Follow or treat: How a Netflix show gave millions a new passion for sports | Formula One

A few years ago my young son and I started watching the Netflix series Drive to survive, a reality show that, over the course of 10 episodes, takes viewers behind the scenes of the previous year’s Formula 1 season. Back then, none of us knew much about the sport. British driver Lewis Hamilton had become a mainstream celebrity. But who was he running with? Who ran their teams and made their cars? Where did they compete? The details beyond the obvious – that there’s a famous circuit in Monaco, that there’s a Ferrari-owned team – escaped me. It seemed distant and foreign – a circus unfolding in the distance.

At the time, it was a common experience. Formula 1 may be a major sport, but it has often struggled for a wide audience. Corn Drive to survive, which turns the twists and turns of a regular season into engrossing melodrama, and turns its drivers and team owners into heroes and villains, many of whom seem made for the screen, has changed public perception. In this dramatized version, F1 becomes less about the cars and more about the men who drive them: not just their egos and terrible ambition, but the tangled issues of contract disputes and parts partnerships and meltdowns on the day of racing and billionaire owners fitting their offspring into coveted driving seats.

What could have been a docuseries buttoned up about technical precision has instead become an examination of the most sloppy aspects of the human condition. Rage, disloyalty, jealousy, effort – it’s all there. In its first season, which aired in 2019, the show’s producers failed to gain access to Mercedes and Ferrari, the main F1 teams. Not worth it. Instead, they created stories from the company of lesser competitors – the little-known teams fighting for the crumbs – which proved to offer its own, no less exhilarating kind of television.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner. Picture: Netflix

Part of Drive to surviveThe success of lies in its use of its given cast – the people, mostly men, who make up the sport. This is where good and bad happen. Is Red Bull manager Christian Horner, husband of former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, really as horribly driven and devious as the show suggests? Of course not. Although in a new episode, viewers watch him watch a live stream from Hamilton and mutter, “Can’t he shut the fuck up?”

Drive to surviveThe fourth season of , which follows the highs and lows of the races of 2021, has been released on Netflix for the past two weeks and has been eagerly awaited, not least because last season was a humdinger. At the time of writing, five days after its release, viewers had already watched 28 million hours of the new series, according to Netflix, and within a week it had become one of the top 10 TV shows. service in 50 countries, including the UK. and Ukraine.

The success of the show had repercussions for Formula 1 itself. In 2021, the accumulation of sport TV audience increased by 4% compared to the previous year, reaching 1.55 billion. A record number of people – more than 108 million – watched the 2021 season finale, which pitted Hamilton against Dutch-Belgian driver Max Verstappen in a world championship-winning match. (That’s a 29% increase from the 2020 equivalent.) My son and I watched this race – the actual race, not a heavily dramatized Netflix version, although we watched it as well. Until then, I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire Grand Prix from start to finish.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton is hoping to regain his world title after losing it in the final race of the 2021 season to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Picture: Netflix

The 2021 final has sparked questions about the uneasy marriage between professional sports and its broadcast partners, including Netflix. Controversial decisions were made mid-race, live on television, creating tension that still simmers today. At the time, few people wondered if those decisions had been made for the benefit of the drivers or the viewers, many of whom were new to the sport and expected the similar levels of drama created by Netflix editors from live racing. Fans were right to wonder: what is real and what is constructed?

In a recent interview, Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff said of Netflix, “It’s scary how much we let them in,” adding, “They create a twist in the narrative. They assembled scenes that didn’t happen. Verstappen declined to give further interviews to the show’s producers, questioning their integrity (“It’s just not my thing to fake rivalries,” said he said recently.) A few days ago, British driver Lando Norris feared that audio recordings of one race in 2021 had been linked to the action of another, creating a false narrative. you ask if the drivers signed up for the distraction of having cameras invading their personal and professional spaces so brazenly (apparently F1 went to Netflix with the brainchild of the show). to the charm of the series. “There are things that can nt be a little too much,” he said. “But overall I think it’s just exciting.”

Formula 1 racing
Drive to Survive aims to bring Grand Prix racing to a wider audience, as “F1 becomes less about the cars and more about the men driving them”. Picture: Netflix

But is all this terrible for F1? Not all viewers think so. Even the show’s mishandling of the sport’s reaction to the BLM move — a few minutes of race-related footage tagged onto one episode — didn’t seem to spark any new interest. The day after the 2021 season, a tweet read: “Better to be a controversial sport than boring.” In the first episode of season four, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali announces: “I have a duty to maximize the value of Formula 1”, in a tone that suggests he will do anything to make it happen. happen, with the Netflix docuseries being just the start.

When we started looking Drive to survive, my son was three years old, too young to grasp the details, I thought. Because Formula 1 characters swear liberally and sometimes completely out of the blue, episodes often play in the background, muted. But I quickly realized that he too was caught up in the drama. Every time we went out in our sensible family car, he expected us to reach impressive and illegal speeds. I remember he was once referring to Daniel Ricciardo, a charming Australian driver who featured prominently in the first series. “We’re Ricciardo, dad,” he said, as we drove down an A road at the legal limit. And then, pointing to a car in front of us: “It’s Leclerc. Catch him!” It was an example of how F1 had seeped into our lives. In the end, we caught him – not Charles Leclerc, the Ferrari driver, but a middle-aged woman , his own children in the back – and as we drove off, my son looked thrilled, but the thrill of this moment was nowhere near what we had had access to on television.