Power, ego and burnt rubber: how ‘Drive To Survive’ saved Formula One

Power, ego and burnt rubber: how Drive to Survive saved Formula 1 | Soho House

After dwindling in popularity in previous years, the Netflix docuseries has geared us all up again for the high-octane sport

Tuesday 3 May 2022   By Johnny Davis

Until last year I’d never heard of Max Verstappen. He probably won’t have lost any sleep over it. Verstappen is 24 years old, worth an estimated $60m and at the peak of his highly competitive profession. His dad is Jos Verstappen, who was even more respected in the 1970s. The Verstappens are world famous – at least to fans of their profession, which is motorsport. Then I gave an episode of Formula 1: Drive To Survive a go, a show Netflix had been telling me was trending at number one. (It turned out Drive To Survive was trending at number one all over the world, and that the third season was even more wildly popular than the first two, something that almost never happens.) 
 
Formula 1: Drive To Survive is a documentary series produced in collaboration with the Formula One Group, the collective of companies responsible for the promotion of the sport, and the exercising of its commercial rights. It proved addictive stuff. After one episode, I reversed back to S1:E1 and binged the lot. Season four arrived on Netflix in March. It’s the best one yet. 
 
I don’t like sport. Until Drive... I thought I especially didn’t like Formula One. It seemed uniquely comprised of serious men with thick Euro accents who were simultaneously blowhards and had nothing to say. Lewis Hamilton was the one driver I could identify. But that’s because his face was never off the front of men’s fashion magazines. And he wore a kilt.  
 
If motor racing seemed particularly unsuited to TV – it was literally cars going round in circles – then amazingly in real life it was even more dull. Dispatched to Brands Hatch one day for a work event, I was bored to tears. The audience seemed to be 100% corporate hospitality – middle-aged men in terrible shape on an all-dayer, chucking back the complimentary Champagne. Meanwhile, out on the track – yes, literally cars going round in circles. Except it was even less interesting than on the telly, because you only saw them for two seconds every 10 minutes. Also, it was too loud. 

Power, ego and burnt rubber: how Drive to Survive saved Formula 1 | Soho House
Power, ego and burnt rubber: how Drive to Survive saved Formula 1 | Soho House

Netflix’s idea has been to turn Formula One into a reality TV show. On the one hand this hardly counts as a brainwave. Other channels have made successful reality TV shows out of men driving trucks, being lumberjacks, breaking ice, and panning for gold. One of those, Gold Rush, has proved so popular it’s had at least nine spin-offs, including Jungle Gold, Ice Cold Gold, Bering Sea Gold and Gold Rush: Freddy Dodge’s Mine Rescue. If they can turn men sieving through mud into ratings gold, then men driving Formula One – with all its squillions of dollars sponsorship, exploding cars and bitter team rivalries – seems worth a punt.  
 
On the other hand, to anyone who isn’t a diehard fan, Formula One’s appeal can be hard to fathom. America has never understood it (too European; it already has NASCAR) and the female audience is unproven (women make up 51% of mainstream media viewership). Also, Formula One is notoriously secretive.  
 
‘In Formula One, it’s not easy to hide anything,’ says Fernando Alonso, the Spanish McLaren driver, in episode one of season one. Except that’s not really true. Largely because there’s so much secrecy over the specs of the cars – the more you spend on your vehicle, the more likely you are to win, as Drive... repeatedly reminds us – it has been a closed shop. 
 
Which makes it even more surprising that it was Formula One who pitched the show to Netflix, in an effort to evolve the league’s digital footprint, dangling the possibility of unprecedented access. By focusing on the characters and not the cars, and using a mix of broadcast footage, recorded interviews and dash-cam angles, it has put the good stuff front and centre. A combustable mix of power struggles, runaway egos and backstabbing, without going into any technical details, the stuff that only really appealed to the geeks anyway. ‘Formula One is The Piranha Club,’ we’re told. Smiling faces, killer instinct. And, so it proved, great TV. 

Power, ego and burnt rubber: how Drive to Survive saved Formula 1 | Soho House

The two biggest teams, Mercedes and Ferrari, passed on season one, which sounds like something akin to trying to make a Premier League series without Manchester City and Chelsea, but the format meant it scarcely mattered. (They’ve been on board since season two.) 
 
Top and tailed in tried-and-tested reality show style – ‘Previously…’ and ‘Coming up…’ and slickly shot in high-drama cutaways, it serves up soap opera archetypes we’re already predisposed to cheer and boo. Pantomime Austrian baddie and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. Heartthrob Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc. Comedy f-bomb dropper and Haas team principal Guenther Steiner. 
 
Sure, it pays not to think about the dialogue too deeply – you’re never far away from being reminded that ‘This Is A Season Like No Other’ and that ‘Failure Is Not An Option’. Or a Colemanballs-esque ‘it’s like chess – whoever gets it right is going to come out on top’. But that’s true of any reality show.  
 
It’s funny, too. The old trick of leaving in the off-hand comments as the interviewees get mic’ed up has produced comedy gold. ‘Testing three, four, nut sack five, six,’ mutters McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo. ‘You’re seeing all these creases in the shirt?’ asks Toto Wolff, of a production assistant brushing him down. ‘No… it’s not the creases, it’s, just…’ ‘Dandruff?’ glowers Wolff.

Power, ego and burnt rubber: how Drive to Survive saved Formula 1 | Soho House
Power, ego and burnt rubber: how Drive to Survive saved Formula 1 | Soho House

For all these reasons and more Drive… has been a runaway hit. At a time when Netflix has been making headlines for losing audiences and money, it’s been a notable piece of good news for the platform. Most impressively it has managed to make Formula One popular in America, and with an American female audience. 
 
As a consequence, TV ratings for the last Grand Prix season in the US were up 40%, while a second race was added to the 2022 season – the first time America has hosted two races since 1984. It’s not just the US – the sport added an estimated 73 million fans last year, in markets including Brazil, China, and France.  
 
In retrospect, the equation of ‘sport, but make it reality TV’ seems like a no-brainer. You wonder why other boring bloke sports haven’t tried it before. Well, good news – they are now. The Toronto Maple Leafs, a Canadian ice hockey team, and the PGA, the organiser of US golf, both have shows in the works using Drive… as a template.  
 
Maybe it’ll work out and they’ll turn millions more onto ice hockey and golf. But it’s hard to imagine they’ll come up with something as compelling as the rivalry between title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen reaching its bitter zenith at the Monaco Grand Prix, as it does in episode three of the most recent season. It’s drama of the highest kind TV can offer. And yeah, I know who Max Verstappen is. 

Power, ego and burnt rubber: how Drive to Survive saved Formula 1 | Soho House
Interested in becoming a member?