The closest Formula One title race in years is also the first one I have followed since Eddie Irvine’s high rascal days.
My interest in the tooth-and-nail battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton is down to a recent full-throttle, binge-watch of the Netflix series Formula One: Drive To Survive, which goes behind-the-scenes of F1’s precarious, Darwinian glamour.
Funnily enough, Drive To Survive doesn’t actually focus much on Hamilton and co at the top of the F1 leaderboard. This is more by accident than design. Mercedes and Ferrari did not take part in the first series and offered limited access thereafter. Instead, the show proves the old maxim about the best stories being found in the losers’ locker room.
Teams like Haas, Renault, McLaren, and Williams scrap for ‘midfield’ respectability and squabble like little children over minute breaches of engine regulations.
The drivers at this level are constantly at risk of losing their seat for the following season, a fate they seem to fear more than the frequent, terrifying crashes.
I was hooked early on, thanks to a scene where a mechanic on the Haas team fails to bolt on a new set of wheels properly. The camera zooms in on the horrified guy’s face. We’ve all been there. Sure enough, the wheels come flying off and the team principal, Gunther Steiner, one of the show’s stars, rages like an Alpine Basil Fawlty.
The team principals — think football managers, but with even more swearing — are in a constant state of bewilderment about why an engine has just exploded or a driver has decided to plough a car worth millions into a nearby wall. All they can really do is hire and fire drivers, or preferably poach one from a rival. They bitch and jibe at each other like minor royal courtiers.
There’s Christian Horner of Red Bull, charming but deadly, the Littlefinger of the pit lane who changes drivers more often than tyres; Cyril Abiteboul, the permanently on-edge former Renault boss; and the paddock’s alpha dog, Toto Wolff of Mercedes, as slick as Don Draper and as Austrian as Arnold Schwarzenegger, except maybe slicker and Austrianer.
But it is the drivers who most seem like playthings for the gods. Though they look more like backpack-toting exchange students these days than the swaggering playboys of yore, self-confidence remains a prerequisite. They are literally the best 20 car drivers in the world. Yet there can only be three on the podium, so most spend their lives dealing with disasters of various kinds, generally outside their control. They usually deal with their emotions by going jet-skiing in Monte Carlo.
There is something intrinsically humbling about your brake pads failing at 300kph. For all their strut and arrogance, they must submit to their fate. This happens in other sports too; but imagine the visual impact of Cristiano Ronaldo crashing into the Old Trafford hoarding with smoke and fire coming out of his ass.
Drive To Survive has been credited with bringing a new audience to the sport, particularly in America. The Yanks were previously indifferent to its Eurotrashy charms, preferring their own rootin’, tootin’ varieties. But F1 TV audiences have doubled in the US since Drive To Survive first aired in 2019.
You can tell Drive To Survive is made with Americans in mind because a couple of F1 journalists are employed throughout to give REALLY SIMPLE EXPLANATIONS about what is going on. Also, there is very little motoring jargon. This is all fine by me — the last car whose technical specifications I understood belonged to Fred Flintstone.
Prior to my DTS binge, Formula One had idled away in the back of my consciousness for about two decades. I used to be a big fan. As an eight-year-old boy, I prayed at Mass one day that God might let Keke Rosberg win the Australian Grand Prix. He duly did and I have yet to find better evidence for a benevolent, interventionist deity.
Those were the glory days. Prost vs Senna, the Jordan story, the arrival of Michael Schumacher, Irvine winking at pit girls, all sound-tracked by the BBC commentary team of Murray Walker and James Hunt, a blend of the high octane and the louche — F1 encapsulated.
I’m not sure what happened then. Not enough overtaking? Did Schumacher’s dominance take away the thrill of the chase? Of course, there lots of reasons not to like Formula One. Sportswashing, environmental concerns, primacy of the filthy lucre — F1 has it all. But most likely it suffered from football’s greedy grab on our attentions. Super Sunday took pole position. Like a back-marker being overtaken by Lewis Hamilton, F1 sort of got squeezed out, as far as I was concerned.
The success of Drive To Survive shows how fickle attentions can be regained. Sure, it is more ‘content’ than journalism. There are liberties taken with which stories are followed, drama is heightened with skilful editing and occasional scenes are staged. Verstappen has refused to cooperate this season, claiming the show is “fake.” But most in the F1 circus recognise its transformative impact.
Not that there is anything new about offering access and allowing skilful storytellers to do their job. It’s how great sportswriters and broadcasters worked in the 20th century, building legends by bringing the audience up close and personal, without the siege defences of modern PR and media training.
Drive To Survive works because it is less about the machines than the people. Even as his championship chances have waned, Daniel Ricciardo is one of the show’s most popular characters, thanks to his likeable, goofball personality. Pierre Gasly’s redemption after being dumped by Red Bull has you punching the air. And when Romain Grosjean bows out of the sport after walking from a blazing inferno in Bahrain, his tearful wife by his side, you feel like giving him a big hug.
You understand that when the pit lane engineer tells a driver, like a very calm midwife, to ‘push, push,’ they are asking them to risk their lives. A show that makes you care about arrogant young rich men who drive fast cars for a living: now that is good storytelling.
The only downside is you are afraid to watch the current, unfolding championship lest it ruin your enjoyment of the next DTS season.
Spoiler alerts. Very Netflix.