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Opinion: Netflix’s Formula One series captures drama in detail

  • ‘Formula 1: Drive To Survive’ offers a passenger-seat view of a notoriously secretive sport
  •  For motorsport fans, it serves both as slick recap of last season and palate cleanser for the 2019 season

 Fernando Alonso celebrating his first F1 championship title in 2005.
 Fernando Alonso celebrating his first F1 championship title in 2005. (AFP)

In 2005, a 24-year-old Formula One driver from Spain called Fernando Alonso became, at the time, the youngest world champion in history. Carlos Sainz Jr was agog. His father was a racer too, but it was Alonso who set the nine-year-old’s imagination aflame. The boy from Madrid vowed to grow up and become a racing driver.

Sainz is now, poetically enough, 24, and spent most of last year duelling with his idol. The Spaniards locked horns not for victories but bragging rights. This jousting is evocatively captured in The King Of Spain, the second episode of the new Netflix documentary series Formula 1: Drive To Survive.

Executive-produced by Paul Martin, Sophie Todd and James-Gay Rees (who also produced Asif Kapadia’s enthralling documentary Senna), Formula 1: Drive To Survive offers a cinematic, passenger-seat view of a notoriously secretive sport. Over 10 episodes, it shows the innards of a glamorous, relentless world. We get to meet the dreamers, the masters and these boys barely old enough to drive, usually hidden under vividly coloured helmets.

F1, the most physically and technologically challenging sport in the world, has always offered drama. This series looks at familiar narrative threads—underdog stories, teammate wars, fading legacies—and weaves them through the events of last year, putting a human face to drivers, their bosses and conflicts manoeuvred on and off the track. It’s a gorgeous-looking series, blending super-slow-motion action with moody interiors and unpredictably serene outdoor shots.

One such scene involves Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, strolling around his farm with his wife, former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell. Pointing out a pair of donkeys, Horner calls them easier to manage than his drivers, teammates at each other’s throats. In one corner is Max Verstappen, a Dutch boy widely considered a champion-in-waiting, and, at the other end, champing at the bit, an Australian with a gigantic grin, Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo emerges as de facto leading man for the series, a natural charmer and swashbuckling overtaker with a highly compelling story. In 2018, Ricciardo found little love from Red Bull, which favoured his younger, better-paid teammate. Does he stay at the team? Does he support Max’s bid to shine, or seek his own spotlight? It is super to watch him race—Ricciardo crashes directly into Verstappen in one spectacular shunt—but it may be more fascinating to watch his mother, Grace, attending races, her foot shaking nervously as she prays for him.

For motorsport fans, F1: Drive To Survive serves both as slick recap of last season and palate cleanser for the 2019 season, starting this weekend. This is not just for fans, though. It barely touches on technicalities, pit-stop strategies or race acumen, and instead introduces characters and context, making it about the stories and not the scoreboard. F1 montages always look good, but this show—which patches together reactions from different teams, and commentary from different sources to underline its narrative point—feels like watching a race with a stirring background score built right in.

The two largest teams, Ferrari and Mercedes, did not give access to the documentarians, so their own backstage machinations and superstar drivers—Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen—feature only peripherally. This is a disappointment, but it allows the show to highlight characters who may otherwise have remained unsung.

Or ones who sing their own songs too much. Vijay Mallya, owner of the Force India F1 team and fugitive from the Indian government, sits at his London desk next to a sign that says, “I totally agree with myself." He repeatedly dismisses the idea of selling the team. Asked by a colleague about rumours, his reaction is bonkers: “I have a famous saying that I have been saying for decades," Mallya says. “I will believe it when the fat lady sings." In the next scene, the team is informed it has been sold.

We get insight into the way F1 negotiations work—with team bosses sniping mercilessly, pettily at each other—and the way drivers look at the world: The tight, corner-heavy start of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, for instance, is described as “driving very, very fast in a cage". It is lovely to watch sportsmen sit on a couch and passionately watch a different sport, and lovelier still to finally hear drivers curse on the car-radio without being bleeped. The hyper-talented Max Verstappen actually bursts into laughter while completing a tricky overtake, but later has to be reminded to act happy for his teammate, who has just won the race. He needs to be instructed to smile.

Ricciardo may have won that particular race, but 2019 could prove more slippery as he tries to establish himself at a different team. As for the Spaniards, Fernando Alonso has bid Formula One goodbye, while Carlos Sainz Jr finds himself in the seat he left vacant. The characters and stories will emerge, as the paddock is built on the hope of slaying giants and forging new legends. That’s the thing about sport. There is always a hero you don’t see coming.

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

He tweets at @rajasen

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