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‘Drive to Survive’: falling off a cliff?

Illustration by Minnie Leaver.

Nikita Jain on the Netflix Series Drive to Survive.

As a long-time fan of Formula One, it was with some trepidation that I watched the first season of Drive to Survive when it aired back in 2019. I didn’t know what to expect from a Netflix F1 documentary. It seemed like a completely alien concept to the sport I knew, and one which would damage its reputation rather than bring in new fans. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found myself really enjoying it. The shot of Daniel Ricciardo jumping into the sea as he announced his departure from Red Bull stuck with me. It was particularly powerful as a symbol of him trying to break free from an environment where his teammate was clearly the number one priority. Although if you look at where he is now, compared to where Red Bull are, it’s not difficult to conclude that the man doesn’t always make the wisest of career choices.

Despite the top two teams, Mercedes and Ferrari, refusing to take part in any interviews or grant Netflix behind-the-scenes-access, Drive to Survive’s first outing was a success. There were enough engaging stories up and down the field to fill the 10 episodes. I thought that it was refreshing to draw attention to something other than the fight for the title. The show was unsurprisingly renewed for a second season, which was a similarly enjoyable watch. It also benefitted from episodes centered around Mercedes and Ferrari, who decided to join the fun.

Season Three was where things began to go downhill. Granted, Netflix couldn’t have predicted the interference of a global pandemic, which pushed the start of the season back to July. Also meaning that the crew had limited access to teams in the interest of maintaining Covid-19 bubbles. Nevertheless, the show’s tendencies to overdramatise events and create fake rivalries in the interest of television began to come to the fore.

In Season Two, Anthoine Hubert’s tragic death at the Belgian Grand Prix in 2019 was covered with real poignancy and sensitivity. Romain Grosjean’s fireball accident in Bahrain, on the other hand, was stretched to make it appear as if he was stuck in a burning car for several minutes, with shots of flames interspersed with crew members’ reactions like something out of an Indian serial. There were also some ridiculous editing errors, such as when a collision between the two Ferraris in Austria 2020 was accompanied by a radio message from Brazil 2019. What’s even worse, the original message was in German, not English. I will never understand how that particular segment made it past quality control.

The sport’s newfound focus on equality, diversity and inclusion was only covered in a brief interview with Lewis Hamilton, the world champion from that year, towards the end of the final episode. This gave the impression that the topic was nothing more than an afterthought for the producers.

By this point I had realised that I was not the target audience of Drive to Survive. It’s a show which is meant to introduce new fans to Formula One in an engaging and comprehensible way, aided by the frequent explanations provided by Will Buxton and other journalists working in the sport. Each new season of the show is released in March and covers the previous year’s races. As someone who had already watched pretty much every race and was well aware of the storylines, the only additional access to F1 the show could give me was perhaps a bit of behind-the-scenes content, and angry Guenther Steiner. Nevertheless, the insertion of generic car sounds, choppy editing and overlaid dialogue was became frustrating.

These issues continued into the fourth season, and by the time it aired in March this year, the drivers were starting to pick up on the show’s fake drama element. Max Verstappen, the 2021 Drivers’ World Champion, refused to take part in any interviews, and left his team boss Christian Horner to represent him. Verstappen then went on to criticise the show’s portrayal of McLaren’s Lando Norris and was joined by Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly in his concerns about how drivers, who spend hours in PR meetings and training sessions, are represented in the show. As a viewer, what disappointed me more was the fact that Netflix was given one of the most dramatic and controversial F1 seasons ever as source material, and managed both to create fake storylines and ignore pivotal events throughout the season. There was no mention of the dramatic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the struggles of Aston Martin upon the iconic brand’s return to F1, or even of Kimi Räikkönen’s retirement after two decades in the sport, but we saw Nikita Mazepin talk about clouds, so that’s ok.

In my opinion, many of the show’s issues come down to the overall structure. Each episode revolves around a storyline and follows one or two drivers or teams. What this means is that there is little to no concept of chronology across the season. We frequently flit back and forth between races with no context provided and certain sequences, such as the incident at the start of last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, are repeated frame for frame in two different episodes. This then leads to the forced creation of fake rivalries between drivers and lack of continuity between shots, both of which detract from the overall legitimacy of the show. I’d like to stress that I’m not unique in having this opinion: at the time of writing, ratings on Rotten Tomatoes for Drive to Survive have plummeted from 91% to 15% across the four seasons.

The show has indeed succeeded in its initial aim of attracting new fans, especially in the US. Viewership in the States has increased by 40% since Drive to Survive aired, and a record 400,000 people attended last year’s Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. Several of my friends who had never watched F1 are now ardent fans thanks to the show, and I love the fact that I can share one of my biggest passions with them. But it’s time to stop treating viewers as mindless consumers without any capacity for critical observation.

So, now comes the all-important question: how would I fix Drive to Survive for Season Five? Firstly, ditch the storylines for episodes centered around specific races or groups of races. The British and Hungarian Grands Prix would have greatly benefitted from this in last season. I’m sure the audience is capable of keeping more than one storyline in their head and it would allow for a greater level of emotional connection with the teams and drivers over the course of the season. Then dispense with the cringey overlaid commentary and fake car noises in every other scene. Some improvements to the editing department are also desperately needed. Seriously, I can’t stress enough how infuriating it is to see a car going through a chicane accompanied by audio of a car going flat out along a straight.

Finally, I think the show would benefit from looking at what happens on the track, rather than overhyping stories off it. Whilst the insight into drivers’ mentalities and preparation for the races is interesting, if you want to get new fans on board you should be explaining how the insider access content fits in with the context of the actual season. Otherwise, once the viewers (hopefully) start watching the sport on a regular basis, they’ll be left confused about the technicalities and most likely disappointed that not every race is as dramatic as the show portrays.  Despite the impression you may get from this article, I think that overall, Drive to Survive is a good thing. F1 has never been so widely publicised in mainstream media and its commercial value continues to grow by the day. In my, ever so slightly biased, opinion, it’s also super cool and so anything which increases its popularity is a positive in my book. However, the producers of Drive to Survive need to make sure that it doesn’t send the sport as a whole in the wrong direction, where the spectacle is prioritised above the racing. With plans announced for a Netflix series following eight teams in the run up to the Tour de France, it’s clear that the sports documentary format is here to stay. Let’s make it as authentic as possible.