F1 ‘Drive to Survive’ Producers Say They’ve Turned Sport Into a Soap Opera
- Over 50 million people tuned in to watch Formula One’s Netflix series Drive to Survive last year.
- Ahead of season four, which releases on March 11, Insider spoke to its two executive producers.
- “It’s a soap opera,” James Gay-Rees told Insider. “People invest in the characters.”
documentary “Drive to Survive” is on the face of it, just that. An F1 documentary that gives fans of the sport unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to their favorite teams and drivers.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that the show is much more than your regular sports docuseries. It’s a cinematic phenomenon that has pushed the popularity of F1 to uncharted heights.
Launched in early 2019 and now in its fourth season, which premieres on March 11, over 50 million people tuned in to watch the show in 2021 alone.
At the same time, Formula One added an estimated 73 million fans last year in markets including Brazil, China and France.
Viewership figures for the sport in the United States are also at an all-time high, with over 400,000 fans attending the 2021 US Grand Prix in Austin, and one million more watching the race on television.
“When we finished season one, I don’t think we had any expectations,” Paul Martin, one of the show’s two executive producers, told Insider. “We hoped people were going to like it and were going to see it as a fresh take on this world.
“We certainly didn’t set out to land it with a particular audience or particular demographic. But, you know, we just became acutely aware, particularly in the United States, that people were just talking about it and that the audience is there.”
The show is as much about humans and relationships than tenths of seconds and aerodynamics
A huge part of the appeal of Drive to Survive is that it forgoes most of F1’s technical complexities.
There are no explanations of how the cars are made and no scenes discussing the nuances of the sport’s ever-changing technical regulations.
Instead, the series peels back F1 to what the average viewer really wants to see — action, drama, and more action.
In season one, we saw Carlos Sainz Jr. battle with his idol and countryman Fernando Alonso; Red Bull boss Christian Horner embroiled in a war of words with Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul; and Roman Grosjean fight desperately to keep his seat with Haas.
Season two detailed Haas’ disastrous relationship with former sponsor Rich Energy; Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc’s intra-team rivalry at Ferrari; and the death of F1 icon Niki Lauda.
In season three, Lewis Hamilton opened up on his experiences of racism and Grosjean was involved in a fiery crash which produced an Oscar-worthy seven-minute segment of drama and tension.
“It was definitely a deliberate attempt to move away from that techy stuff,” said Martin. “And that’s not because we’re not interested in that stuff, but it’s hard to portray it in a relatable way.
“The audience don’t need to know and understand that stuff to enjoy F1. If you do, I’m sure it enhances the experience if that’s your thing, but the majority of audience, they don’t want to know.”
The human side of F1 was on display more than ever in season four — which Insider watched ahead of the show’s release date.
Straight from the off, Horner mouths off at how desperate he is to stop Hamilton winning a record eighth driver’s championship and Mercedes winning an eighth consecutive constructor’s championship.
“Stay calm, we will get the fuckers,” he says barely a minute into the first episode, setting the scene for his and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff’s relationship to become uglier as time goes on.
Episode two explores the difficult relationship between Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris, who struggle to see eye-to-eye in their first season together at McClaren.
“That’s not good news” said Ricciardo after finishing behind the young Norris in qualifying at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix.
Later in the series, we see Nikita Mazepin throw tantrum after tantrum because of his car and his father, whose company Uralkali was Haas’ main sponsor last season, threaten to pull the plug on the team.
“It’s a soap opera,” James Gay-Rees, Drive to Survive’s other executive producer, told Insider.
“Television works when it’s relatable. So, you know, the fact that we basically humanize these drivers and take the helmets off, you realize they are not just units you stick in a car to make go, you know, they’re kids who’ve just got x and y going on in their lives.
“It’s the same with any sport, as soon as you kind of get away from the PR version of modern sport and get into the actuality of it, people invest in the characters.
“F1 has always been a very arm’s length sport, but now it feels like it’s up close and personal.”
Capturing the drama isn’t always easy
As, in the words of Gay-Rees, a notoriously “arm’s length sport” — gaining the trust of F1’s drivers and teams was, and remains, a challenge for the producers.
Mercedes and Ferrari, two of the F1’s biggest teams, refused to be part of the first season, while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen — whose world championship victory the series focuses on — did not take part in season four, citing concerns that the series creates false narratives around drivers.
“The whole thing is always a trust building exercise,” said Gay-Rees. “And you know, the thing, it just takes time, you can’t fast forward that kind of relationship.
“The younger drivers who are more socially media aware or whatever, they get it, because everybody’s filming everything all the time these days.
“It’s totally normalized now, isn’t it? So the younger generation, I think, are like, ‘Bring it on.’ Even ones you wouldn’t expect, like, Charles [Leclerc] and Carlos [Sainz] at Ferrari are totally into it, even though they’re part of this massive team.
“It’s the older drivers who are like, ‘I don’t need it.’ But at the same time, you do need to earn the trust and that’s where the balance comes into it.”
One man who certainly doesn’t shy away from the camera during season four, as he hasn’t in any of the preceding seasons, is Ricciardo.
The Italian-Australian driver is often on hand to lend a gleaming smile or funny comment for the cameras, none more hilarious than when claims the cockpit DJ should be “fucking shot” for playing the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” ahead of the sprint race in Monza.
“Trying to get in the zone, and they take you right out of it,” he said. “Seriously, who thinks this is a good idea?!”
For all his charm and confidence, however, Ricciardo also shows his vulnerable side, with one particular moment in episode two highlighting just what makes Drive to Survive so unique.
After finishing 12th in qualifying at the Monaco Grand Prix, the 32-year-old took a moment to reflect on his difficult start to life at McClaren, sitting down on the pavement with his head in his hands.
“It’s embarrassing,” he told two of his McClaren team members. “What if I’m just a cunt?”
Speaking about the moment, Gay-Rees said: “He didn’t tell the cameras to stop rolling, and it’s great because it’s totally unvarnished, he’s having a proper moment.
“He’s this all-smiling, lovable character and you see him having an absolute fucking wobble, which can happen to anybody, right?
“That’s what makes the show work.”