For many people around the world, this past year and a half has brought a flurry of new hobbies, interests and tastes. The same applied to me, particularly when it came time for binge-watching. I quickly checked off movie after movie, tv shows, documentaries––it was the most productive I had been in years. So, when I finally arrived at the end of my “to watch later” list this summer, endless scrolling through Netflix, HBO Max and Amazon Prime commenced. Nothing caught my eye until my best friend mentioned that all the 30-something dads at her internship were obsessed with a show about Formula One. I knew a few basics of F1––Lewis Hamilton, car racing, Monaco Grand Prix. But hey, I grew up watching all the “Fast and Furious” movies and love watching anything with competition, so I thought I would give it a try. Fast forward a few months later and my Twitter feed is now filled with Lando Norris fan accounts, I have an early Sunday morning alarm set to watch the next Grand Prix and according to my friends and family, I seemingly never shut up about Formula One and the Netflix show that pulled me into this global phenomenon.
In March 2018, Netflix and Formula One announced Netflix’s plans to create a docuseries following F1 teams for the 2018 championship season, providing the streaming service with unprecedented access to teams, their principals and drivers. Titled “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” the first season, composed of 10 episodes, was released in March 2019 and subsequently renewed for a second and third season, which premiered February 2020 and March 2021, respectively (Deadline 2018). The decision to allow Netflix access into the paddocks and lives of F1’s stars was no doubt motivated by the desire of American-based Liberty Media, the current owners of the Formula One Group, to expand auto racing’s fan base, particularly in the United States. The decision has proven to be a brilliant one, as the sport looks to add a second U.S. Grand Prix in Miami starting in 2022 and expects 20,000 additional fans at the 2021 U.S. Grand Prix in Austin (The New York Times 2021). Although Netflix has not fully revealed the streaming numbers for the series, ESPN reported an average of 928,000 viewers per race in the U.S. for 2021 so far, way up from the 547,000 average in 2018 (The New York Times 2021). The success of “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” aligns with the recent trend of leagues inviting streaming services into the lives of teams in-season, such as HBO and NFL Films’ “Hard Knocks”, the NHL’s “Road to the Winter Classic”, and Amazon Studio’s “All or Nothing.” The intrusiveness of these shows may play into the struggles so many athletes have had with media, boundaries and interactions, but fans are obsessed, so expect more to come.
For “Formula 1,” the triumph of the series lies in its ability to easily explain the basic dynamics of the sport, centering on not only the drivers behind the wheel, but also those who are behind the racing strategy. F1 has unique aspects, such that not every team is seriously competing for the championship every year. F1 is the highest class of open-wheeled auto-racing managed by Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), motorsport’s world-governing body. Every World Championship season, which begins in early March and ends in early December, is composed of seven to 21 Grands Prix that take place on at least three continents. Currently, 10 teams compete—with each team represented by two drivers—for the Constructors’ Championship (awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the season) and for the Drivers’ Championship (awarded to the driver with the most points). Points are awarded to the first 10 finishers at every Grand Prix, as well as the driver with the fastest lap. The first place winner earns 25 points, and the points decrease from there, ending with the 10th place finisher earning one point. At the end of each season, the Constructors’ champion receives the biggest pay-out from the league’s apportioned revenue and the percentage of those profits decrease for each place awarded.
Although each team has to adhere to FIA regulations and have the same number of drivers racing, there are huge discrepancies in each team’s ability to realistically achieve success. Only three teams truly compete for the Constructors’ year in and year out––Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull––simply because they are the only ones able to afford it. The three are no doubt the biggest companies in motorsport, with brand exposure around the world, and therefore are able to operate with much larger budgets that can go into engineering, salaries and marketing. Mid-level and smaller teams who are not globally renowned brands––such as Haas, Williams and Alfa Romeo––do not have the means to attract the best minds to design their cars, the status to attract high-level investors or the budgets to pay the most talented drivers. Although the FIA recently enacted its first-ever budget cap for teams in an effort to make the seasons more competitive, multiple exclusions regarding salaries and marketing costs still exist that will maintain the advantage the bigger teams have over the smaller ones (Autoweek 2021).
Despite the gaps that are present in the races, the Netflix series goes out of its way to highlight the journeys of these smaller teams. For the first season, both Ferrari and Mercedes declined Netflix access to their teams, which in turn allowed the show to focus on the commentaries and storylines surrounding Haas, Williams and others. Ferrari and Mercedes did end up signing on for the second and third seasons, but the series still takes time to focus on the achievements and struggles of the mid-level and lower-bracket teams.
Episodes are usually framed around one team, driver or Grand Prix, while interviews that have been conducted throughout the year, media interactions and race performances help guide the plotline of the episode. The interviews and footage with drivers and team principals (a team’s head boss) are strikingly candid, providing audiences with real insight into the personalities of people competing at the highest level of motorsport. In comparison to U.S. sports interviews, in which athletes are often conditioned to offer professional, neutral-sounding answers and avoid being baited, the F1 personalities willingly grant critiques, distastes and excitement for their teams and competitors alike both for the show and for media throughout the season. Rivalries and drama are often set up from these dialogues between drivers and teams, and while some of these are staged and dramatized by the producers, many play out in real life as well. It is famously known that Red Bull team principal Christian Horner hates Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, and Daniel Ricciardo recently admitted that, although they are friends now, both him and Max Verstappen, his teammate from 2016-18, deliberately tried to knock each other out of competition while teammates, a rivalry that played out heavily in the plotlines of the first season of “F1” (planetf1 2021).
The series definitely plays up the drama that exists in the paddocks between and within teams, but it also exposes audiences to the humanity of these athletes who face the possibility of death everytime they compete. Among the drivers, there is no shortage of arrogance or gross wealth (there is almost always a nepotism tie somewhere), but the reality is that they risk their lives each time they get behind the wheel. That takes a toll physically and mentally on every employee, fan and family member around. Despite the danger of their profession, so many of the drivers ooze charm, likeability and easygoingness; it’s amazing that it’s a serious possibility any one of them could die in their next race.
For this current F1 season, it seems Netflix won’t even have to stage or create its own drama. The fierce rivalry that has emerged between Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Max Verstappen of Red Bull has been dirty on and off the track. Mercedes has won the past seven Constructors’ Championships and Hamilton has won the past four Drivers’ Championships, but Red Bull and Verstappen are staging real competition this year. Hamilton, no doubt one of the sport’s all-time greats, is behind Verstappen, the future king of the sport, by four points, while Mercedes only leads Red Bull by 19 points. Crashes, challenges for harsher penalties and words over social media have been exchanged over the past month; the Netflix episode has essentially written itself.
Although I binged “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” and have been keeping up with the current season since July, there is still much for me to understand and learn about the sport from penalties and rules to engineers. There has been criticism from the long-time fans of the dramatization and staging done by the show, and I am a long way from becoming a die-hard fan for any team or driver (I was recently scolded by a friend’s dad that “cuteness” shouldn’t be a factor in determining whether a driver is fast or not––I beg to differ). But if you’re a little bored with your Netflix list recently, I suggest “Formula 1: Drive to Survive”––and let me know how long it takes for you to be watching live races. It took me two weeks. See you this Sunday at 7 a.m.