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Formula One: Drive To Survive is being overtaken by its audience

An absurdly cinematic 2021 F1 season should have delivered the most sensational Drive To Survive season, yet the series flounders lamely

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen crash during the Italian Grand Prix, 2021

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As racing drivers know, it’s hard to stay ahead. 

Three years ago, when Netflix introduced the slick Formula One: Drive To Survive documentary series, they impressed existing motorsport fans while minting new ones. Friends who never indulged my racing obsession began to nonchalantly namedrop drivers and team bosses; F1 was growing beyond its worshippers. This is a tall order, not only because Formula One is admittedly hard to grasp — with so many technicalities it sometimes feels designed to intentionally exclude the uninitiated — but because the sport has been dominated by one team and one driver over the last decade.

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The 2021 F1 season, on the other hand, was absurdly cinematic. The winningest champion in history v/s a young conqueror refusing to bide his time. Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Max Verstappen of Red Bull braved a rollercoaster season, with multiple collisions and penalties, only to head into the final race level on points — right down to the last half a point… It’s too much! Even the producers of The Fast And The Furious movies would ask scriptwriters to switch to decaf. And that’s before the outrageous climax, a race rife with controversy — and memes. 

This should all deliver the most sensational Drive To Survive season, yet the series flounders lamely, with all its weaknesses exposed, as documentarians James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin keep trying to manufacture conflict instead of letting us witness a historic battle. The first few seasons, with Mercedes and Hamilton unchallenged, DTS dealt with drivers in the midfield and those racing at the back of the grid, talented youngsters with a lot to prove. This made compelling TV — gifted teenagers celebrating a 7th-place finish or moaning over uncertain futures — and the editing and music emphasised the mood with qualifying-lap precision.

Then they started making it up. Rivalries were exaggerated, ‘storylines’ were created, expressions from some races were pasted onto revelations from others, and the series started following a pro-wrestling handbook to position drivers as faces and heels, to be loved and loathed by audiences respectively. Drive To Survive turned into Keeping Up With Formula One. 

The new season attempts, for instance, to make an underdog out of Russian driver Nikita Mazepin, whose oligarch father sponsored the Haas racing team to give his son a seat. The show evades Nikita’s already-popular nickname ‘Maze-Spin’, for his constant excursions off the track, and his problematic behaviour which includes harassing a young woman and physically assaulting a racing competitor. The episode about the poor little rich boy builds to a rainy Russian Grand Prix where Mazepin makes a clever tyre decision, but don’t be fooled by the triumphant background music: what the show doesn’t mention is that he finished last. 

Motorsport fans may roll their eyes at these cartoonish narratives, but the show is clearly intended for new audiences. That’s fine. The paradox of popularity, however, has caught up with the gateway drug. Many of the fans Netflix delivered to F1 have gotten into the sport properly, watching not just the show but the races, especially during a historic 2021 season. As a result, they see through the fakery that intrigued them in the first place. They’ve overtaken Drive To Survive.

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“They faked a few rivalries which don’t really exist,” Max Verstappen told the Associated Press last year. So this chronicle of the 2021 season, which ought to have provided a deep-dive under the helmets of two great drivers (and a rivalry that really, really exists) becomes a one-sided affair with only Lewis Hamilton saying his piece while Verstappen, the new World Champion, remains largely absent. 

Also absent are: Formula One’s most experienced driver Kimi Räikkönen wrapping up his career, Fernando Alonso’s exceptional racecraft, and the two most impressive victories from the title competitors: Hamilton in Sau Paolo and Verstappen in Zandvoort. A season-long conflict is reduced to misleading touchpoints that offer little new insight. We see Hamilton admitting that the Azerbaijan Grand Prix gave him “nightmares,” yet the series doesn’t show us the race.

Instead, we get the Mercedes and Red Bull bosses calling each other names. (Toto Wolff of Mercedes likens Christian Horner of Red Bull to “a Jack Russell Terrier” nipping at his heels, while Horner, a former racer, finds no insult more stinging than calling Wolff “more motivated by the financials” instead of a true competitor.) We get grinning driver Daniel Ricciardo joshing with everyone he passes, quoting Scary Movie and behaving like a meme who occasionally drives cars. (One lovely moment features racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart pulling Ricciardo’s leg, saying “It’s a pity you don’t smile more.”)

At one point, Toto Wolff — who likes his pumpernickels really crisp — describes the increasing intensity on track: “It started with Olympic boxing, went to pro-boxing, and now it’s [Mixed Martial Arts],” he says in an episode titled Gloves Are Off. It’s a sharp analogy given how hotly (and tastelessly) the rivalry escalated through 2021 as both the top teams threw accusations, lawsuits and soundbytes at each other. And if an F1 duel resembles MMA, then consider the manipulative Netflix series a WWE manager, handing a steel chair to a preferred competitor. 

I’d still recommend Drive To Survive. It is exceptionally well-produced, delivering F1 action in glorious 4K detail and engines that roar in Dolby Atmos. If you know the sport, the series will give you something to laugh at between race weekends, featuring ‘characters’ you like. If you’re curious about Formula One, do come aboard, for I wholly endorse people knowing their Lance from their Lando. Remember only this: these aren’t the sports pages, these are the gossip papers.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

Pixar’s latest film Turning Red (Disney+ Hotstar) is about a 13-year-old girl who turns into a giant red panda whenever she feels emotionally overwhelmed. It is a complex, inclusive and delightfully imaginative film.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.

@rajasen

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