Does Drive to Survive do more damage than justice?

Pits for the 2021 Baku F1 race Azerbaijan: Jacob Capener, Unsplash

Updated: Feb 1, 2023 6:17 pm

Season 5 of Netflix’s popular Formula 1 documentary series returns, unfortunately to many, on the 24th of February 2023. Following the 2022 season of the sport crowning Max Verstappen as a two-time world champion, this season returns with much-anticipated drama and plotlines. While Drive to Survive is a widely popular series bringing in millions of viewers for both Netflix and Formula 1, it is interesting to consider the wider implications it has on the sport. With constant dramatization of on and off-track events, does Drive to Survive do more damage to Formula 1 than justice?

Initially airing in 2019 following the filming of Formula 1’s 2018 season, Drive to Survive showcased the world of motorsport to viewers. Formula 1 has never been as popular of a sport as football or cricket and has struggled in the last decade to appeal to the next generation, so the advent of a popular Netflix series was bound to impact the sport in so many ways. Before Netflix, Formula 1 had no worries about cash – this sport has always been the wealthiest pinnacle of motorsport, but Netflix has made Formula 1 as bountiful as ever. Audience engagement, however, has always lacked prominence and impact compared to other sports. For a while, Formula 1 fans were greeted with glances and questions inquiring why someone would follow a sport that simply shows cars driving in a circle. If Drive to Survive has done anything right, it is to demonstrate the intricacies and technicalities of the sport, thankfully distinguishing Formula 1 from Nascar.

Being a behind-the-scenes docuseries, Drive to Survive seemingly created a perfect blend of sports and entertainment. Taking viewers through the perspectives of different drivers, teams, and cycling through races across the calendar was certainly a logistical nightmare that paid off. The first season featured what many would call the ‘underdogs’ of Formula 1 with the notable absence of Mercedes and Ferrari from the narrative. Initially refusing to take part in the series due to the possibility of distractions and breaches, Netflix was forced to focus on creating a wider narrative for the sport that attracted viewers immensely. With a majority of Formula 1’s marketing at the time focused on Mercedes and Ferrari, with a little dash of Redbull, fans saw a fresh perspective with the focus on the remaining teams. Fans were thrilled to see Haas’ Gunther Steiner characterised in a new way, equally as unexpected as it was predictable to see his theatrics birth an entire fanbase based on his behaviour in the paddock.

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Drivers such as Daniel Ricciardo were central to Drive to Survive in the first few seasons, shining a light on his personality and efforts to integrate into a new team. With light shining on drivers like Ricciardo, Gasly, and Norris, positive publicity was prevalent. Arguably before Drive to Survive, there was far less TikTok ridiculousness in the form of flattery towards these drivers. Intended to portray some drivers in a positive light, there are also some who have previously expressed their disdain towards Drive to Survive. Max Verstappen was absent from season 4 of the series due to the way Netflix “faked a few rivalries” and mischaracterised many figures in Formula 1 – he has now decided to return to the show after settling his differences with the Netflix crew.  

Despite his return to the series in the upcoming season, Verstappen makes a relevant point regarding the dramatization of the sport. At the end of the day, Drive to Survive is a drama series intended to stir the plot and create a conversation, so much so that the expectation of truth and accuracy is beyond reasoning. The selective footage and dramatised editing make for good tv, but for loyal fans who watched every race, and press conference, and read all the news first-hand, it may seem like a betrayal. Other figures in Formula 1 such as Jenson Button have acknowledged that although the series is great for bringing in fans, he does “know what’s fake and what isn’t”, crediting to simply watching the sport.

The latest season of Drive to Survive was estimated to have pulled in 5 million viewers in the first week of its release. It is likely that within those millions, there are millions of new fans discovering Formula 1 through the Netflix series in addition to those returning to watch their favourites on screen. Paired with the expansion of Formula 1 in the USA, it is clear that the future of the sport is big. The new Las Vegas Grand Prix is set to be spectacular in grandeur to promote the sport in the USA where Formula 1 has typically been overshadowed by Nascar. With the USA being an amazing market for the sport, prioritising entertainment and glamour, Formula 1 is going to be bringing in the big bucks.

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All in all, how far will the sport go to expand its reach and cash? Formula 1 already has an incredibly solid fanbase so the prominence of Drive to Survive has only increased the viewership, but rather by luring fans with drama. Since Drive to Survive, there has been an increase in the invasion of privacy into drivers’ lives with fans practically obsessing over Charles Leclerc’s split with his girlfriend to the extent that he had to post a breakup announcement accompanying a request for privacy. Although this was bound to happen the more the sport grew in popularity, it is important to consider the impact and consequences that the Netflix series has had on the fans.

Since Drive to Survive has portrayed Redbull as the underdogs of Formula 1 in comparison to Mercedes and Ferrari, there has been a large increase in Verstappen fans. With this, we have also seen an increase in violence and harassment from fans often sporting Verstappen merchandise at races. An instance of this was during the latest Austrian Grand Prix, with over 50,000 Dutch fans attending to support Verstappen: sexual harassment, racism, and homophobia were reported to have come from these fans at the Grand Prix. Figures all throughout Formula 1 condemned this behaviour, including Verstappen who was shocked and found this to be unacceptable.

In addition to this, there have been many instances where rivalries between fanbases have made drivers uncomfortable and fuelled conversations about fan behaviour throughout the sport. Hamilton fans took to booing Verstappen at Silverstone, while Verstappen fans took to booing Hamilton in Austria. Of course, fan rivalries accompany drivers’ championship battles, but it is clear that lately fan behaviour has become far more erratic than it used to be, now to the point where it began to affect drivers’ personal relationships. Prior to 2021, Hamilton and Verstappen were friendly, at the very least, on track and in the press. They may not have been friends outside of the sport, but there was far less tension arguably fuelled by the fans.

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Even online behaviour has become far more invasive and abusive towards drivers and teams, with fans throwing abuse at Hannah Schmitz, Redbulls’ Chief Strategist. Many drivers such as Hamilton have taken breaks from social media due to online abuse and hate being so prominent. While this issue is prevalent throughout sports in general, it just goes to show that with the modern expectation of constant content from our favourite athletes, fans are perhaps becoming far too invested and invasive. Parasocial relationships are incredibly common, and it is proving to be ridiculously unhealthy for fans to delve this deep into the lives of athletes.

Though Drive to Survive may not be entirely to blame for this handful of issues emerging in Formula 1, it certainly did catalyse it. Bringing in new fans is always a blessing; they increase the numbers, the money, the glamour, and all. However, maybe it is time for Formula 1 to consider in which manner it would be beneficial to promote the sport. Would you rather stay true to the heart of the sport, or bring in new fans who were lured by drama?

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