Formula 1: Drive to Survive Is Starting to Feel Even More Shameless

Photo:  Lars Baron (Getty Images)
Photo: Lars Baron (Getty Images)

Last Friday saw the release of Formula 1: Drive to Survive’s latest season. For the past five years, Netflix has followed the sport under the guise of showing fans what it’s really like behind the scenes of the world’s most prestigious form of open-wheel racing. The 10-episode format has never exactly been a fully accurate representation of its focal season, with show writers and editors instead weaving together compelling storylines at the expense of some drivers, rivalries, or big moments. But season five has signaled a shift. In fact, it feels like F1 has stepped into the writing room to transform the fun series into an uncomfortably pointed press release for the sport.

DTS has never been an exact, to-the-detail representation of F1, and in the past, I was more than happy to allow it its indulgences when it came to putting a more exciting spin on certain rivalries or talking about certain events. The series is designed to be a drama, and hardcore motorsport fans aren’t its target audience. That’s fine.

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Now, though, those spins aren’t necessarily done to create a more compelling story. In fact, it almost feels like they’re designed to create the narrative that Formula 1 is OK with. DTS has always been a marketing tool, but now it feels like I’m reading a press release.

One of the biggest things in this vein that stood out to me is the portrayal of Sergio Perez, the second driver at Red Bull Racing. Last year, he supported Max Verstappen in the Dutchman’s pursuit of a second title, but things boiled over in Brazil when the team asked Verstappen to allow Perez past to secure points toward a second-place finish in the championship. Verstappen refused, and Perez was upset. Then Verstappen’s mom allegedly took to Instagram to accuse Perez of cheating on his wife, which had been reported earlier that year via tabloid magazines that had sourced photos of Perez with another woman.

Dramatic? Yes. There were a lot of ways DTS could have handled that situation. Instead, it entirely brushed over the Brazil incident… and dedicated a significant amount of time to positing Perez as a family man. I might not have even noticed, either, had the show not asked Checo about his newborn child, had it not followed it up with Checo talking about how hard it is to be away from his beloved family, had it not edited in footage of Checo and his wife dancing at their wedding. I wasn’t expecting DTS to dive into a driver’s interpersonal drama, but it felt like that exact moment was included to counteract rumors of Perez’s infidelity in a massively heavy-handed way.

That moment was a turning point for me. As I finished the series — and as I went back to rewatch it from the beginning — I felt like I was watching through a new lens. Suddenly, I began to notice other moments that felt like they were pulled right from a PR training playbook. Yuki Tsunoda, who was formerly portrayed as a problem child, is lauded by Franz Tost as the future of the team. Drivers who are leaving the series — even former darlings like Daniel Ricciardo — are almost entirely written out of the show (unless they’re Mick Schumacher, who needs to be portrayed as fully incompetent enough to justify Haas getting rid of a legacy name). There are only a few passing mentions of Sebastian Vettel’s retirement, and no mention of the man’s pivot to climate change awareness and the hypocrisy he’s highlighted in F1's approach to eco-friendliness. The Houthi missile attack that took place near the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix circuit remains unacknowledged, despite it setting the tone for how the FIA would treat its drivers for the rest of the season. And there’s an entire episode dedicated to AlphaTauri that centers around the Japanese Grand Prix that entirely fails to mention anything about Pierre Gasly discovering a tractor parked on a dangerous, rainy track.

And that’s putting aside the continued criticisms: The sound of a car accelerating overlaid on footage of that braking, the increasingly clunky scripting of the faux commentary, the clips of one race sandwiched into the storyline of another. I’m happy to excuse those stylistic choices because DTS is trying to create something that prioritizes excitement over authenticity, and in the grand scheme of things, those critiques are minor. Paired with a full rewriting of the most challenging moments of they season, though, they become almost insufferable in the series’ refusal to learn and evolve.

Of course, the series was never meant to be a deep-dive journalistic challenge to F1's status quo, but in the past few seasons, I felt like I was at least able to enjoy the spectacle for its carefully curated drama. It was fun to hear storylines you weren’t getting from any other outlets. It was nice to see drivers in their natural habitats, to hear about the season’s dramas from different angles, refined into an easily digestible storyline. You could tell F1 had had a say in the final product, but not to a distracting level. Now, it almost feels like F1 has handed the Netflix scriptwriters a list of must-hit topics and a list of no-gos that are each growing longer and more intricate than they had been in previous seasons. Anything that might deviate from the image F1 wants to project is disallowed, but instead of letting writers find creative workarounds, F1 has instead asked the show to plug in a quick soundbite that helps gloss over the subject.

I get it. The show has helped increase F1's global profile and brought in a massive new fanbase, so of course The Powers That Be are going to want to make sure new fans are seeing F1 put its best foot forward. Sport, though, is messy. There are chaotic, painful debacles like Abu Dhabi 2021. There are nasty interpersonal dramas, like Verstappen’s mom accusing Perez of infidelity as a way to turn the spotlight off her son — and, hell, even Verstappen’s refusal to be a good team player was nasty enough! There are criticisms to be raised about the politics of host countries or the money from sponsors. Sometimes, sport is so stupid that it’s funny. Sometimes, it’s so serious that it hurts. But ultimately, the very human way we engage with sport based on our own experiences and perceptions is why we watch.

Scrubbing out many of those human forms of engagement can be expected from a series-sanctioned drama like DTS — but doubling down and filling those gaps with PR-friendly schlock is disingenuous. The season was still enjoyable in many ways, and there’s still plenty that it can do to highlight the carefree fun we find in a year. But, frankly, fans of both F1 and Drive to Survive deserve better, and if this is the way the sport is going to use the most brilliant marketing tool in its history, we might all be better off if the docuseries ended here.

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