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Formula 1

What letting an F1 race become a live movie set was really like

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
7 min read

Formula 1 had an 11th team on the grid at the British Grand Prix as a fictional entry for Hollywood star Brad Pitt made its public debut, affording a behind-the-scenes look of a seriously ambitious undertaking.

Cars, a garage, a pitwall, a hospitality unit, two drivers, and a host of team members combined to give APX GP a ‘proper team’ feel at Silverstone, although the ever-present raft of camera crew and film equipment always ensured the mirage never quite took full hold.

With filming beginning in earnest and a lot of it taking place in the middle of a live F1 paddock, it was a great opportunity to witness a fascinating project first-hand.

The cars are being driven by both Pitt and his co-star/team-mate Damson Idris, as well as professional drivers where required, and mounted with a host of incredible cameras. Pitt reckons this has captured speed and G-forces in a way he hasn’t seen before, and it will be spliced with actual F1 race footage too.

Pitt has also credited seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who is assisting with the script in the name of authenticity, with pushing to ensure F1 is properly respected on the big screen. The attention to detail and realism of the team and cars, and the on-track action, should afford the film a lot of credibility – which might help avid F1 fans give the plot the benefit of the doubt, given Pitt’s character does have an extremely unrealistic story.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Preparation Day Silverstone, England

Few details of the plot are known but Pitt has revealed his character, Sonny Hayes, would have raced in the 1990s and had a horrible crash as a young gun that caused him to leave F1 and race in other series. That’s until his F1 team-owning friend, played by Javier Bardem, calls him up as “kind of a Hail Mary” to partner a young phenomenon driving for a last-placed team that’s never scored a point.

Of course, we saw this team for the first time at Silverstone, the first of six races where it will be in attendance. The filmmakers have splashed the cash to give APX GP an impressive garage, pitwall set-up with access to genuine race telemetry from 2022, and a paddock hospitality unit, all reflective of what real F1 teams do.

While it is pitched as a backmarker in Pitt’s film, in a non-budget cap world this fictitious entry would probably be spending more than anyone.

As well as running on track properly in eight separate filming sessions across the British GP event, some as early as 8am, the cars, the team and the actors had a cameo in F1’s main event too.

Pitt and Idris were slipped into the usual pre-race ceremonies, joining the end of the driver line-up during the national anthem. Some deliberate camera angles and choices from the world feed meant you’d have only clocked them incidentally in the TV coverage if you knew where to look.

Despite bizarre claims to the contrary, it was never the plan for Pitt to be leading the formation lap from the front or completing the whole thing, or even driving the car for it. But the team-mates were filmed walking back towards their cars, and although they didn’t actually get in and drive them, the cars were prepped and ready to start the formation lap behind all the others.

One of them did and quickly disappeared down an escape road to leave the track as soon as possible. The other was wheeled off the grid – but this might have been deliberate, and not a technical issue.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Race Day Silverstone, England

Pitt hinted that if you saw anything go amiss, like a spin or more tellingly a “stall”, then it was all part of the plan. And it sounded less like covering his tracks in case he made a mistake in the car, and more like dropping a little plot teaser.

“The guys really prepared me well,” said Pitt. “There’s a couple of corners, I can see the stands. On the straights, you have a little bit of time to kind of look around.

“But I’m really focused on the lines and what we’re trying to create in these moments.

“I want to say – for all the armchair experts out there, you’ve got to give us a little breathing room. If you see any spin-outs or something that looks like it’s a stall or something like that, it’s by design, OK!”

Pitt has been behind the wheel previously and drove himself in Saturday’s last filming session at Silverstone, which began shortly after qualifying, after being coached extensively by real racing drivers. He’s described his driving as a humbling experience, joking that his “hot laps” are more like “warm laps” and admitting he’s had a few off-track moments along the way.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Preparation Day Silverstone, England

Pitt is said to have handled himself surprisingly well. He has quite a bit of experience riding motorcycles on track over the last 20 years or so and felt that helped him quickly grasp the basics of things like racing lines.

But more importantly than Pitt and the aesthetics of this operation endearing themselves to the F1 paddock, is how impressively this production was handled by both sides. Interference was kept to a minimum between the production crew and F1 personnel, and vice versa.

This F1 x Apple collaboration required a lot of buy in from everybody within the paddock. That included briefing a lot of people, the details of which were (surprisingly) not leaked in any serious way. It enabled both sides to go about their business without compromising anything. Pitt even joined the drivers’ briefing on Friday night to explain more details of the production plans.

Some people will inevitably complain that opening up a live paddock and especially the starting grid to filmmakers was a further sign of the erosion of the sporting side under Liberty Media, and proof the priority is now the spectacle. And there was some real hysteria around the misreported or misinterpreted facts of so many parts of the filming process.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Preparation Day Silverstone, England

But this was all misplaced. It was impressive how the production team avoided getting in everybody’s way. They even opened the doors on Thursday to let paddock members have a look around the garage. In addition to the obvious, functioning props, they had a big space in the centre of the paddock that was well concealed. Sometimes it had big bits of equipment outside, which was a bit of a giveaway, but if you didn’t know what you were looking at, you would have walked straight past it.

The filming work around the grid was taken extremely seriously, and required a huge amount of effort to avoid disrupting the event itself. Practice runs ensured they knew exactly how long it would take to get the cars out of the way, even if something went wrong.

That was the point where it tipped over from welcoming the filmmakers into F1’s world and allowing them to use the paddock as a live set, to actively stepping into the middle of a key part of a serious sporting event. And done poorly, it could have disrupted driver and team preparations or even, worst case scenario, interfered with the start of the grand prix. But that didn’t happen.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Qualifying Day Silverstone, England

It was a great example of how to do a never-been-done-before experiment of this scale, with a unique level of involvement. The closest precedent is the 1966 film Grand Prix, which did not have the scale of the current project but did go the extra mile to capture footage as filming cars were entered for actual F1 events in Monaco and Belgium.

It’s also important, as well as plainly quite cool, that F1 is willing to open up in this way. When Sylvester Stallone made the box office and critical flop Driven, he wanted to make it about F1 but he couldn’t. The championship was too closed off, Bernie Ecclestone was a very different character to those leading things now, and Stallone switched it to be based around the US CART series instead.

Hollywood films can put a sport on a pedestal or make it into a bit of a joke. So, it was wise for F1 to buy into this process and make sure the championship is properly respected. And it was handled very well for a first attempt.

Who knows what the end product will really be like, but the process of getting there looks like it will be harmless for F1. Which is a good thing, as we’re going to experience it again at several other races.

There are six grands prix in total that filmmakers will be working at, and the next one is understood to be the very next race in Hungary.

They won’t all be the same experiences, given what needs to be shot is plot-dependent. Possibly some of the grand Silverstone set-up will come and go.

Whatever the form, we haven’t seen the last of F1’s new 11th team or its two drivers.

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