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Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive Season Three Review: Who Is This Actually For?

Netflix's cameras had an uninterrupted view of the paddock this year—which makes its framing weirder than ever.

Formula One’s deal with Netflix to make a documentary about itself was, without question, a good business decision—but a complex one. Strung up by its own copyright deals, F1 had recently changed hands to new owners who wanted to take the sport to a wider audience, only to find it had to negotiate with its own broadcasters to be able to move a finger. Unable to use the “world feed” (basically any track action you see on TV) or even most archive footage, it worked out an agreement to film something else compelling: a reality series, effectively, set in the drama-filled, high-tension F1 paddock, featuring the people who actually build and drive the cars. It worked. Fans anticipate every season of Formula 1: Drive to Survive with high expectations, and greedy for the gossip.

2020 was a particularly tumultuous year, even by F1’s standards. Its most famous star broke every record left to him, equaling Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles—in the midst of publicly taking a strong stance on human rights that he brought back to the track with him when racing resumed. Oh, yes, and the pandemic shut racing down for several months while we all watched several drivers commit to various stages of isolation-related breakdown on Twitch. And two teams nearly went bankrupt before the start of the season. And substitute drivers had to keep stepping in for people who contracted COVID-19. And it ended in flames

COVID restrictions meant Netflix’s cameras were among a very few with direct access to the paddock, Haas F1

There have been quieter years, y’know. 

None of this explains why season three of this documentary is so incoherent, uncompelling, and outright offensive in the lack of space it gives to half of those stories. Last year it was harder than ever to film or be media in the F1 paddock, with numbers heavily restricted. But Netflix, as Formula 1: Drive to Survive-contributing journalist Will Buxton explained in a video, was effectively embedded into teams to get unique access. So it’s not the virus, for once, that’s been the limiting factor in a 2020 production.

The problem with Formula 1: Drive to Survive isn’t that it often frames things inaccurately. Diehard fans know it’s not really intended for them, although they’re quite likely to enjoy it—it’s meant to explain the sport to new audiences. In the past, people have grumbled but been willing to overlook dramatization or even outright inaccuracies. 

A particularly weird example is episode eight, which focuses on McLaren’s teammate pairing, the much-loved duo of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. For whatever reason, the episode was spliced together with radio messages taken out of context and dialogue hastily chopped with the apparent goal of making it a bitter, jealous rivalry where Sainz was forced from the team by McLaren’s favoritism of Norris. It’s an outright bizarre narrative to put on a team whose big story last season was going from near-financial-collapse to its best result in years by coming in third in the constructors’ title fight.

We all get reality TV isn’t truly real—you’re not going to be shocked when you find out the way they choose the clips for RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t based on how to most accurately show each queen’s skills, as much as the drama of the episode in a way that’s entertaining. And Formula 1: Drive to Survive is, in that respect, an entertainment show. It’s gossip, it’s a little behind-the-scenes glimpse into a sport full of huge characters, and it all works perfectly for that.

There are a lot of things you might want to hide about F1, or at least, not really showcase if you’re trying to appeal to a young audience. There are virtually no women, it’s overwhelmingly white, the number of openly gay drivers has been, in over 70 years, exactly one. There are locations with extremely questionable ethics, the entire theme of being a fossil fuel-burning spectacle, the sort of things that just don’t chime well with millennials or zoomers. If the half-truths that Formula 1: Drive to Survive dealt in were to try and make F1 look more modern, more diverse, more appealing, better than it is, then you could see the logic behind it.

Something that made it stand out starkly this year was that for the first time in three seasons, Netflix hired a female journalist as one of its expert talking heads. There aren’t a lot of women who write about F1, but there are plenty of women who work in F1 broadcasting, so it had always seemed a bit egregious that they’d be so overlooked. Jennie Gow does an excellent job and is a refreshing presence, but it throws up the question of, given its wide-open access, why it took Netflix so long? Did a female journalist not fit their template for the show?

And that’s exactly it: Templating is the problem. The show fits old F1 narratives, rivalries, bitter feuds, to a paddock that not only doesn’t necessarily fit them—but even worse—has a lot of its most compelling stories masked by the search for things that aren’t there.

Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jnr absolutely hating each other, McLaren

It’s a weird thing to do, to take something so beloved and appealing to fans and try to twist it. It’s a dated view of the sport where the drivers should be gladiators that hate each other. 

Other episodes aren’t as plagued by inaccuracy, however, and occasionally, the producers even strike gold. Episode four’s gleeful dismantling of Ferrari via an increasingly uncaring Sebastian Vettel is brilliant television. Cyril Abiteboul, the Renault team principal, grieving the loss of Daniel Ricciardo from his team like the betrayed heroine of an existential romance novel is a scenery-chewing performance worthy of a BAFTA. And at the opposite end of that scale, the quiet, restrained persistence of Pierre Gasly as he faces down grief and pain to take his first Grand Prix win is an incredible sporting story. 

What’s striking about all this is that these are the storylines where Netflix should’ve really flexed its all-access pass. But even then, the focus is shaky; it takes until the final episode for Lewis Hamilton, who Netflix clearly had plenty of very open and honest interview time with, to talk about his achievements. Or anything else he’s been thinking about, for that matter.

Hamilton’s interview is stark; calmly explaining the racism he faced since starting karting as a kid and how he intends to use all his championships and the respect and celebrity status he now commands in the sport to change that for the future. Even then, the kind of interview most journalists would chop off a limb for, isn’t given space—it’s mixed in with other footage. It feels almost like someone was told to find some other clips to add to it. Most frustratingly, the choice was a juxtaposed film of George Floyd’s murder without any warning, pulling the impact away from Hamilton’s words and feeling like a careless, shock-value spectacle thrown in without empathy. 

So who is Formula 1: Drive to Survive for? It doesn’t cater to people who might have heard of this record-breaking guy who stands up for human rights, it’s not trying to portray a healthy, diverse sport, it’s not even trying to follow the narratives that people have most engaged with and loved over a season. The use of video and audio out of context is really obvious this season—thanks, in no small part, to Lando Norris’ habit of changing his helmet every race—and the deliberate manipulation of contributors’ words.

It would make sense if the end result had been more dramatic, more emotionally engaging, more appealing to younger and newer fans, but that isn’t the case.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive season three is currently playing on Netflix. Let us know what you thought of it.

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