On any given weekend, there are more people competing at your local squash club than there are for the World Drivers’ Championship during a season of Formula One. Ten itty-bitty teams of two seems more akin to how Madeline’s Miss Clavel might escort her pupils down a Parisian walkway than the infrastructure of the world’s most prestigious motor racing competition. And yet, three years ago, Netflix introduced the uninitiated masses to this uniquely constructed sport in the form of sport docuseries–cum–reality show Drive to Survive. Three seasons later, ESPN F1 viewership has nearly doubled. And as the series heads into its fourth iteration, even sports dummies like myself have made it a tradition to tune in and marvel at how the Drive to Survive editors weave a tapestry of narrative momentum, soaring plotlines, and intimate character arcs out of those 20 drivers shuffling around their pole positions (a phrase I totally know now!).
If there are two things that Season 4 of Drive to Survive pounds home, it’s that Formula One is a highly personal sport, and that its points are won and lost by the finest of margins. (If there is a third thing, it’s that Christian Horner is married to Ginger Spice.) The former is such an obvious mining ground for television; it’s a wonder no one had thought to dramatize it sooner—and that TV producers haven’t tried to replicate the same notion in other individual sports. That’s easier said than done, though, because Formula One is better positioned to showcase the interpersonal dynamics of its players. Only one sport pits its teammates against one another, and then asks them to work together; only one sport features 20 dudes in the entire league who are forced to interact with one another day in and day out, both on and off the track. That those dudes happen to possess necks the size of a farmers-market watermelon, watches worth an annual paycheck, fluency in multiple languages, and hair so coiffed it could make a boyband member weep … is just the icing on the televised cake.
Beyond the joy of watching 20 chic men go fast in their zoom-zoom cars, Drive to Survive offers a compelling exploration of Formula One’s aforementioned fine margins: watching how the back of the pack and the midrange teams shift around to create riveting stories of success and failure within a sport that, from the outside, seemed to be dominated by one driver and one team for years. Alas, in Season 4, the sport’s signature fine margins have finally caught up with that very driver and that very dominant team, forcing the series to actually foreground the brutal battle for the championship between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen—a battle that ultimately comes down to one lap in one race, and the extremely subjective call made by one man who shall remain nameless, lest Toto Wolff break down my door like the Kool-Aid Man for even mentioning Michael Masi. (Oh, shit.)
To no one’s surprise who’s watched the show, the sudden shift in Drive to Survive’s endgame—from stakes that only a Formula One fan could understand (the difference between 10th and 11th place for a team like Williams Racing) to stakes that anyone could understand (the race between first and second place)—dull the more personalized shine that characterized the first three seasons. Of course, there’s also the fact that the narration of the season’s biggest story ultimately falls to their team principals, Wolff and Horner: men who spend so much time making analogies about the appropriate uses for testicles that I think I might owe someone a copay, and whose bickering threatens to turn this into an “Oops! All Villains” season of Drive to Survive.
But between the new contracts, unexpected friendships, and even more unexpected podium results, the Drive to Survive editors wind up finding just enough underdog narrative to go around. And while I may be a Formula One novice (I intentionally maintain a Drive to Survive ONLY canon), I am a reality TV expert, and I’m here to tell you that the most important players in a good reality show are its editors. Part of the fun is in watching them work their magic; in reading between the lines of the stories they’ve chosen to tell, and the characters they’ve chosen to highlight … or absolutely decimate. They’re not here to tell the whole story of the 2021 F1 season. They’re here to tell the good ones, no matter how subjective their place within the overall narrative might be.
So, for Formula One fans too exasperated to watch Season 4 for fear of watching your favorites misrepresented; for newcomers who repeatedly need to switch between eight Formula1.com tabs to keep up with who is racing when, where, and for whom; for anyone in the middle who definitely knows what a pole position is, but doesn’t understand the complete lack of Sebastian Vettel … this ranking of F1 drivers based solely on their Season 4 Drive to Survive packaging is for you. I call it, the Protagonist Podium:
Honorary Sub-10 Mentions (No Points)
Nikita Mazepin: Despite devoting an entire episode to the reconstruction of the ruined Haas team, Netflix seems unwilling or unable to get into the true messiness of what’s bubbling beneath the surface of Nikita Mazepin (and his fertilizer-rich Russian oligarch father Dmitry), whose only commonality with his teammate, Mick Schumacher, seems to be that they both look like they would absolutely pummel Ralph Macchio in an ’80s movie. Mazepin is portrayed as an—how do I put this?—entitled little crybaby whom no one will tell is a bad driver because of his father’s money, and even if the editors do offer him a small glimmer of hope in the end, he’s no protagonist. (However, if this were a ranking of protagonist principals, it would surely be topped by everyone’s favorite mountain-climbing curmudgeon Guenther Steiner, who, rest assured, still speaks like if Logan Roy was cast to play George Bluth.)
Charles Leclerc: Leclerc is always going to have eyes the color of dew-dappled grass, and he’s always going to have the vibe of someone wearing a three-piece suit even when he’s wearing a bandanna and coveralls. Unfortunately, Leclerc’s physical embodiment of a Formula One racer doesn’t always translate into a reality TV hero’s journey. Especially not when Netflix replays the tragic moment when he had to retire his Ferrari at his home race in Monaco as a part of everyone else’s hero journey.
Pierre Gasly: Did I miss the time with Pierre “Now We’re Gonna Score Some Fucking Points” Gasly that I’ve come to expect out of a Drive to Survive season? Yes, I did. But it was also quite adorable seeing him suddenly cast as the enlightened older teammate attempting to bridle his rookie teammate’s more reckless instincts.
Nicholas Latifi: Williams got points! Williams got pooooooints! That long, humbling walk to the paddock just got a little shorter for Jost Capito thanks to Latifi and George Russell. (Of course, Latifi alone is the central impetus for the most chaotic end to a season in Formula One history, but Netflix just … never really gets into that!)
The Protagonist Points Earners
10. Carlos Sainz (one point, and another BFF zigzag heart for his charm bracelet full of them)
There may be a few faster drivers in Formula One than Carlos Sainz, but Season 4 has made it clear that there’s no better teammate. (There’s also no better head of hair in Formula One, but you really only need eyes to notice that.) Not even frequently swapping pole positions can keep LeClerc from waxing poetic about his new teammate, and when former teammate Lando Norris talks about seeing Sainz walking around the paddock in Ferrari red, he sounds like a seventh grader sadly describing his best friend who transferred schools. It’s fun to watch egotistical clashes in fast cars, sure—but it’s also fun to watch nice guys who just so happen to be incredibly gifted athletes with a gajillion dollars.
Best moment: Watching Sainz and LeClerc carefully piece together a text message to ask Norris how long his new McLaren contract runs. Formula One stars—they’re just like us!
9. Lando Norris (two points, and free rent inside his new teammate’s head)
In Season 4, Young Lando is mostly positioned as a foil to his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, but there’s no denying Norris’s consistent success. As Christian Horner says about Ricciardo’s unfortunate luck having to stand next to Norris: “The fact that Lando’s younger, he’s a good-looking young lad, he’s driving the wheels off that car, and he’s funny. … I mean, it couldn’t be worse.” But it could be worse—Norris could have gotten more screen time! But even with his limited story line, I did appreciate Lando addressing a common misunderstanding: Just because two people have funny personalities doesn’t mean that their senses of humor will mesh well. Stop asking these two clowns to dance, and just let them drive!
Best moment: Lando sticking to his guns about not feeling sorry for his teammate—he don’t!
8. Yuki Tsunoda (four points, and a load of laundry)
Every class needs a clown, and every Formula One season needs a rookie who thinks they don’t have to do their many, many neck exercises, or learn how to use a washing machine. Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri’s new driver from Japan, happens to be both. He’s yet to learn how to use his f-words a little more modestly on the radio, he always announces when he’s going to the toilet and exactly what he’ll be doing there, and when we set eyes upon his big boy apartment, it looks like he hasn’t picked up a single thing off the floor since moving to England. You know what they say: messy house, messy mind. And team principal Franz Tost agrees! Once he ships Yuki off to live in Italy, where the team can have a firmer hand in helping him focus, Yuki stops crashing every car he sits down in, and gets a sixth-place finish in Hungary.
Best moment: As far as catchphrases go, “Fuck! Sorry!” is a pretty signature one, and I’m tempted to make a compilation of Yuki calling that out each time he crashes. But between the road rage, the inability to hide his yawns during business meetings, and complaining about exercising from beginning to end, Yuki’s best moment is simply being a relatable prince.
7. Max Verstappen (six points, and also 395.5 points and a World Championship to call his own)
It would be impossible to create a protagonist podium without including the 2021 season’s actual main character, winner of the Drivers’ Championship Max Verstappen. And despite Verstappen’s refusal to participate in Netflix interviews this season, the editors still attempted to create a narrative around him. It’s not exactly one of a villain—but it is one of someone trading ambiguously faulted crashes back and forth with Lewis Hamilton until one of them either gets grievously injured or wins a championship, whichever comes first (thank goodness it was the latter). You have to imagine that in a different year, under different circumstances, Verstappen’s final triumph over Hamilton, after years of Red Bull inching its way closer and closer to the front of the pack, would have been framed as a David and Goliath story. But Max’s lack of participation in Drive to Survive means that we can only latch on to the fact that he won (and some might say I’m using “fact” loosely here), and not what that win really meant to him as a driver.
Best moment: A rare glimpse into Verstappen’s inner workings when he exclaims, “Checo is a legend” after his Red Bull teammate was the ultimate team player during his final—and ultimately successful—race for the championship. And speaking of ...
6. Sergio “Checo” Pérez (eight points and Red Bull’s MVP award)
Listen, I don’t want to go full “if a butterfly flaps its wings on a soft tire in Monaco” on you, but from my point of view, if Checo hadn’t held Hamilton off from gaining the lead for so long in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix—not to mention Checo then letting Max past him, which no one ever questioned why he would willingly do—then Verstappen may never have won the Drivers’ Championship. (And further, Christian Horner may never have gotten that feather in his cap that he seems certain will stand a chance against Toto’s turtleneck of vengeance next year.) Checo doesn’t get his own triumphant episode this go-around, and he barely gets a story line, but he does get the background story of the season: Best Supporting Role in a Major Formula One Come-up. Even if I’m not sure how I feel about Red Bull Racing at the end of this season, I’m sure glad Checo is in one of their winning cars.
Best moment: My favorite running Drive to Survive bit is Checo having to explain Mexico to the rest of Formula One.
5. Lewis Hamilton (10 points and the narrative advantage)
For every rule we see renegotiated for Verstappen, for every crash that Verstappen swears was the other person’s fault, and for every claim from Red Bull that the behind-the-scenes machinations have gone too far—there are instances of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes doing the very same. The difference is: We get to hear Hamilton explain his faults and follies directly, which he does in his typically gracious manner. As Hamilton tells it to Netflix, he may be getting into a whole bunch of crashes with Verstappen this year, but “I have a track record of fighting fair—I don’t think I have a track record of crashing with people.” Emphasis mine, because Sir Lewis would never dare emphasize himself, but his implication is clear: This fight has gotten nasty because Verstappen made it nasty. Netflix does its best not to take sides in this fight that practically demands you do, but in the end, whether you agree with Michael Masi’s call to only let the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen overtake the safety car probably hinges on which driver you like more. And Lewis … well, he comes off as a pretty likable World Champion throughout Season 4.
4. Valtteri Bottas (12 points and a little piece of history)
Most Formula One drivers spend a lot of mental energy pretending like this “your teammate is your biggest rival” construct is totally normal, and they feel totally fine about it. Not Bottas—he has to reserve that energy for going up against the best driver in the league week after week. Because in the battle of second bananas, no banana has a more fascinating mental obstacle course to navigate than Valtteri Bottas, and I genuinely appreciate how transparent he is about it. Season 3 offered a more nuanced depiction of Bottas’s warring emotions about being the best Formula One team’s second-best driver (plus, BottASS), but Season 4 ends with a bit of resolution: Mercedes won’t be renewing Bottas’s contract, and Bottas is able to reflect and see that, at the very least, he’s been half of what may be the winningest team in Formula One history, “so that’s pretty special.” (Also, our guy secured a contract with Alfa Romeo on the way out, so he’s still got some sauna money to toy around with.)
Best moment: Can I say that it was Lewis talking about what a great teammate he’s been? It was Lewis talking about what a great teammate he’s been!
The Protagonist Podium
3. Esteban Ocon (15 points and the next chapter)
Esteban’s episode has everything you could want—the unexpected triumph of an underdog, Fernando Alonso playing mentor while playing soccer, and flashbacks to better days with Cyril Abiteboul (miss you, mon chéri). But most importantly, it has my favorite Formula One antagonist: rain. Or, as F1 journalist Will Buxton calls it, “the great equalizer.” Ocon is the rare case where we’ve watched most of his F1 career play out on Drive to Survive, and after being cast as a hothead at Force India (man, remember Force India), failing to get a contract in 2019, and underperforming on Alpine for the first half of 2021, the great equalizer gave Ocon the opportunity to show how experience had changed him at the Hungarian Grand Prix. When the slick track caused a five-car collision, Ocon gripped the wheel, stayed calm, narrowly avoided the spinning cars all around him, and took first position. And after that? Ocon held off Sir Lewis Hamiton for multiple laps in order to secure the top spot on the podium for the first time in his career.
2. Daniel Ricciardo (18 points and one returned mischievous grin)
You do not want to see Daniel Ricciardo sad. You’ll still like him when he’s sad—he’s a very likable guy, that’s kind of his whole thing!—but you’ll feel sad watching him ask if he just can pay the fine instead of doing press after a particularly unsuccessful finish. There are two episodes in Season 4 dedicated to Ricciardo’s decline and triumphant return to form at new team McLaren, and ultimately, humbled is a good look on F1’s favorite four-letter-word enthusiast. Throughout the first half of the 2021 season, Ricciardo struggles with his new car, he struggles with his new teammate’s superior results, and he struggles with struggling so much. But something about Ricciardo makes no one ever want to give up on him, including himself. And finally, at the Monza Grand Prix, Daniel earns P2 in qualifying, and races like everyone has always believed he could—straight to the top spot on the podium, with Lando there beside him in second: a one-two, as they call it in the biz, kind of like the one-two punch of flying high on Ricciardo’s triumph, only to then have to watch him drink champagne out of a shoe.
Best moment: Getting another one of the adults in the room, CEO of McLaren Zak Brown, to get a tattoo in his honor. Excuse me, “tadoo.”
1. George Russell (25 points and, well, a seat at Mercedes)
Watching George Russell—all posh accent and Snuffleupagus eyelashes—eat sushi with a knife and fork may not lead you to believe that this young man is entitled to a coveted Mercedes seat. But his driving just might, not to mention the genuine effort he’s put in during his three challenging years at Williams. Throughout Russell’s two featured episodes in Season 4, the 24-year-old somehow manages to balance being an underdog and a golden boy: the Drive to Survive sweet spot, really. We want someone who’s good enough to give us victories, but in a precarious enough position to offer constant stakes. As we’ve seen it, Russell has remained respectful to the Williams brand, while also trying his hardest to push himself, and his fledgling car and team, even when it seemed like the latter two could be pushed no further. And when he and his teammate Latifi collectively score Williams’s first points in two years, the young man is overwhelmed with emotion.
And that was all before the Belgian Grand Prix. Yes, Russell has a few run-ins with immaturity (hands off Bottas, young man) as Toto begins to consider him for the second seat at Mercedes, but he also proves over and over that he’s capable of outperforming his car. Ultimately, George’s story of triumph in Season 4 doesn’t even come down to his making it onto a podium in a Williams, which he does—it comes down to one lap. That qualifying lap at Spa, where he earns P2 in a Williams in the rain, is presented as the reason Toto Wolff ultimately takes young George behind a bunch of trailers and sneakily tells him, “The bad news is you’re driving against Lewis Hamilton, the good news is you’re in a Mercedes.”
And, if you’re going to pick a protagonist’s journey from just one lap of the 2021 Formula One season … well, Russell’s is definitely the less complicated of the consequential lap options. See you in Mercedes next year, Georgie …
Best moment: Now stop dicking around!