Is Drive To Survive *actually* better than Formula 1?

Written by Lissie Mackintosh Edited by Harshi Vashee 

I recently stumbled across Victoria Turk’s article for Wired, which boldly stated that Drive to Survive was in fact, better, than actual Formula 1. I’ll get straight to the point: I disagree. 

Drive to Survive came to Netflix in 2018, and showed Formula 1 in a completely different light. By including interviews, behind the scenes footage of the drivers at home training and by revealing feuds such as those surrounding the volatile drivers’ market. The show revealed the human side of the sport and gave access to the F1 drivers like never before. The show aired as part of a new strategy formed by Liberty media which aimed to engage younger viewers in the sport and attract a wider audience by making the show appear, in many ways, like a typical reality show. Filled with drama and emotion, the show builds climaxes to exciting moments such as Pierre Gasly’s win at Monza after being harshly dismissed by Red Bull through developing compelling storylines within each episode. The problem here is that some of these storylines are somewhat fabricated; in Season 2 Episode 3, the show builds suspense as they reveal an intense rivalry between two drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz. This infuriated some F1 fans who believed that the show was taking too many artistic liberties in creating conflicts which were not necessarily legitimate, especially after Ricciardo revealed that the rivalry was a little ‘forced’ for the docuseries. 

Having said this, these emotionally charged aspects of the show reveal a very likeable side of these drivers showing them in a more personal, even vulnerable setting than the one we see them in each race; a helmet poking out of the top of their race cars. It makes sense – I mean these guys are marketable- young, fit, successful… It’s easy and entertaining to watch them and gives a younger, perhaps more emotional generation a chance at getting into the sport through what they know best: emotion and exclusive TV.  It makes sense to create a series around such a sport in which your teammate is your biggest rival, and where your team could drop you depending on how well you perform each race- the drama in Formula 1 is very real, as we have seen this year with the Bottas, Russell swap at Mercedes. Internally, that must have been pretty awkward, and we will all get to see the ins and outs of that deal next season, as well as being able to see the situation from each drivers’ perspective. That’s pretty unique. What’s more is that none of these tensions are necessarily obvious to viewers who only watch the sport live every Sunday; TV coverage doesn’t even show some of these so-called ‘rivalries’ in real time, and each week we only really see the podium drivers, 1st, 2nd and 3rd take the spotlight.  This is where perhaps the series is in some ways more insightful than actual race coverage. An overtake which might even be missed on Sky Sports between two drivers at the back of the pack is dramatised with exclusive interviews, backstories and music and creates hugely exciting moments out of things which may seem inconsequential to a Sunday race watcher. However, there would be no Drive to Survive without Formula 1, and this is the reason why the TV show can never be better than the sport itself.

Another reason the show does not do the sport justice? The cars themselves. Formula 1 cars are enigmatic, powerful, complex, incredible. It seems insulting to know that many of the car sounds in the show are not real. As we know, the V6’s are not the fan favourite and so it makes sense that for a show like Drive to Survive to have the need to enhance engine noises. But the noises they use for the crashes are also fabricated, in order to make things more exciting. But how can a TV show which is not an accurate representation of the sport be better than the sport itself?

Here’s the thing. The show clearly engages a younger audience. A recent study by Nielsen reveals Drive to Survive to be a main driving force (excuse the pun) in engaging 16-35 year olds into the sport. In fact, this audience made up 77% of Formula 1’s audience growth in 2020. When you make a story out of something, people are eager to see what the story holds and where it’s going, and the show keeps the audience’s attention through intimate interviews which allow the drivers themselves to dictate the season in their own words. The show gives insight into each race from the drivers’ perspective, and allows us to become ultimate insiders as opposed to being spoken to by a Sky Sports F1 commentator for hours, talking about Pirelli tyre compounds. I get it. But that’s what Formula 1 is. Perhaps rightly so, there has been some anger amongst longer term fans of the sport who complain that newer fans are only buying into the appeal of a well-narrated, well-edited show. The fact of the matter is that actual Formula 1 is not edited in a particular way. Formula 1 is aerodynamics, it is about Pirelli tyre compounds, and oftentimes it is a race with no particular drama or crazy crashes. It must be loved for what it is, not for an inaccurate representation of itself. To me, there is a difference between something like F1 youtube’s Grill the Grid– which gives funny insights into the drivers personalities and knowledge about the sport, without ad-libbing narratives when needed.

I reckon most F1 fans will agree it is a great way to engage young interest in the sport, and honestly, does it matter how these younger fans became involved? Surely they all share the same passion. Sure, they do, but I think the problem lies in the fact that they may have passion for different perceptions of what Formula 1 is. Drive to Survive is a show which does not show the particularly technical angle of the sport, and in fact does not show a huge amount of actual racing. It is for this reason that ultimately the two cannot truly be compared. But it is also for this reason that Drive to Survive can never be considered better than actual Formula 1. Formula 1 is not a spectacle to be filled with pockets of drama when it starts to get ‘boring’. And personally, whilst I think the show is great, I don’t believe it portrays the technical aspects of the sport in enough depth, without which the sport does not exist. That is the beauty of the sport, the art of the car. There is no Drive to Survive without Formula 1. 

Drive to Survive Season 4 airs in 2022 on Netflix.

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