The Formula Won

Netflix/Ringer illustration

In the summer of 2017, I was hit by a car while walking down the street in Los Angeles. I do not recommend this. In the weeks and months that followed, while healing in my house, I read every book and watched every movie I could think of. What I needed most, especially in the dead of summer, was sports. Baseball, of course, was out of the question (I’d suffered enough). I was keeping weird hours and started to notice a sport I had only a passing familiarity with that was on mostly in the mornings.

The first thing you realize about Formula 1 racing is that everything looks pleasant—the sport is almost always in a nicer place than where you are, like Monaco, Italy, Spain, or Brazil. Add in the beautiful cars and the flawless haircuts of everyone involved, the absolute worst-case scenario is the competition acts as a calming screensaver in the background while you do something else.

The other option is to view it as I did: a total obsession. This was helped along by the fact that Formula 1 is the perfect sport to obsess over because there is no end to how far down the rabbit hole you can go. It reinvents itself constantly and is based on a million little edges that add up to big ones. Ross Brawn, one of the greatest team principals of all time, said that in some seasons, innovation is so relentless that “by the last race, the slowest car was faster than the fastest car in the first race.” Keeping up with the sport on a deep level is an undertaking, and mastery is impossible. If, say, you even knew the results of every race from the past 70 years, you can move on to learning about McLaren’s diffuser or Alpine’s jumbo airbox. It is a sport full of galaxy brains. Everything about it is the result of 70 years of thousands of very smart people looking for any edge they can gain on the competition. Imagine hundreds of Italian Bill Belichicks throughout the years spending hundreds of millions of dollars to go a few tenths of a second faster each year. Also, even if you’re interested in the sport for the extreme technical details, you can still appreciate the haircuts.

About a year after I started watching Formula 1, Netflix released Drive to Survive, a reality show that drew the curtain back on the sport and the people inside it. The show is decidedly not about teams getting new diffusers and airboxes. It was, and I do not say this lightly, the best gift you could possibly give to a person becoming obsessed with a sport. Season 3 of the show debuted last week and had all of the hallmarks that made the first two seasons great: charismatic gearheads trying to find their place and keep their jobs in one of the most competitive environments on earth.

Formula 1 did not develop this show with Netflix out of the goodness of its heart: The sport needed a kick-start. Ratings were falling in key countries as distribution and audience attitudes were changing. Drive to Survive is based on the personalities of the drivers and the team principals, the people in charge of the drivers’ teams who function as a sort of general manager/coach. The show revolves around type-A alphas staring directly into the camera like Jim Halpert from The Office and bluntly saying whatever they mean about their boss or coworker. The team principals are walking, talking Tom Wolfe novels; the drivers are all rich, look like models, and still have a lot to complain about. These are the pillars of the show: The principals try to outflex each other as masters of the universe while the drivers navigate HR dramas and try to race as fast as they can. It is the most chaotic possible mashup of Hard Knocks, Gossip Girl, James Bond, and Game of Thrones. It is perfect television.

Something strange started happening to me in the summer of 2019. I began to get texts from friends who knew I liked F1 to ask me questions about it. They started watching it. A few of them got more into it than I did. Some of them made pre-pandemic plans to go to a race in 2020; they’ll probably do so when they can. Ratings are up in America and, completely anecdotally, I don’t know anyone who got into the sport in the past three years for any reason other than that they watched the show. There is an F1 Slack channel at The Ringer now, and I didn’t start it. The Netflix obsessives did.

A few weeks after the show debuted three years ago, I started to ask executives from different professional sports leagues why more of them weren’t doing something similar by simply peeling back the curtain and telling their teams to deal with it. Privately, American leagues are pretty worried about the younger generation of fans. Not necessarily that they won’t like the sport, but that attitudes will shift and business models will have to adapt. Younger fans, NFL executives have told me, like individual players more than teams and have less geographic allegiance to teams than their parents. The main change in viewing habits, of course, is that younger fans consume content on their phones and tablets instead of watching television. Getting young fans invested requires more work than it used to. The no. 1 roadblock to producing this type of show, these executives tell me, is resistance from coaches, who don’t see the value in letting cameras follow them around all season while letting their players air their dirty laundry. If you followed the Drive to Survive model, there would be cameras on every team every week. This is not something paranoid coaches of any American sport want, to say nothing of agents, managers, and marketing executives. That’s why much of sports coverage gravitates toward hagiographies, clichés, or both. For any sport, Drive to Survive is a way forward. Imagine if, next month, Netflix dropped a series in which Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson stared into the camera and said, “Wow, this season sucked and I can’t wait to get out of here,” for an entire 40-minute episode. That is what we’re missing.

If you’re unfamiliar with Formula 1, it’s pretty simple: Ten teams of two drivers each travel the world racing on 23 different tracks. The teams of two are crucial to the setup and drama of the sport and the show. Every team’s car is different, so a driver’s teammate is the only person competing under the exact same circumstances as himself. If you are not as good as your teammate, there’s usually no excuse. In a strange way, the driver’s main competition is their teammate, which makes things extremely weird and anxiety-fueled. There’s a set of rules every team must follow while building their cars, and how they adjust to those rules helps define the sport.

Also defining the sport: money. You have to spend a lot to compete. (Best guess is it would take about $500 million to build the best car, based on research.) To compound this, Formula 1’s best driver, Lewis Hamilton, also races with the best team, Mercedes, which has near-limitless funds. Hamilton has won four straight driver championships, which are awarded to the driver with the highest point total (points are awarded for top-10 finishes). Mercedes has won seven straight constructor championships, which are given to the team with the best pair of cars each season. Mercedes trying to win a championship is like Marvel trying to win a box office weekend. They just have to show up.

Because of this competitive inequity, fans have to find drama where they can get it, which usually involves the pecking order behind the top two or three teams and which driver is rising and falling at any given time. One of the more poignant quotes of the series comes from Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, who said that in Formula 1, there are “no miracles.” If you do not have a good car, you will fail. There are no Cinderellas. No Leicester Citys, no Nick Foleses. There are just well-made engines, great drivers, and an order to everything. Leclerc’s team, mind you, is a good example of that. Ferrari is one of the blue bloods of the sport, but it had a disastrous car last season (the one chronicled in Season 3) and fell to the middle of the pack immediately.

The show’s three seasons have somehow reordered the notoriety of the sport’s drivers and principals. The first meaningful words of Season 2 come when Daniel Ricciardo introduces himself by saying, “I’m still from Australia and I’m still good-looking.” Sometimes, people and mediums are just born for each other, and Ricciardo was born for Netflix. Ricciardo was the second-best Red Bull driver when the show launched. He certainly wasn’t obscure at the time, but no driver has garnered more fame, or camera time, from the show than he has. Ricciardo and Haas team principal Guenther Steiner (who was obscure) were the unquestioned breakout stars of the early seasons of the show. In Season 2, Steiner delivered what might be the best quote in the show’s history after a disastrous race: “[We could have] looked like rock stars. But now we look like a fucking bunch of wankers. A bunch of fucking clowns.”

The first season, crucially, did not feature Mercedes or Ferrari. After seeing the final product and the subsequent star turns for the Season 1 leads, Mercedes and Ferrari signed up for Season 2. Still, the show has created a strange sense of order in the F1 universe. A year and a half ago ago, I attended an F1 exhibition in Los Angeles where three teams and a handful of top drivers drove their cars on Hollywood Boulevard. I heard fans yelling and wondered whether they were cheering for one of the top drivers who’d appeared—Max Verstappen and Ricciardo were there, for instance, as was Valtteri Bottas. Instead, it was for Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul. Imagine, if you will, the general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies becoming a wildly famous face in the sport because of his role in a reality show, and you’ll get how Drive to Survive has changed things for casual American F1 fans.

Christian Horner
Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images

There are a couple of reasons the show works: First, almost everyone involved is deeply cool. NFL coaches could probably take some notes from Formula 1’s team principals who, although they are also tightly wound weirdos, still give off the vibes of a guy sipping a drink on a boat in Lake Como. Nobody wants to be Mike McCarthy, but everyone wants to be Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal. Or Christian Horner, the Red Bull principal who lives on a massive estate and is married to former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell (Halliwell was featured prominently in Season 2 but appears sparingly in Season 3). These two swaggering egos have what Wolff calls a “big rivalry”; he refers to Horner’s tactics against him as “little war games.” Racing Point driver Sergio Pérez wondered at one point why Steiner’s flight connected at JFK en route to his team’s headquarters in Charlotte, when Pérez had offered him a direct flight on his private plane from Guadalajara. McLaren driver Carlos Sainz was filmed at various times at the beach, playing golf with a popped collar, and playing squash. Racing Point driver Lance Stroll is filmed surfing. A handful of drivers are filmed at their beautiful homes.

If you want this show simply to function as a travel or real estate show, it’s a pretty good one. But the engine that makes it work is its honesty. AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly loudly calls his situation with his bosses at Red Bull, a team that demoted him, “a joke.” Conversely, the driver who replaced him, Alexander Albon, quietly apologizes to his team multiple times for his poor performances during a horrible season. Neither driver, in the end, had a Red Bull seat for 2021—that went to Pérez. McLaren’s Lando Norris speculates that Sainz, his former teammate who joined Ferrari, will have the seventh-best car on the grid and that he likely regrets the move. This is a show about elephants in rooms.

There is a reason I keep mentioning casual fans: Hardcore fans don’t love the show. A handful of racing publications have panned Season 3 for having an incomplete view of the competition and glossing over huge story lines, such as the Williams team selling out to an investment company, and almost no talk about actual racing. I understand these complaints, but you have to understand that I am a huge dumbass drawn to petty office politics and private jet discussions. The series covers huge stories dramatically: Racing Point’s defense against cheating accusations. Ferrari’s failures and response to its own suspicions of cheating regarding the legality of its 2019 engine, which culminated in a settlement from which no details were released and many principals were pissed off. Haas driver Romain Grosjean’s fiery crash that he miraculously survived with injuries to both hands. The show is not meant to recap the season; you can, you know, actually watch the races for that. It’s here to tell a story, and nothing on sports television does a better job. No league ever went broke appealing to the casual fan while assuming the hardcore fan will stay anyway. A show that went as in-depth about the more technical aspects of the sport would be welcome, but it’s probably not coming anytime soon. My view is to take what you can get.

There is a famous story in boxing, usually sourced back to a champion at the turn of the last century named Willie Ritchie. After getting knocked down in a brutal draw, Ritchie was petrified of a rematch and tried to beg out. Fear consumed him. When he finally convinced himself to go to the weigh-in, his opponent was so scared of him that he simply ran away and forfeited. (Bill Parcells, according to Michael Lewis, tells a similar story about a different boxer who quit during a fight in the 1970s.) There is no greater drama in sports than finding out that athletes are human. Sports are played by humans with insecurities and fears, and if you can reveal that in whatever you are doing, you’re telling a good story. It is an under-covered part of sports because athletes usually do not want to talk about it. This human part is where Drive to Survive thrives and where other leagues could take notes.

The most obvious example in Season 3 is Valtteri Bottas, a Finnish Mercedes driver who has finished second overall in the standings for two straight seasons behind his teammate, Lewis Hamilton. Bottas is featured in nearly an entire episode, portrayed as being trapped by his lot in life. During a race week in Russia in 2020, over breakfast with his girlfriend and performance coach, he reveals that he was upset because “the evening before the race, a comment from social media got under my skin.” He reveals, separately, that he considered quitting in 2018 when his team asked him to let Hamilton pass him during a race so that Hamilton would have a better chance at a championship. He says, correctly, that almost every driver on the grid would take his seat in the best car in the world, but that job is not nearly as easy as it seems. Bottas is so forthcoming, he lets cameras follow him, fully nude, into a sauna in Finland. I came away from the episode far more invested in Bottas than I was when it started. He has a beautiful home in Finland. He has made millions of dollars and won nine races. And, like all of us, he’s getting mad at his mentions. On the surface, it would be surprising if all 20 drivers don’t float through every day yelling, “I cannot believe this is my life!” And it’s revealing, in a good way, that they don’t. Bottas is human. Don’t check your mentions, man.

Formula 1 is a sport based mostly on fantasy. It is not just that it’s hosted at a luxurious outpost each week, it’s that the entire premise of the sport is faulty: It is supposed to be the ultimate in competition and yet only one team can win. The engine noises are heightened to give the illusion that they’re much louder, even when they don’t need to be. And the sport is constantly searching for ways to make it louder. This show does little to dissuade a lot of the notions of the sport—if you wanted to keep thinking of drivers as daredevil models, you can. You just have more context than you ever had before.

I think hardcore fans of any sport don’t want shows like this because there’s a perception that the off-field drama takes away from the drama of the competition, instead of heightening it. The drama is part of the sport. The closest parallel to Drive to Survive in recent years is Tottenham Hotspur’s All or Nothing on Amazon Prime, a wild and candid look at José Mourinho’s first season as manager. (As a Tottenham Hotspur obsessive, I am beginning to worry that the show is the highlight of the Mourinho era in North London.) Other shows that have attempted some sort of authenticity have failed. That should end now. If you are into any sport—basketball, baseball, golf, football, hockey—Drive to Survive has recalibrated what it means to produce a sports docuseries and other leagues should take notes. The show has become part of the sport. There are two types of news in Formula 1: what happens immediately and what happens six months later when Netflix shows everything that’s going on. This type of show may not be easy for everyone: Outfitting all 32 NFL teams or every baseball stadium with cameras for an entire season is a huge undertaking. But can you really put a price on capturing passive-aggressive conversations between managers?

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