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Drive to Survive: The Once Catalyst for F1's Resurgency, Now a Joke?


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Adrenaline, tension, and high-stakes drama! These aren't just words to describe Formula 1 but also the essence of Netflix's Drive to Survive. This series has redefined how fans perceive the sport, combining behind-the-scenes access with compelling storytelling. But has it been entirely honest in its portrayal?


Despite all the hype, the latest season received abysmal viewership with a drastic drop of over 20% in its first few weeks of airing. Things were very different when it premiered in 2019, where it was an absolute game-changer. By offering unprecedented access to the lives of drivers and team principals, it hooked both hardcore fans and newcomers. But what fans questioned more and more as the seasons went by was the show's accuracy, the use of chopped-up radio messages, phony sound effects, and sometimes even misleading race footage to add to the drama.


We could call it creative freedom for the greater good and move on, but that would defeat the purpose of this article. So, here's a quick deep dive into Netflix's Drive to Survive, its edit style, and the strategy Netflix has used over the years to keep viewers on edge with all its filmmaking manipulation.



Engines Ignited with a Bang


When the show started at the very beginning, storytelling was a lot simpler. Looking at the very first season, what stands out very obviously is its chronological approach to the entire season. This approach, because of whatever constraint they may have had, was actually pretty kick-ass because it made it easy to connect with so many things that could potentially be overwhelming for a newbie; it was the perfect way to get to know the “characters” and understand their problems. Basically, the makers specifically chose key moments for specific teams and drivers in each race as they traversed through the season.


For example, the episode The Art of War, which talked about the Red Bull-Renault situation, was an absolute standout for me - that's when I realized that F1 wasn't just about the circuit and the car. The episode focused on the intense rivalry between Red Bull and their engine supplier, Renault, and the confrontations between Red Bull's Christian Horner and Renault's Cyril Abiteboul, with layers of political and personal drama leading to the point where Daniel Ricciardo eventually commits harakiri on his racing career.


Christian Horner of Red Bull with Cyril Abiteboul before the 2019 Australian Grand Prix

Also, because they didn’t have access to the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes, they had to heavily rely on the gimmicks of Haas’ Gunther Steiner’s incessant cussing. This is where you see them adopting the use of gags and the all-familiar, for the audience to relate to - and you’ll see how some of these carry on season after season, even if other things around it change.


Once season 1 blew up though, the show became huge, and doors to what was earlier off-limits suddenly opened up. Having become massively huge, with backdoor access to the lives of drivers and team principals, and hardcore BTS footage of each and every team, there was no way Ferrari and Mercedes were going to sit out from this big opportunity for marketing.


And as the boulder that had something going for F1 fans as well as non-F1 fans started rolling down the hill, accumulating more and more momentum, we start seeing a shift in the storytelling and the approach in subsequent seasons.



Shifting Gears in Storytelling


This increased access allowed the show to move away from a strictly chronological narrative to one that prioritized drama and excitement even if it meant bending the truth. For example, in the third episode of season 2, Dogfight, the narrative suggested that Carlos Sainz was struggling much more than he actually was. The show depicted him as being in a closer battle with Ricciardo than in reality, where Sainz was actually killing it.


And that’s when you start seeing the same recipe play out season after season - the pattern of non-chronology, the addition of drama where it didn’t exist, and repeating tropes. From a storytelling perspective, though, the makers had nailed how to cook a plausible story without a recipe. It’s crazy how they did it; it’s almost as if the ingredients and spices are the same each and every time, but the dish tastes different.


There’s also a fair bit of drama brewed by very craftily reusing the same limited race footage again and again in different contexts to keep building tension and amp up the story narrative. This is maybe not something F1 fans appreciate, but from a film perspective, it shows the value of good b-roll lol.



Drive to Popularity


We have had kickass movies like Ford vs Ferrari and the phenomenal Rush in the past. In fact, documentaries like Senna have been equally wild, but no piece of film had ever done it for F1 like Netflix's Drive to Survive has, and how it popularized racing.


Movie poster of Rush, with Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl as James Hunt and Nikki Lauda respectively

In the last five years, we've seen a mad jump in F1’s revenues, and clearly, a ton of credit has to go to the show for that. Why?

  1. Hundreds of thousands of new viewers have accumulated over the years, which means there have been more bidding wars between broadcasters for the airing rights of the sport.

  2. With increased eyeballs, advertising boards across the circuit have started costing a lot more, allowing F1 to make an extra buck.


And the impact on the masses? Like I mentioned before, those who were casual fans who used to watch just a race or two eventually started following whole seasons. And F1 fanatics who followed seasons end-to-end suddenly became fans of Netflix.


With such returns reaped, though, will the crop continue giving year-on-year? This hasn't seemed to be the trend in the last two years, unfortunately. With the latest seasons still focusing on small problems and hyping them up big time, the show has clearly become too much of a pop cultural touchstone to be the same candid, behind-the-scenes novelty. There’s an increasing self-awareness of the series that has made it all the more indulgent.


In fact, it's all of this that has caused polarized views even among drivers. Here’s what Max Verstappen has to say about the show -

Poster of Dutch champion Formula 1 diver Max Verstappen
I didn't like that at all. Because a lot of it is fake. I know what I talked about with my engineers in one race which they used in another Grand Prix just to make it more exciting. That's not okay, that's just sensationalism.


And at the same time, here’s why Esteban Ocon values the show so much -

I think Netflix has changed a lot of my life and career. In difficult times, when I didn't have a seat, that came out and people could actually see In was desperate to have a drive again, and that probably helped my career get back on track.


In Conclusion


All in all, Drive to Survive has been monumental in being a proponent of F1's wild rise. I mean, F1, being such a niche sport, didn't even rank in the top 10 most-watched sports until a point. Drive to Survive set out to widen the fan base of F1, especially pulling crowds from the US and India, where it had previously struggled to gain a foothold.

The show has played a pivotal role in F1's resurgence. By combining high-quality filmmaking with the real-life drama of motorsport, Netflix has created a product that connects with a wide audience. And yes, there’s a ton of Hollywood-esque drama, which is important to fix if it wants to continue making the right kind of impact like they did before, but the effect is still undeniable. So, whether you're tuning in for the drama or the racing, one thing's clear - Drive to Survive has changed the game.


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