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Ranking the Top Formula 1 Drivers by Their ‘Drive to Survive’ Season 3 Narratives

Following the release of the third season of Netflix’s Formula 1 docuseries, one writer ignored real-life pole positions and instead ranked the drivers based solely on their story arcs

Netflix/Ringer illustration

In the series premiere of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive, everyone’s favorite Euro-tastic curmudgeon, Guenther Steiner, poses the question: “Why do you watch Formula 1?” And then, likely fueled by his customary multiple espressos in multiple tiny paper cups, he answers the question himself: “You want to see action, you want to see drama, you want to see the underdog making a good result! Each race should have a story, and the story should not be all the time: Mercedes and Ferrari win. Because that story gets old pretty quickly.”

Guenther is describing why rabid fans devote 20-plus weekends a year to watching Formula 1 and spend their off days cobbling together as many behind-the-scenes updates as possible from Twitter, YouTube, and Twitch. But he’s also describing why someone who’s never watched a Formula 1 race in their life—and until recently thought that Lando Norris was a character from Star Wars and Valtteri Bottas was an outlawed energy drink—could still tear through 30 episodes and counting of the more narrativized version of the sport presented by Netflix. He happens to be describing me, and millions of other new fans who came to Drive to Survive for the beguiling image of Daniel Ricciardo in the thumbnail, but stayed for the action, the drama, and the series’ uncanny ability to place the same amount of narrative importance on a struggling driver placing seventh in one Grand Prix as the most dominant F1 driver on the grid winning his seventh world championship.

With its flexible relationship to time, and ultimate devotion to crafting 10 distinctly entertaining stories within each Formula 1 season, Drive to Survive has as much in common with a reality show as it does with a more straightforward docuseries. I imagine for a longtime Formula 1 fan, watching this series would be a little bit like Lisa Vanderpump’s best friend watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: Sure, some of the key points are there, but they’re focusing all of her screen time on feeding stories to the tabloids, and glossing over her generosity and indomitable spirit entirely!

Of course, I can’t say for sure, because I’m not one of those longtime F1 fans. I’m just a sucker for good storytelling who still knows almost nothing about the ins and outs of this highly complicated sport. I mean, sure, after emotionally imprinting on the series’ first two seasons early in quarantine, I’ve learned that there are 10 teams, 20 drivers, races all over the world, and something called “pole positions.” But my newfound passion for Formula 1 is fueled almost entirely by the fact that Charles LeClerc looks like Timothée Chalamet if Timothée Chalamet had the neck muscles to drive a car around a corner at 200 mph; being more concerned for the safety and well-being of Romain Grosjean than I have ever been for my own; and the thrilling knowledge that there is a sport where all 20 top competitors look like some variant of a boyband member, or a retired boyband member who’s making his triumphant debut as a coach on The Voice. (This obviously excludes the branch of F1 drivers that look like ’80s movie villains.)

Drive to Survive centers itself more on which underdog might shock the field on any given week than on which top dog will almost definitely make it onto the podium, and because of that, the show is deliciously, indulgently subjective. Each episode crafts its own story in its own time, creating protagonists, antagonists, and driver vignettes that have almost nothing to do with the sport’s final standings. And so, after each season, the Drive to Survive audience walks away with an, uh, unique understanding of who won and lost the most recent Formula 1 season.

So given Friday’s release of Season 3, I decided to rank the F1 drivers based on the success of their most recent Drive to Survive packaging alone. Here are the results:

Honorary Sub-10 Snubs (No Points)

  • Max Verstappen: Like a Victorian child, it seems that third-place finishers are better seen but not heard in the eyes of Netflix. I definitely saw Max standing on a whole bunch of podiums, but after his starring role in Season 2, we didn’t hear a single peep from him this year. In fact, it was a weird narrative season for Red Bull all around ...
  • Alex Albon: If heaven is a place on earth, hell might just be Red Bull’s second seat. Alex could have had a worse finish to the real Formula 1 season, but Netflix makes it clear that he couldn’t have had a much worse time doing it. So even though I have lingering Season 2 affections for sweet, polite Alex, I can’t pretend he was given a winning edit.
  • Kimi Räikkönen: Kimi earns zero story points for his minimal time spent on screen in Season 3. But can he earn my continued adoration for the biggest impact made by the smallest amount of screen time?
Screenshots via Netflix

Absolutely.

  • George Russell: The exclusion of story time dedicated to George Russell and the Williams family’s final F1 bow felt … notable.
  • Lance Stroll: The good news for Lance Stroll is that Season 3 makes huge strides in showing that he’s not just a pawn of his mega-rich father. Lance winds up coming across as a hardworking guy with a lot to prove, and the driving talent to score some points in the right car. But I cannot in good conscience award him any protagonist points when his entire Racing Point story revolved around his dad, Lawrence Stroll, twirling a metaphorical mustache while chucking suitcases of cash at Otmar Szafnauer and telling him he better pick out the right Aston Martin green.

The Protagonist Points Earners

10. Charles LeClerc (one point, and the full support of Scuderia Ferrari)

They can take away his engine power; they can take away his clothing line; but no one can take away the fact that Charles LeClerc is chic as hell, and smoother than ... well, his own forehead. The kid is young! So it’s impressive that he was able to mostly ignore Sebastian Vettel’s waning enthusiasm for Ferrari, only letting a smirk or three slip at his departing teammate’s antics. Between taking the time to apologize to Sergio Pérez after clipping him in Bahrain, and his wholesome enthusiasm for the Ferrari brand, LeClerc remains a company man and F1 golden boy through and through. And Netflix showed just enough of LeClerc’s literal winks at the camera to never let you forget it.

Best moment: When he continues to look at his phone after being told explicitly not to by Ferrari PR. I said he’s chic, I didn’t say he’s perfect!

9. Sebastian Vettel (two points, and a rescinded invitation to Ferrari’s future black tie events)

“I’m leaving at the end of the year, so I can say whatever I want.”

Sebastian Vettel is in full “senior spring” mode for the entirety of Season 3, and it is delicious. Per Episode 4, “We Need to Talk About Ferrari,” the iconic brand did Vettel a bit dirty by leaving him high and dry for the 2021 season, and didn’t even have the decency to give him a good engine on his way out. Every time team principal Mattia Binotto came onscreen talking about, “Ferrari doesn’t have a no. 1 driver,” I simply closed my ears and sang, “Why the fuck you lying, why you always lyyying?” But don’t worry about Ol’ Seb and his extinguished Ferrari contract, because he’s still got his “principles.” He’s also the proud new owner of an Aston Martin jumpsuit.

Best moment: Confirming to Ferrari PR that he did INDEED announce his new contract with Aston Martin at the worst possible moment for Ferrari because he was mad. We stan a petty prince.

8. Carlos Sainz (four points, and looking not at all regretful in red)

Carlos is the epitome of why new fans come to Drive to Survive: he’s rich, he’s handsome, and he drives fast. Plus, Netflix gives us more access to Carlos’s richness and handsomeness than almost any of the other fast drivers on the grid. Even if Carlos doesn’t get a huge, swelling moment of triumph in Season 3—mostly because he announced his move to Ferrari so early in 2020—we still spend a lot of time with him: at the beach, eating watermelon shirtless; playing tennis with his dad; joking around about his badass Volkswagen Golf. Of course, all those fun moments are slightly dampened by the fact that we also know Carlos is headed from the team that just placed third to the team that just placed sixth, iconic red car be damned.

Best moment: Did I mention the shirtless watermelon?

7. Lando Norris (six points, and a fatherly bear hug from Zak Brown)

Lando never gets an at-home segment or a full episode in Season 3, but F1’s goofiest kid brother makes a big impact in the time he’s given. Though young Lando still looks like he’d be more at home riding bikes with the Stranger Things gang, this season makes it clear that he is, in fact, a natural at keeping up with the F1 big dogs. Lando makes up a significant gap between himself and Lewis Hamilton in the Austrian Grand Prix to land a podium finish in his first race of 2020. “I never really thought, ‘I can do this,’ because it was Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes, who is a lot quicker,” Lando says, pausing briefly. “Normally,” he finishes, smirking. And he doesn’t stop smirking all season long.

Best moment: Age-appropriate celebration for his first podium:

6. Daniel Ricciardo (eight points and a partially mended heart)

An update: Daniel is still funny, he’s still good-looking, and you can now find him starring in a rom-com. Not playing opposite Margot Robbie in an Aussie blockbuster like you may have hoped—but rather it’s Daniel Ricciardo and Cyril Abiteboul quarreling in a tree, T-A-T-T-O-O-ING!

Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul spends most of Episode 5, “The End of the Affair,” pining for what Renault and Daniel had together before Daniel decided to defect to McClaren. Cyril tries not to take it personally, but, uh ... that’s not really an option. “I am emotional, I am Latin, I am a bit Mediterranean and French, so I am emotional … and frankly, I think he’s making a big mistake,” Cyril exclaims in a monologue taken directly from, I think, Before Sunset. But Daniel manages to turn things around and eventually scores Renault’s first podium since 2011. The two kiss and make up ... and by kiss, I mean resolve a bet where Cyril has to get a tattoo in exchange for Daniel’s podium. It’s all very “leave a scarf at your lover’s house so you have a reason to go back.”

Best moment: [Cue montage of Daniel saying “tadoo.”]

5. Lewis Hamilton (10 points and a casual seventh world championship)

Excuse me, that’s Sir Lewis Hamilton who, unfortunately, will never be able to story-line-podium on a show about F1’s underdogs. But in Season 3, Hamilton’s nonstop domination is fleshed out with a little more nuance, because as Hamilton says himself, 2020 was a unique year.

In Season 2 of Drive to Survive, it felt like there was a side to Lewis Hamilton we’d never get to know—he’s too polished, too humble, too successful to really allow us to get inside his head. But in Season 3, we learn a little bit more about why. Hamilton explains that growing up as the only Black racer on the track forced him to tread extra carefully and keep his head down, especially once he started winning all the time. But with the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement around the world, many of the feelings that Hamilton suppressed over his career came “bubbling to the surface” and he could no longer remain quiet. Though the series gave us a much briefer focus on F1’s #WeRaceAsOne initiative than I would have liked, Hamilton’s words at the end of Season 3 sent a chill down my spine: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to win all these championships, and have all this success, and not use it to make change.”

Best moment: I’m tempted to give it to the casual, past-tense mention of the fact that Hamilton just tied the record for world championships with his seventh win ... but nothing beats Lil Lewis:

4. Pierre Gasly (12 points and one more point, PROVED)

Nothing sets up a hero’s journey quite like a worthy villain, and Christian Horner does his damndest all season to make sure his previous demotion of Pierre Gasly doesn’t look like a mistake. But there’s simply no sweeping a first-place finish under the rug. Drive to Survive’s ever-present F1 journalists (welcome, Jennie Gow!) tell us repeatedly that Pierre’s renewed confidence at AlphaTauri is the story of the season, and at the epic Italian Grand Prix in Monza, he more than proves it. With a few Mercedes screwups clearing a path, Gasly passes car after car, team after team to place first on the podium. It is, quite frankly, unbelievable, and the joy from Pierre’s whole team is infectious. Plus, his trophy is really cool.

Looking at where he came from last season—a demotion, and then weeks later, the death of his best friend, Anthoine Hubert, in an F2 accident—to a first-place finish in a midlevel car, Drive to Survive’s favorite underdog gave us a winning moment that no one could have predicted. Especially Christian Horner.

Best moment: The slow-motion confetti shower was certainly the most picturesque, but the BEST moment has to be Pierre reading about Horner calling him “young and inexperienced,” and then setting his prescient intentions for Monza: “I have my target, the fight is on ...”

The Protagonist Podium

3. Sergio “Checo” Pérez (15 points and the next chapter)

Like all of our greatest modern TV dramas, Drive to Survive hit its narrative climax in the penultimate episode, in part by introducing an entirely new Season 3 star: Sergio “Checo” Pérez, one of the most experienced drivers in Formula 1.

Checo was shown here and there in Season 1, but never for the humble, hardworking man he clearly is. This time, though, there was a lot more to discuss. After a career-best season with Racing Point, the team unceremoniously dropped him without warning to scoop up Sebastien Vettel. So, what did Checo do with the possible end of his F1 career looming over him, and only two races left in 2020? He went out and won his first race just when he needed it most. And he did it in style: After a collision knocked Checo to last place in the first lap, he spent the next 86 laps passing every single car on the track to take P1, and that ultimately helped him secure a 2021 seat at Red Bull. I think the voice-over commentator phrased it best when he said, “Pérez may be out, but he doesn’t believe he’s out, does he?”

Best moment: Just the sweetest, silliest thing I’ve ever seen:

2. Valtteri Bottas (18 points, and my respect)

I swear I am not trolling Bottas with this no. 2 placement. I would never troll Bottas—after all, you owe a man your respect once you’ve seen his whole butt.

Did I expect to see Bottas’s beaming behind in a Finnish sauna in this docuseries about racecar driving? No, I did not! But I expected to see an episode about the political and psychological labyrinth that is being Mercedes’s no. 2 driver even less. Despite Toto Wolff’s “fuck you” response when asked whether Bottas is Mercedes’s no. 2, Bottas clearly feels overshadowed on his own team. So how lucky are we that Netflix was filming with Mercedes at the Russian Grand Prix? That meant we got full access to the gratifying moment when Bottas decided to defy the team that doesn’t prioritize him by giving Verstappen a tow in qualifying, knowing that he’d finish Saturday in third and be best positioned for race day at the Sochi track.

AND HE WAS RIGHT! Bottas does what’s right for him, takes P1 at Sochi, and sends a message to us all: You can be a team player as long as the team isn’t playing you.

Best moment: Duh. (NO, STILL NOT THE BUTT!!!!)

1. Romain Grosjean (25 points and my whole heart)

Listen, I get that this is not the most nuanced choice. But when you witness what can only be described as a miracle and cry out half of your body mass in tears ... yeah, that’s not just a story, that’s THE story of Season 3. We get the full beginning, middle, and end to Grosjean’s unbelievable survival of a horrific crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix that split his car in half, lit the whole thing in flames, and nearly took his life.

The series title, “Drive to Survive,” has always seemed, frankly, corny as hell. But Grosjean proves its meaning in Episode 9, “Man on Fire.” Most people watching Drive to Survive in 2021 either knew that Grosjean would indeed survive, or could assume as much given the way Netflix presented the incident. But still, for the over four minutes that the series showed Grosjean’s car engulfed in flames with no sign of its driver, it seemed impossible that he could. From Grosjean’s Haas team looking on in horror, to the medics attempting to find signs of life inside the fire, and most especially, to the other drivers begging over the radio to know whether Grosjean is OK, it was a heart-wrenching bit of television.

Then, to watch Grosjean emerge from the flames with only minor burns on his hands and feet and insist on walking himself to the ambulance in order to assure everyone he’s alright—it was enough to turn anyone into a bawling mess.

Netflix sweetly and smartly follows up the emotional crash footage with the one thing a regular Formula 1 fan wouldn’t have gotten from watching it live: an intimate interview with Grosjean and his wife, Marion, in which he talks about how his children gave him the will to escape his burning car, and what his second chance at life means for their family. Which is, of course, followed by the best moment of Season 3, and potentially the best eye roll in television history.

Best moment: “I’m the man who walked through fire.”

Jodi Walker is a freelance pop culture writer with bylines in Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, and Texas Monthly. She writes about The Bachelor franchise at absurd length in her newsletter, These Are The Best Things.