Brawn GP F1 documentary review: Keanu Reeves' real ‘Drive to Survive’


Keanu Reeves has given Jenson Button's against-the-odds 2009 F1 title triumph the Hollywood treatment with Brawn: The Impossible F1 Story, a new Disney documentary – does it do the 'unbelievable' tale justice?

Brawn GP Keanu Reeves doc one

Reeves takes on the Brawn story


It might be hard to believe, but next year will mark a decade and a half since Brawn GP and Jenson Button pulled off F1’s ultimate rise from the ashes, when a team that looked dead and buried before the season produced the best car on the whole grid and sensationally secured both titles.

After Ross Brawn rescued the Brackley team in early 2009, buying it for £1 from Honda, he oversaw a squad of brilliant designers who built their car around the double-diffuser innovation. It gave them a devastating performance edge that saw Button and team-mate Rubens Barrichello dominate the early races of the year.

After running out of development money, the team then clung on for dear life to just about secure championship glory. After selling to Mercedes for 2010, it became the only constructor with a 100% success record, one it stills holds.

Now a 2009 season which felt like a blockbuster unfolding before your eyes has been given the cinematic treatment it deserves: Hollywood A-lister Keanu Reeves tells the story in a new Disney documentary, Brawn: The Impossible F1 Story.

Jenson Button celebrates victory for BRawn GP at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix

Button and Brawn began ’09 with searing success

The four-part series – which is released on the Disney+ streaming service on Nov 15 – features masses of unseen archive material and is supported by over 45 interviews with the great, less good and unsung of F1.

But, does that all-star cast featuring Button, Brawn himself, Bernie Ecclestone and many more, achieve the somewhat ambitious goal of its producers to make a racing version of The Last Dance — the Michael Jordan-themed Netflix-themed hit that both brought the drama of the NBA to non-basketball fans and demonstrated a Western cultural shift towards African-American popular culture?

“Every time Keanu sat down with anyone, they really wanted to tell him things”

The trailer, in reaching for the usual ‘unbelievable story’ clichés, suggests we could be in store for a cheesy load of rubbish – but as the opening scenes unfold, the potential is there for quite the opposite.

The series’ commitment to telling a detailed story through the thorough use of historic footage is demonstrated from the off. These are the first documentary makers to have ever been given unchaperoned and limitless access to F1’s archive footage, and it shows in the best possible way.

A young Ross Brawn typing away on an ‘80s computer in a promotion for the doomed Beatrice Lola team (one of his first F1 employers) sets things up nicely. Button’s late father John’s rallycross exploits being commentated on by Murray Walker is also touching towards the end.

The story really begins, naturally, among the wreckage of Honda pulling out of F1, but it’s the sheer number of people that the personable Reeves speaks to that really brings things to life.

From the archive

“Every time we sat down with anyone, because it was Keanu, they really wanted to tell him things,” says Neil Duncanson, the North One boss (part of All3Media) who was executive producer of the series with Disney’s Sean Doyle. He told Motor Sport that had been their hope when partnering with the star. “Even Bernie, bless him, was kind of quite keen to actually says things that perhaps he hadn’t before.”

This sets Brawn apart. 2021’s Schumacher documentary had an odd feeling of absence to it, lacking enough archive interviews with the seven-time champion, as well as dissenting voices to commentate on his frequently-questionable on-track behaviour. Even Damon Hill was quite nice about him, almost too respectful.

The Reeves production has none of that – there are plenty of views that oppose the familiar “fairytale” narrative, giving it the balance that it needs.

It also excels by looking beyond the big cheeses, adding to the story via the the everyday people working in the factory with extraordinary tales to tell, without becoming banal.


We hear from fuel man Gary Holland, flown in each weekend in between running his plumbing business following some disastrous pitstops in Melbourne, as well as mechanic Mike Deane, but perhaps the most significant appearance comes from the person behind the double diffuser themselves: aerodynamicist Masayuki Minagawa. Sadly, he only gets the briefest of cameos.

This is in addition to many more well-known Brackley figures such as James Vowles, Andrew Shovlin and Jock Clear.

The withdrawal of Honda at the end of the 2008 season sees the rival teams band together to help save Brawn, and the documentary shows a briefly-held communal spirit in F1 as the other squads try to prop up the ailing skeleton team; laughably stark to now when they won’t let one extra (the well-equipped Andretti outfit) in.

It didn’t last though. Wrangling over its prospective engine provides amusing light insight, but the tone gets more serious as the filmmakers examine the protest by seven teams over the legality of Brawn’s double diffuser, as well as similar designs used by Williams and Toyota, which gave the teams extra downforce.

Brawn GP car of Jenson Button in qualifying for 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix

Button on his way to pole in Malaysia ’09

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Against all the odds the team almost inadvertently built a brilliant car, not quite realising just how good it would be, with grainy phone footage showing the BGP 001’s Silverstone shakedown run before it destroys the opposition in testing and the early races.

Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo seethes over the double-diffuser ‘trick’ and Red Bull boss Christian Horner plays his usual villain-you-love-to-hate part well, while Ecclestone is the joker in pack.

Horner, good-humoured through most of the proceedings, remarkably still seems bitter about the FIA and then Court of Appeal ruling in Brawn’s favour. Considering the devastating success he’s had since, you’d think he’d have let this one go.

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Still, everyone in F1 is a sore loser, and Montezemolo seems the sorest. 2009 marked a period of underachievement which Ferrari has never really shaken itself free from – significant, considering Brawn himself was central to the 2000s Schumacher winning machine.

Things do get a bit F1 politics-heavy: the series jumps from the double-diffuser court protest to arguments over money owed to the Brackley team by Bernie from its years as Honda. He’s trying to withhold the funds in a bid to winkle it out of the Formula One Teams Association in a power struggle stand-off, with the latter group threatening a breakaway series.

Too much politics, not enough crashes for a broad audience? It would be interesting to see how many floating voters make it through this section of the series, but it justifies itself before too long.

Reeves and co artfully depict how Ecclestone failed to turn Brawn into a political pawn when its namesake team principal as well as CEO Nick Fry manage to turn the tables on the then-F1 rights holder. This is Drive to Survive for grown-ups.

Brawn GP Keanu Reeves doc 2

Candid and open approach of documentary is refreshing


After banking a few more wins, the sporting interest continues with Button’s mid-season collapse and Rubens’ redemption. The Brazilian who had trailed his team-mate thus far, clawed back some of the Brit’s advantage with emotional wins in Valencia and Monza as the tension rises and rivals close the gap.

As the title battle hots up, fissures open within the team – at points Brackley wasn’t the united front it mostly appeared from the outside, and the cameras expose a fascinating amount of needle.

From the archive

Teams Button and Barrichello bicker about withheld set-up secrets, forcing Brawn the boss to lay down the law.

Button going into detail about how a mental collapse affected his driving will satisfy both petrolheads and those with only a mild interest in the sport; the series showing its wider appeal in these moments.

His anguished radio messages were dug out after hours and hours of searching through the Biggin Hill F1 archives. “This the perfect way to throw it away – Jesus ****ing Christ,” he says on team radio after qualifying 15th in Singapore.

“I felt like the whole world was watching me fail,” he earnestly tells Keanu later.

The final episode opens with an intriguing examination of whether Button really had “it” in performance terms. Brawn confesses he wasn’t sure the Frome Flyer was really up to a title challenge when he first met him, and Montezemolo is pretty uncompromising in his opinion.

However, with Button clinging on to first place in the title race by his fingertips, it all climaxes towards a famous finale and an F1 crown for the Brit at Interlagos, the culmination of which is one of the world championship’s most incredible stories even before the Disney treatment.

Brawn team photograph celebrating 2009 F1 championship wins

Film reaches an emotional climax

Darren Heath/Getty Images

Brawn perhaps lacks the cultural heft of Last Dance or the emotional pull of something like Sunderland Till I Die. However, it still carries a depth comparable with many other leading sport documentaries, and has a personal touch through so many rich and insightful interviews – it feels less contrived than Drive to Survive, but far more balanced than Schumacher or Bernie Ecclestone’s Lucky.

In quite a pleasing way, the filmmakers have perhaps failed in their objective. They were looking to create a mass-appeal product but a series which features so much detail over four-hour long episodes has actually turned into something different. It’s a proper F1 documentary, and all the better for it.

Brawn: The Impossible F1 Story is well worth the time of both diehards and the open-minded sport fan.