How “Drive to Survive” Remade Formula 1

In 2012, a GQ reporter asked the British race-car driver Lewis Hamilton what it would take for Formula 1 to catch on in the United States. The league was preparing to bring a race to America for the first time in five years, to Austin, Texas, but there was the lingering question of whether anybody would care. Nascar was America’s motorsport of choice; Formula 1 was the debonair European stepsibling whose competitions were held in places such as Azerbaijan and Monaco, and whose races were referred to as Grands Prix. Hamilton, who is the only Black person to have ever raced in Formula 1, offered the reporter a simple answer: “It’s really a matter of getting the car in front of people,” he said. “Once you hear it and see it, feel the noise—then maybe they’ll turn out for a race.”

Ten years later, Hamilton is a global superstar with seven world championships under his belt—and six wins in Austin—but Formula 1 is only just beginning to persuade America’s stubborn sports-watching audience. It was not the sensory effect of the cars that accomplished such a mission, but reality television. For the last three years, Netflix has masterfully chronicled the grand melodramas and intricate microdynamics of Formula 1 (which is often characterized as a travelling circus) in a tight, zippy series called “Drive to Survive,” a show that largely overlooks the complex and fiercely guarded technological aspects of the sport in favor of its delicious and diverse buffet of big personalities. International playboys, Machiavellian billionaires, humble heroes, racing-world royalty, overachieving underdogs, aging has-beens, hotheaded bullies: “Drive to Survive” has them all. “Formula 1 is the ultimate competition: you’ve got drama, competitiveness, high stakes, politics,” Christian Horner, a steely Brit married to Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and the team boss of Red Bull, says. Horner, a game participant in the show, is portrayed as a weasel constantly maneuvering to gain favor with the sport’s governing body. (He’s described by a rival team boss as “a bit like a Jack Russell terrier who will snap at your heels.”) “The drivers have an almost fighter-pilot-like mentality,” Horner tells the camera.

Each season of “Drive to Survive”—the fourth arrives on Netflix this week—captures the previous racing year’s major moments and controversies, documenting the development of the Formula 1 circuit almost in real time. The show takes the ambition and the grandeur of marquee sports documentaries and scales them down to bingeable reality-TV size. Conceived of and pitched to Netflix by Formula 1’s parent company in an effort to evolve the league’s digital footprint, the series is a potent mix of propaganda and high drama that affirms the power of the content-industrial complex and the promise of access journalism. And it’s working: Formula 1 viewership has increased nearly fifty per cent worldwide since the show débuted, and a second U.S. race has been added to the lineup for 2022, taking place in Miami this summer.

Anyone who watches “Drive to Survive”—even those with no prior interest in motorsport, which is how I described myself until recently—will understand immediately why Formula 1 is a worthy subject. The racing world is rife with idiosyncrasies that seem almost as if they were created to drum up controversy. The sport has ten teams of car manufacturers, each with two drivers. Each team’s budget and resources vary wildly depending on how much sponsorship it can generate; the more money, the faster the car, generally speaking. This means that each driver’s greatest competition is often his teammate, the only person on the same mechanical playing field. The glory-seeking pursuits of the individual drivers are in constant battle with the collective efforts of the team; this often results in fireworks on the racetrack. And the struggle for eighth or ninth place is often just as high-stakes as the pursuit of a World Championship. “Drive to Survive” portrays the sport as a Darwinist battle in which a driver is only as good as his last race and contracts can dry up in the blink of an eye. There’s a particularly painful scene in the new season in which Jost Capito, the sprightly German boss of Williams Racing—a legendarily dominant team that has fallen on hard times and dropped to dead last in the standings—explains the logistical humiliation of being last. At the races, teams are systematically organized according to their standings, which means that the last-place team has the longest walk to the racetrack.

The popularity of “Drive to Survive” has produced a curious meta-narrative within the sport. The series is now forced to be aware not just of Formula 1 but of itself. Season 4 opens with a montage of tweets from fans expressing giddy anticipation for a new season. Another episode centers on a young hot-shot driver named George Russell, who’d been overlooked in the previous season. “I’d had a bit of banter about not being included in the last season, on my social media,” he says to a producer, as he sits down to shoot an interview. “I don’t know if you saw that.” It points to a new kind of broken fourth wall between the world of sports and entertainment, pioneered by Netflix. “Cheer,” a similarly exhilarating Netflix docuseries about the world of junior-college cheerleading, became a global phenomenon in early 2020. Much of its second season, which aired earlier this year, documents the effects of the notoriety that the Netflix series brought the team.

As a sport, Formula 1 is also aware of the prying eyes of “Drive to Survive.” Last year’s championship battle between the long-standing victor Lewis Hamilton (Team Mercedes) and the young challenger Max Verstappen (Team Red Bull) ended in a most controversial fashion: Race officials made a contentious and knotty call in the final laps of the last race of the season that led to a one-lap shoot-out to determine the season’s World Champion, during which Verstappen dethroned Hamilton. Some Formula 1 fans are still arguing over whether the call was made in an effort to maximize drama, partly with Netflix in mind. The new season zooms in on the battle between Mercedes and Red Bull, which boiled over and produced a number of scary crashes and sparring in the press—a dimension for the sport that the Mercedes boss Toto Wolff characterizes as M.M.A.-like. And yet the potential contaminating effects of such a series seem like a worthwhile trade-off: given the success of “Drive to Survive,” other major sports desperate for fresh eyes, such as tennis and golf, have signed on to make similar series. The appeal of sports is that they maintain, at their core, a kind of vanishingly rare objectivity. On the field or in the stadium, the scoreboard tells the truth. In racing, the stopwatch never lies. These dictums may soon be rivalled by a new refrain: Content is king.

People tend to imagine racing as a straightforward endeavor forged between a man and his car, but “Drive to Survive” illuminates the expansive logistical and financial burdens of a Formula 1 team. Some teams have thousands of employees, and a single engine—which is always at risk of destruction at two hundred miles per hour—can cost more than ten million dollars. It’s the sort of extravagantly dangerous and rarefied sport that attracts billionaire investors who promptly install their sons in much sought-after slots on a team. This is what happened in 2020, when, at the risk of financial ruin, the Haas Formula 1 team accepted sponsorship from a Russian fertilizer mogul named Dmitry Mazepin. Mazepin slotted his son, Nikita, into one of the Haas cars, which had been refashioned with Russian-flag colors and branded with the name of his company. Season 4 of “Drive to Survive” features an episode about the Mazepin family’s tyrannical influence on the team, and the endless frustration of team principal Guenther Steiner—a charismatic Tyrolean prone to fits of both fury and joy, and one of the heroes of the show. Steiner seems to experience nothing but humiliation and failure, which he weathers with levity and charm. In the ruthless landscape of Formula 1, a sport that swiftly punishes its many losers, this raises the question: Would Steiner be able to retain his job if “Drive to Survive” had not turned him into a folk hero?

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine and corporations around the world began severing ties with Russia, Formula 1 announced that it would not hold its annual race in Sochi in 2022. Haas terminated its relationship with Dmitry Mazepin, who’d been pictured meeting with Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. His son was removed from the team and replaced with Kevin Magnussen, one of the team’s beloved former stars who’d lost his seat in Formula 1 when the Mazepin family entered the picture. It was a wild and almost unthinkable collision of geopolitics, money, and sports, complete with clear-cut storybook villains and heroes. Surely, it will make for a fantastic episode of “Drive to Survive.”

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