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Can Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ Handle a Real F1 Title Race?

Over its first three seasons, ‘DTS’ focused on personality, business, and middle-of-the-pack drama. This season, though, it has a true championship fight on its hands in Max Verstappen vs. Lewis Hamilton. Is the show up to the challenge?

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Spoiler warning

Formula 1: Drive to Survive has to have been one of the easiest pitches in the history of television. It’s a look inside a job that’s so cool it sounds like an excitable 5-year-old made it up. It features hours of footage of colorful cars storming through verdant Ardennes hills and soaring Alpine peaks. And its protagonists are handsome, urbane, and inveterately petty. They flit from Monaco to Singapore to Abu Dhabi on private jets, their arms festooned with supermodels and half-a-million-dollar watches. There’s glamor, and then there’s Drive to Survive, which makes Ocean’s Eleven look like Ernest Goes to Camp.

But what DTS did not have in its first three seasons, somewhat oddly for a show about sports, was championship stakes. There was a title fight (kind of) in 2018, the year that matched with the show’s first season: Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel topped the table after 10 of 21 races, before Lewis Hamilton won eight of the last 11 and sauntered away with the title. But that wouldn’t have mattered for the show anyway—neither Vettel nor Hamilton participated in the first go-around. The 2019 and 2020 F1 seasons were even less dramatic, as Hamilton and Mercedes put the title to bed early in both campaigns.

The genius of Drive to Survive, then, was its ability to create stakes and find stories in the middle and back of the competitive order—no small feat for a franchise created for a ringz-obsessed American audience. Over the course of months or years, Netflix tracked drivers like Pierre Gasly and Sergio Pérez on journeys of disappointment and redemption. Even the business side of the sport got a long look, as Force India went under and Williams and Haas nearly followed suit. Viewers came to understand the unforgiving world of engine supply politics and the tricky (and occasionally fraud-riddled) dance of recruiting sponsors.

But that changes in Season 4. Last year’s Formula One campaign was the closest and most contentious in the 72-year history of the sport. The season-long tug-of-war between Hamilton and Max Verstappen not only came down to the last lap of the last race—in spectacularly controversial fashion—but the contrast in style between Hamilton and Verstappen (and their teams) positively leached subtext into the groundwater all year. Because the real-life battle already played out as a melodrama, Drive to Survive ironically had a much more difficult job this time around. The audience already knows how the story ended and where the narrative beats occurred. So the question for Season 4 is this: Can Drive to Survive handle a story line this major?

The lack of access to top teams early on turned out to be what made Drive to Survive. A documentary about the 2018 championship race would have centered on the two most accomplished and famous drivers of their generation—Hamilton and Vettel—but it also would have put the camera on two introverts who are experienced and savvy enough to know when to stop talking.

Not so for the characters DTS found lower in the standings. This is a reality show, after all, not a sports documentary, and the biggest stars of the series are the figures who instantly and instinctually understood the distinction. Red Bull, the thirstiest team in the sport, served up team principal Christian Horner and goofy Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo. The battle for fourth place in the constructors’ championship placed the cameras on a handsome and accessible young Spaniard, Carlos Sainz, and Haas boss Guenther Steiner, whose foul mouth and brutal honesty made him the show’s true breakout star.

Steiner was a natural figure to focus on, a veteran engineer helping the sport’s lone American team punch well above its weight. But thanks to DTS, the world also knows that Steiner possesses a gift for obscenity that’s frankly awe-inspiring for a man speaking in his third language: “He does not fuck smash my door,” among other utterances, has taken on a life of its own.

With little to report on the sport’s most famous names and high-profile stories, Drive to Survive found humor, humanity, and intrigue among the less-commented-on teams. That continued in seasons 2 and 3—which followed Alex Albon’s circuitous path into (and back out of) F1 and famously took viewers inside Valtteri Bottas’s sauna—as well as this latest edition.

Steiner is back and in rare form, though he’s out-cursed by AlphaTauri’s young rookie driver Yuki Tsunoda, whose apartment in England is even messier than his language. And while Netflix’s cameras can’t be everywhere, they were in the right place at the right time with impressive frequency: inside McLaren’s garage for Ricciardo’s win at the Italian Grand Prix (McLaren’s first in nine years), and right alongside Esteban Ocon for the first win of his career in Hungary. But with a championship battle to depict, there’s not as much real estate to devote to those smaller subplots. Instead, it’s the Mercedes–Red Bull show—for better and for worse.

It’d be weird to tell the all-access story of the 2021 season and not devote the lion’s share of time to Hamilton-vs.-Verstappen. Seldom are two stars of that magnitude so evenly matched on track, and it’s even less common for such a competitive title race to come with such tabloid-friendly rhetoric from the team bosses. But anyone who’s familiar with the season’s outcome and the key points along the way will find little new information in DTS. Neither driver is very accessible in the show; Hamilton, as the sport’s biggest star, has nothing to lose by keeping the cameras at arm’s length, while Verstappen did not participate in Season 4 at all.

“They faked a few rivalries which don’t really exist,” Verstappen explained to the AP, likely alluding to a much-maligned Season 3 plotline that embellished the rivalry between Sainz and his then-McLaren teammate Lando Norris. “So I decided to not be a part of it and did not give any more interviews after that because then there is nothing you can show.”

And though Horner and his Mercedes counterpart, Toto Wolff, are everywhere, every twitch of the steering wheel, peevish radio message, and verbal jab in the press was already published and dissected months ago. The images of key moments are prettier and more dramatic than they were on the Sky Sports feed, but through the eight episodes Netflix released as screeners, there’s little added insight into the primary story and key players.

There are exceptions. Verstappen’s infamous crash at Silverstone receives meticulous attention and truly illustrates the violence of the impact in a way TV cameras couldn’t. Horner and Red Bull’s response last summer still seems a bit overwrought and precious in hindsight, but the DTS depiction makes the immediate emotional reaction feel understandable.

Really, though, some of the more eyebrow-raising moments in Drive to Survive actually come from decisions of omission. Most of Steiner’s story arc in Season 4 involves his political struggle with the Mazepin family.

Dmitry Mazepin, the billionaire owner of Russian fertilizer company Uralkali, threw Haas a financial lifeline by signing a lucrative sponsorship deal on the condition that his son, Nikita, be given one of the team’s two race seats. Drive to Survive depicts the Mazepins as pushy and demanding, and Nikita as crash-prone and hotheaded, which he is. But the younger Mazepin is not one of the least popular drivers in recent F1 history because he’s slow and has a rich father—it’s because of a history of reckless and dangerous behavior on track, and even worse behavior off it. Not that you’d expect Formula One to sign off on a show that told ugly truths about one of its drivers. (Both Mazepins are now out of the sport altogether after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Netflix could hardly anticipate this turn of events months in advance.)

The greatest indicator of Drive to Survive’s influence is how aware the sport’s biggest personalities are that they’re always being filmed. Ricciardo, arch as ever, greets the Netflix crew as he scooters by before a race, while Steiner amuses himself by loudly promising to stop cursing whenever he walks past a camera. (A promise that, true to form, he usually breaks.) George Russell becomes one of the main characters of Season 4, but not before he grouses about being left out of the previous season and jokes about re-creating Bottas’s famous nude sauna scene.

In short, Formula One is no longer the terra incognita (at least to casual American fans) that it was in March 2019, or even March 2021. Drive to Survive continues to find drama and fun in F1’s unexamined spaces—but the more exciting the sport is on its surface, the fewer unexamined spaces there are for its reality series to explore.