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Opinion: Drive to Survive - Is it Time to Go?

Written by Danny Jones, Edited by Sasha Macmillen

It’s that time of year again. Pre-season testing has concluded, and we are counting down the days until the season opener. And some F1 fans may fill these long, arduous days by hyping themselves up for the new season, potentially so by watching Drive to Survive, which usually comes out just before the start of the new season. And this year it is exactly the same, but Drive to Survive S4 has been met with large amounts of criticism and anger, which leaves a sour taste in the mouth - it’s almost putting F1 fans off the series, which begs the question, should Drive to Survive continue?

Drive to Survive is a Netflix TV series based on Formula One, which began in 2018. Each year, Netflix are tasked with producing 10 episodes based on the championship. Each episode usually focuses on a particular driver or team, and shows some of the behind-the-scenes footage of the sport, often highlighting a particular storyline or battle, some of which are prominent through the year, some that are made up purely for entertainment - more on that later. It also has regular episodes with characters within the Formula One paddock. For example, Daniel Ricciardo, Christian Horner and Guenther Steiner have all somewhat become cult heroes within the series.

Formula One’s deal with Netflix had a primary goal of bringing new fans to the sport, particularly of the younger generation. And it is fair to say that they have done that goal, over the four series produced. This has created its own consequences, but that's not the focus. The definitive answer is that the primary goal of Drive to Survive has been reached, so is there any need to continue?

The first series was excellently received. It gave new fans a good understanding and concept of the sport, which was engaging enough to follow it on a regular basis, but also provided the hardcore’s with behind-the-scenes footage which gave an effective insight into the running and operation within the sport. This success from Netflix gave both extremes the interest and engagement that both them and Formula One desired. This kept interest within the series and the sport, and provided it with new footage and episodes for the next season.

But, as the series goes on, the quality and reception has significantly dropped. The episodes begin to feel forced and unnatural, something that certainly doesn’t appeal to the hardcores and creates a unsatisfactory viewing for new watchers of the series. Episodes have just become frustrating to watch, due to how Netflix manufactures F1 for content. They’re adjusting a perfectly documentable sport into some sort of action movie. 2021 had the opportunity to make the most thrilling documentary on an F1 season, all the content is lying directly in front of them, but the abysmal reception says everything that needs to be said.

Netflix’s forced approach is not supported by their storylines within episodes. The most notable are regular ‘made-up’ battles and inter-team rivalries. For example, it was heavily portrayed in the media that Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris had an excellent and unbreakable bond as teammates. After Sainz’s announcement to Ferrari, Netflix portrays this bizarre hate between the two teammates, suggesting that Norris is favoured by the team, and his only ambition is to beat Sainz, something that everyone in the Formula One community knows is false.

(Image: Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

This isn’t a one-off either, this year, Netflix have manufactured a driver battle between Esteban Ocon and Yuki Tsunoda, two drivers who were in completely different form and gained different results in 2021. This style taken by Netflix also means that various key moments from every season are completely ignored. Baku, possibly one of the most significant races in 2021, was completely ignored, and Russell’s performance in Sakhir was not shown in 2020. This is the type of natural drama that fans want to see, on-track action that actually happened and created its own storylines, it didn’t require a multi-million TV company to manufacture it for them.

And as the seasons have dragged on, content has suffered. We are getting less and less behind the scenes footage, and only over-dramatised race footage, and plain and stale interviews with figures such as Will Buxton handing us information that isn’t required in a particular context. This approach has also made storylines suffer. Netflix have created a ‘redemption arc’ for Nikita Mazepin, which oddly peaks at the Russian Grand Prix - a race he finished in last. This isn’t the content that fans want to see, Haas made themselves cult heroes within the series for their drivers smashing doors, not made-up redemption arcs.

And maybe worst of all is the fake commentary or radio footage. The commentary is simply dry, as it didn’t happen, it wasn’t said in the heat of the moment. No-one focuses on Lance Stroll’s start of the race, you focus on the leaders. A voiceover could do the job even better, and wouldn’t annoy hardcore fans listening to Jack Nicholls and Alex Jacques being forced to say awkward commentary.

The team radios are just the same radio messages recycled constantly. This created unnecessary drama on battles for 14th place. There’s no benefit to anyone on over-dramatising 14th place, people want to see the battle for the win. There is a famous screenshot of Alex Albon saying: ‘These softs are rubbish’ whilst playing an onboard shot of Albon on the hard tyre. It is this which frustrates fans, it doesn't add anything to the drama or anything to the episode as whole. Many fans will genuinely want the raw footage and actions of a driver. A dramatic moment will provide dramatic radio, we don’t need fake radio for fake drama.

A strangely similar point was noted in the trailer, where Netflix flipped Tabac, to look like a right-hand turn. There is simply no benefit to any viewer. It wastes Netflix’s time, frustrates hardcore F1 fans and new fans wouldn’t see a difference. The regular over-dramatisation of practice and test sessions is bizarre, and only gives fans a false impression of reality. It is important to create hype around the series, but it needs to be done in a way that is informative and realistic.

I have to credit Drive to Survive, it has brought in many new fans to the sport, and only increased its attention and popularity. But the dismal performance of S4, suggests the path should end. The constant tampering with reality, with fake radios and commentary doesn’t add a huge amount of value, it only makes lifelong fans cringe, and gives a false impression of reality to new fans. It’s served its purpose, it has had a few very successful series, which had a perfect balance of entertainment and informativity, but now it really seems to be leaning on the side of entertainment, which is causing a variety of issues.

It feels like the more series there are, the less valuable they have, it’s now reached the point at which fans are being put off by the series, which isn’t beneficial to either. Drive to Survive has done its job with flying colours, new fans can always go back and watch previous series. Personally, I see these recent seasons as too manipulated and too on the side of entertainment, it's almost become a laughing stock, with all the memes created on Instagram and YouTube. I think Drive to Survive’s time should be up. It has done its target of reaching new F1 fans brilliantly, but the more it goes on, the more I think that F1’s reputation could be damaged, which is the opposite of what is wanted and required, and although we have had several brilliant episodes, it’s time is well and truly up.

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