partnership with Honda (with whom they won four consecutive world championships in the late 80s and early 90s) has been an utter failure since its start in 2015.

The current engine formula for F1 is all about V6 turbo hybrid power units, which are unnecessarily complicated (with components such as the MGU-H and MGU-K heat and energy recovery systems, which nobody in the viewing audience or the F1 paddock cares about) and expensive and sound like lawnmowers. Honda came in a year late to the hybrid era so they were playing catch-up from the beginning, and 2015 was predictably disastrous for the McLaren-Honda alliance as they only scored 27 points all season, only beating the underfunded Marussia team in the standings (meanwhile, Mercedes won the constructor's championship with 703 points). 2016 seemed as if they were heading in the right direction with improved performance and reliability, so perhaps in 2017 McLaren could finally start threatening the sharp end of the grid again? That is where Grand Prix Driver starts off. For whatever reason, the documentary is narrated by actor Michael Douglas.

2017 is meant to be the start of a new era for McLaren. The company is under new leadership after longtime owner Ron Dennis was ousted at the end of 2016, and with that change comes a period of rebranding under new top executive Zak Brown. This change is reflected in the appearance of the team's 2017 racecar, the MCL32, which boasts a distinctive orange and black paintjob and eschews the monochromatic liveries Dennis preferred - orange was McLaren's color in the early days, although the original shade was less red than the one used on the MCL32. It also seems McLaren is building another good chassis, and hopes are high for the new season. The McLaren staff have poured their hearts and souls into building this car, and they wish to see their luck finally turn around. Of course, none of this will matter if Honda doesn't deliver on the engine front.

When the 2017 Honda engine arrives at the factory, things immediately turn sour as the McLaren mechanics are unable to line up the new power unit with the transmission. With the construction of the MCL32 car already on a tight deadline, this is not what anyone needs, but eventually the problem is sorted out and the engine now fits as it should. The next ominous sign comes at the first demonstration of the engine being fired up, as it refuses to start properly. When the mechanics finally do get the engine to rev, it sounds like "a bag of spanners in a dustbin", as an F1 journalist would later describe it, and even though everyone's putting on a brave face it's obvious this is not what they were expecting. Still, despite the issues and the delays in the car's construction forcing a cancellation of the planned shakedown at the Silverstone circuit, the team is reasonably confident (or at least trying to convince themselves) everything will be sorted out by the time of the first official test session in Barcelona.

When the test day arrives and Alonso takes the orange car onto the track for the first time, the team immediately detects an issue with the oil system during the first lap and calls the Spaniard back to the pits. After a few hours of intense work in the garage, they get Alonso going again, and the car breaks down again almost immediately. Alonso, who is already fed up with the slow and unreliable Honda engines, is less than pleased and proceeds to describe the engine in a rather blunt manner that is bleeped out on the documentary.

Vandoorne suffers equally poor reliability on his car the next day, and the rest of the preseason testing doesn't exactly go any better. As a small aside that has nothing to do with the documentary, I'd like to mention that the humorous "Has McLaren Broken Down Today?" website chronicling McLaren-Honda's issues was actually closed down around this time because the person running it couldn't bother keeping up with all the failures.

Following the disastrous first test, McLaren's chief operating officer Jonathan Neale gathers the crestfallen staff at the factory and tries to raise their morale by stating that McLaren largely achieved their targets, and it was Honda who did not come through. Neale also declares that this has gone far enough, and it's time for a change. In addition, we get to see Zak Brown and racing director Eric Boullier have a discussion about Alonso, with both men expecting their star driver to leave the team before the end of the season.

Unfortunately, since the main part of the documentary ends here, we don't get to see McLaren's struggles during the 2017 season or the conversations that led to Alonso skipping the Monaco Grand Prix to race in the Indianapolis 500 (where he performed brilliantly and relished being in a competitive car but retired because of, well, a Honda engine failure), but the narration fills us in by saying that Honda failed to meet the performance benchmarks set up by McLaren at the start of the year and the team was again second to last in the championship. A small scene filmed at a hotel prior to the Singapore Grand Prix late in the year features Zak Brown privately informing the filmmakers that McLaren-Honda is done, only moments before he would hold a press conference stating exactly that and announcing a new customer engine deal with Renault (whose engines have won four championships in the last ten years, as the film mentions while conveniently forgetting that all of these were before the hybrid V6 era).

At the very end, we're told that the driver lineup at McLaren-Renault in 2018 will again consist of Vandoorne and Alonso. This was obviously before Alonso announced he would also be racing in the World Endurance Championship for sports cars in 2018, including the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, but I wouldn't be surprised if the fact McLaren's letting him race in another series (which is simply unheard of in modern F1) played a major part in his decision to stay. As for F1, Renault's engines may not have been the class of the field in the last few years and have suffered from quite a few reliability issues, but their customer teams have at least managed to be competitive and even win races, so McLaren should at least be spared the embarrassment of the last three seasons.

Grand Prix Driver is not the kind of in-depth look into McLaren-Honda's travails that fans may have expected. The documentary is definitely aimed at a more casual audience rather than hardcore motorsport fanatics, but it is well shot and directed, features slick production by Manish Pandey (who also worked on the acclaimed Senna documentary) and does at least provide a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of a formerly great racing team amid a period of change and struggle. I still can't get over the title, though, because the drivers are barely in this thing. The filmmakers obviously couldn't call it McLaren because that is another documentary, about the team's original founder Bruce McLaren (which I hear is excellent but haven't gotten to watch as of yet), but why not call it, say, Grand Prix Team? Back in (Orange and) Black? Okay, I'll stop now. 

Grand Prix Driver is available on Amazon Prime Video in selected countries.

 

Marko's picture
Marko

I have plenty of common sense. I just choose to ignore it.