How 'Drive to Survive' Helped Formula 1 Win Over America

·10 min read
how formula 1 won over america
'Drive to Survive' Helped F1 Win Over AmericaJamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

From the September 2022 issue of Car and Driver.

In the little midway between the entrance to the garages at the Miami Grand Prix in May, a Formula 1 fan who identified himself as Drunk Dave and said he works in a Chicago insurance office was trolling for a driver.

Within minutes, Dave hooked one. The driver stood quietly for handshakes and smiled for selfies before making his escape.

"That's my new favorite driver!" Dave proclaimed. "Who is that little guy?"

Zhou Guanyu, he is told, is China's first F1 driver. He is a rookie for Alfa Romeo.

"A rookie?" Dave replied. "That means he hasn't been on the Netflix show yet? That's why I don't know who he is."

Ah, the Netflix show. It's impossible to say how many fans among the sellout crowd in Miami, or at the F1 race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin last fall, went because they discovered F1 on the Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, but there were a lot.

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

"Drive to Survive has not only moved the needle, it pegged it," said Tavo Hellmund, who brokered the deal to bring F1 to Circuit of the Americas and then to the Mexico City Grand Prix. "Its impact has been enormous, and it just seems to be growing." The show is top-10 viewing in 56 countries.

Drive to Survive, currently filming its fifth season and approved for a sixth, is a relentlessly fast-paced romp through the F1 paddock. As quickly as bees flit through a flower bed, it pauses to interview drivers and crew, sniffing out controversy and conflict and possibly enhancing the drama where little exists. That mild soap-opera flavor keeps fans coming back. They often binge-watch the 10-episode seasons as soon as they drop, typically in early March.

For a television series that airs on a streaming service to actually put fans in the stands is unprecedented. And those seats aren't cheap: Figure $640 for a ticket to the Miami GP. For a family of four, that's over $2500 for admission alone, before considering $100 for a team hat and NFL-level refreshment prices. Drive to Survive is also parking fans in front of their TVs for race coverage, though the competing Darlington NASCAR Cup Series race on FS1 narrowly beat out the Miami F1 race on ABC (this being America, after all).

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

The numbers were still healthy for the latter, peaking at 2.9 million viewers and averaging 2.6 million during the race telecast. And F1's audience did exceed NASCAR's in the important 18-to-49 demographic. This upstart F1 popularity is not lost on IndyCar and NASCAR, the top two motorsports series in the U.S.

Would the Formula Work for NASCAR or IndyCar?

Ray Evernham, crew chief for four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon during three of his championships, counts himself a Drive to Survive fan. "They've done a fantastic job with that series," Evernham told us, "and I think it's creating interest in motorsports in general. I've always said: We love cars, but motorsports is really about the personalities. IndyCar has done a great job with that, and I see NASCAR trying to do that. But that show on Netflix has done as much for F1 racing's popularity as anything that has happened in years. I mean, other than Lewis Hamilton being born, what has made a bigger difference?"

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

Driver Álex Palou would love to see a similar show about IndyCar. "Everybody has seen what Drive to Survive did for F1," said Palou, who won the 2021 IndyCar championship. "The stories they tell are perhaps too dramatic for the die-hard enthusiasts, but it works for people who are new fans. It would be amazing to have something close to that show for our series. I think it would be actually fun for us."

Drive to Survive has been "a total game changer in the States," said Danica Patrick, former IndyCar and NASCAR driver. "The average person doesn't know about racing. If NASCAR and IndyCar did that and really showed behind the scenes—if they really got drivers and teams and owners to be involved in it the way they've been able to get Formula 1 to do it—it would be a game changer for those motorsports as well."

But would it work? Several people who might know, including Mario Andretti, have gone on the record suggesting that playing copycat would be viewed as just that. And how do you treat the sponsors? No one in F1 is pausing to thank Ray-Ban or Richard Mille. Sponsors just write huge checks and appear on the sides of cars and uniform sleeves. NASCAR would never tolerate such silence.

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

Producing the Netflix Series

It wasn't hard to spot the DTS crews at the Miami race, moving seamlessly and quietly through the garages and pits and offices under the watchful eye of Nathaniel Grouille, a Brit who is the director of unscripted series at Netflix.

"Miami was amazing, wasn't it?" Grouille said from his California office several days after the race. Indeed it was, and Grouille wasn't talking about the actual racing, which was a bit follow the leader. Drive to Survive doesn't concern itself much with close finishes, anyway.

In Miami, you could practically see the crew salivate over the fake Monaco-style marina that organizers built in the parking lot of the Dolphins' Hard Rock Stadium (also the site of the temporary 19-turn track, which crumbled at the edges at times). The Silly String confetti, the football helmets placed on the podium finishers' heads, the post-race interview by Willy T. Ribbs—yes, amazing. And sure to be included in season 5.

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

Netflix was "definitely surprised" by the success of DTS, Grouille said. "None of us expected it to take on the kind of cultural significance it has. We were staggered by the response, especially in the States."

Paul Martin, Sophie Todd, and the Oscar-nominated James Gay-Rees are the co-creators and executive producers. Gay-Rees produced the 2010 documentary Senna. The three are "truly best-in-class story­tellers," Grouille said. "They have a way to tell stories that is just different enough from the norm. You start to see things you didn't see before and engage in a way that's new. It's wonderful to see that work, to see their labor come to fruition."

Grouille acknowledged that Formula 1's cooperation is important to the alchemy. "Sports typically presents itself as a curated experience, and the stories are told in the way they want to tell them," Grouille said. "Formula 1 was super courageous from the beginning. They said, 'Listen, we run a racing promotion, you guys create great content, and here's the access. We really trust you, and let's work as partners to make sure everything is going smoothly.'"

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

Most amazing is the absence of censorship from F1 management. "We've heard nothing from F1," Grouille said. "What we don't want to do is give away any technology on the car that is proprietary, to accidentally reveal that to the world, and we're quite careful about that. But when it comes to editorial, we at Netflix have the final say. We're not trying to embarrass anyone; we're just looking for authentic stories. Formula 1 management are pragmatic people, and they understand that we're just trying to capture the experience."

Netflix is "a tech company at heart," Grouille said, "and the technical team is the unsung hero, especially with this quick turnaround. It's one of the highest-HD projects we've done, and the attention to detail helps bring the audience into the realism."

What's the Next Show?

Will they bring that expertise to spinoffs, perhaps? "I have a motorsports past," said Grouille, whose résumé includes shows such as Lost in Transmission and Junkyard Wars, "and I've always thought that it's such a big, broad world, that there are loads of places to go. The whole automotive world is there and available for you. We've been looking at other areas to approach in the same way—we're doing a golf series and a tennis series. But I think there are opportunities in the motor world, extending the approach to other sports. There's great stories in all of them."

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

With Drive to Survive now several seasons in, trend forecasters might be wondering how much longer it can, well, survive. "Red Bull's Christian Horner asked me that question in Miami: 'How many years do you think people will be interested in this?'" Grouille said. "I told him as long as you are racing and as long as it is eventful, there will be stories to tell."

Grouille said Mercedes and Ferrari initially didn't want to take part. "It was strange to them," he recalled. "I talked to Mercedes's Toto Wolff after the first season. He said, 'What amazed me is there are stories in my sport that I didn't even know about.' If you have the eye and the ear, you find the stories. That's why the show should keep going. It's a very dynamic sport that changes a lot—drivers change, teams change, regulations change—so there will be stories to tell."

All of this comes as belated but welcome recognition to Scott Speed, the American F1 racer who drove for Toro Rosso in 2007 and 2008, in relative obscurity in his home country. "It's cool that it's finally becoming popular and that more people know about it," he said. "It's cool that my wife is starting to see what it's like. She said, 'Hey man, what you did over there is really neat.'"

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

Three Must-See Episodes

Season 1, Episode 1: "All to Play For"

You may as well start at the beginning. Drive to Survive hits the pavement running, with little in the way of introduction. The quick-hit style is immediately evident. Episode 1 previews two eventual DTS favorites: then–Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo, seen on his home turf in Australia, and Guenther Steiner, principal of the U.S.-based Haas F1 Team.

Season 3, Episode 9: "Man on Fire"

You probably know what this is about: then-Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean's crash into a barrier at the Bahrain Grand Prix, where he miraculously walks through fire to get to safety. It's perhaps the most unforgettable episode in the series. It also deals with Sergio Pérez's pending journey to Red Bull, which in hindsight looks like a pretty good idea based on his convincing win at Monaco over the 2022 Memorial Day weekend.

Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Jamey Price - Car and Driver

Season 4, Episode 10: "Hard Racing"

Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull's Max Verstappen are locked in a championship battle, with the winner of the Abu Dhabi race taking all the marbles. Hamilton battles into a leadership position with Verstappen several cars behind on the final restart—Hamilton with old tires, Verstappen with new ones. Lapped cars between them keep Verstappen at bay until the finish. But then the race steward moves the lapped cars out of the way—a hugely controversial decision—and Verstappen, as you likely know, wins. The blow is such that we're told a sullen Hamilton may or may not return for 2022. He did, of course, but how it came to this point is well told, punctuated with even more f-bombs than usual.

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