INTERVIEW – This 44-year-old engineer appeared in the first three seasons of the phenomenon series when he was the “main team” of the Renault team. Now retired from the world of Formula 1, he talks to the Figaro his memories of the shoot.
An engineer by training, Cyril Abiteboul became director of the Renault team in 2016. For six years, he redoubled his efforts to bring the great French automobile house to the top of the charts in Formula 1. The last three years, it was in front of the Netflix cameras for the documentary series phenomenon Formula 1: Drive To Survive. A project for which the boss was particularly invested in coordinating the negotiations between the different teams and the production so that the film sees the light of day. More than a year after leaving the world of Formula 1, and therefore the series of the platform, Cyril Abiteboul confides in the Figaro and looks back on this adventure.
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LE FIGARO. – How was the Netflix project presented to you?
Cyril ABITEBOUL. – In 2016, Liberty Media, which bought Formula 1, took a series of measures, from the most anecdotal (the change of logo) to the most emblematic, the marketing strategy. This American company, professional in entertainment, felt a huge and untapped media potential in Formula 1. At the time, it was necessary to find another way to monetize the sport and thus increase the sports rights which would have reached a ceiling. Netflix was one of its levers to achieve this.
Were you immediately taken with the idea?
When Liberty proposed this program, the opinions were mixed with stables very opposed and others favorable. I was very clearly in the second category. It was a godsend for less publicized teams. In the middle, the media coverage being proportional to the results. It was Renault who coordinated all of the negotiations with Netflix for all the teams. It was absolutely not won. Two elements worried the teams: the fear of getting angry with several media and the problem of image and reputation management. All of a sudden, you have to give very privileged access. Finally, Red Bull, very hesitant at the start, understood that there was something to be gained from it. Mercedes and Ferrari realized it a little later. I had also negotiated a speaking time in equal shares between each house, which was equivalent to one episode per team. It ended up going a little differently, but the promise of the initial project was generally respected.
On the set, how present are the cameras at your side?
The team is small, made up of a cameraman and a soundman. They are fully integrated into our teams. Trust prompted us to give them extraordinary access, unimaginable initially. When we told them “We cut”, there was no negotiation whatsoever. It is a pleasant relationship and very different from that with the traditional audiovisual media. Nothing was done without our knowledge. In addition to this, each team has a right of viewing before the broadcast, to be activated only for good reasons: technical secrets, defamatory remarks… I used this right once to have a sequence with Daniel Ricciardo withdrawn (Renault driver in 2019 and 2020, Ed.) and protect his image. Precision: we only have access to the images which concern us. We do not see the famous final cut and therefore the series in its entirety. We discovered it at the same time as everyone else. I admit that I was sometimes surprised at the end result.
What surprised you?
We must not deceive ourselves, Drive to Survive uses the codes of reality TV. The TV dimension counts enormously and it is not 100% reality. The series depicts a good general representation of the context and the characters but the facts told are sometimes exaggerated and caricatural. Drivers and team managers saw their relations deteriorate very sharply after the broadcast.
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Was the war you have with Christian Horner portrayed real?
No, this story is typically exaggerated. Even if there was antagonism between us, of course. The montage integrates images from one Grand Prix to reassign them to another and thus create a dramatic effect. But, I understand the logic. It is an entertainment product that is also very expensive for Netflix. In the end, Formula 1 gained something from it. When before, there were hardly 30,000 spectators at the Grand Prix of Barcelona or Monaco, and today there are 120,000, there is no debate.
When did the individual interviews in front of the camera take place?
The interviews were an extremely framed ritual. They were planned for the weekend, in hotel rooms converted into a photo studio for the occasion. Often, early in the morning, barely swallowed a coffee. It’s always a bit of a tough exercise. Journalists ask the questions multiple times to get the answers they already have in mind. I was not very comfortable, I was even the worst customer. English, as everyone has noticed, is not my native language! (Laughs.) Christian Horner is the best at putting out punchlines in an industrial way.
Did you sign a contract that generated remuneration?
No, we were just signing a waiver for the use of our image. No compensation. In the great economic system of F1, the holder of the commercial rights collects all the income linked to the exploitation of the image and redistributes it to the teams. The series had an indirect impact at team level but not individually. I know that pilots have tried to obtain remuneration but without, it seems to me, succeeding.
Christian Horner shows up with family on his ranch. Not you. Is it a choice?
Yes. I had the same proposals but I did not want to expose my family at all. When you represent Renault, a popular brand marked by strong social changes, it is out of the question to starify as an individual. The narration had to go through the pilots and not through myself.
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How is the series viewed from inside the F1 world?
From year to year, the impact has gradually been measurable. The first season went relatively unnoticed. It is especially from the third season that we experienced a phenomenon of amplification, of expectation. While I was totally incognito, I became a Netflix actor. People forgetting that I had a real job elsewhere. Even today, when I no longer appear, there is not a day when I am not stopped to ask me the date of my return or a selfie.
You haven’t actually appeared in the series since the end of season 3 and your departure from Renault at the start of 2021. This event was only briefly mentioned in season 4. What happened for those who didn’t? not followed the transfer window?
There were very strong differences of opinion and values with Renault. I am someone of convictions and I did not want to go back on some of them. The group had a project in mind and it was the right time for a new incarnation. Netflix offered me that I tell my departure, in a staging in the Luxembourg garden. I thought about it but, knowing the exercise well, I said to myself that there were no good ways to deal with this subject, which concerns only me and the company. It was better to leave it there.
What are you doing today?
Several things. I still have some links with motorsport: I help a company that produces F2 and F3 engines. I work a bit in investment and venture capital and my main operational activity is in a boatyard which builds offshore racing boats, from the Vendée Globe to the Route du Rhum. The winning boats come out of this yard. Sailing reminds me a bit of Formula 1 thirty years ago. We shouldn’t try to give it the same fate, but there are more and more audiences and sponsors. CDK Technologies (the company of which he is managing director) is perfectly equipped to face the development of this sport.
Could you participate in an adaptation of Drive to Survive for sailing?
Imagine that there is one, on the Pro Sailing Tour, signed Canal+. Last week, I met the producers who set up this sailing championship to serve a documentary project. The opposite of Drive to Survive: from now on, the sport adjusts to the media. Tailor-made, in short. There is an undeniable fashion effect. All sports are getting started, the Tour de France of cycling, motorcycling… Nevertheless, Formula 1 remains the best possible product for this type of storytelling. The bar has been set so high. There will surely be other things to invent.
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Do you still keep an eye on Formula 1?
Sure. I spent 15 years watching only that. I would need a long rehab to stop.
How would you describe the motorsport world?
I don’t come from an automotive culture, but once you come into contact with this universe of passion and performance, you dive in head first. My fifteen years of practice passed in the blink of an eye. It’s fun but also a lot of roughness. I would say that it is a toxic medium which damages. We take blows and to exist, we have to give them. Not everyone is prepared for this. Both externally and internally. At Renault, I felt like I was spending my time explaining why the brand was present in Formula 1. This will never be a concern for Ferrari. We also travel a lot and, at Renault, we also have to manage the factories. Without forgetting the events of recent years: the financial crisis of 2008, electrification, the departure of Carlos Ghosn…
Are you still in contact with your former driver Daniel Ricciardo?
We met for my tattoo (a lost bet: Cyril Abiteboul had promised to get a tattoo if Daniel Ricciardo reached a podium) which was improvised in five minutes. I had procrastinated a lot on that. Finally, I chose to cross a part of the Renault logo that was close to my heart and the animal nicknamed Daniel Ricciardo, the “Honey Badger” (honey badger, in French). The more it goes, the less proud I am to display it, well… (Laughs.)
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