The arrival of a new season of Netflix’s Drive to Survive increasingly feels like an essential component of the build-up to the new world championship. And yet the series is only in its third year.
But that’s also to be expected for one obvious reason: the pandemic made working arrangements for Netflix more complicated than usual, as team numbers were stripped back to a bare minimum. With far fewer people in the paddock, the Box To Box team who produce Drive to Survive were inevitably more conspicuous by their presence this year.
The simple fact that there was less paddock chatter going on last year meant there were fewer opportunities for Netflix to capture the kind of behind-the-scenes gems which made previous seasons so compelling. However they were able to follow their subjects close enough to uncover some telling exchanges and revealing moments (the one driver who appears naked being the most obvious example – I’ll leave you to speculate which…)
The series opens with Daniel Ricciardo’s mother asking him on the phone if he remembered to wear a face mask on his way to Australia for the race. Via a flashback to pre-season testing, which sets up some storylines for the season ahead, we get the creeping sense of impending doom ahead of the cancellation of the season-opening race.
The season hits its stride in the third episode, where the Netflix crew were able to follow world champions Mercedes at the Russian Grand Prix. This went considerably better for Mercedes than the disastrous 2019 German Grand Prix covered in the previous season, though Lewis Hamilton managed to incur the wrath of the stewards by performing his practice starts in the wrong location.
The episode therefore showcases an against-the-run-of-play victory for Valtteri Bottas. As well as some memorable scenes with the driver in Finland, a pre-race encounter between Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff and race director Michael Masi in the gym proves prophetic of what was to follow. It’s a shame, however, we see nothing of the meeting between Hamilton and the stewards which led to his penalty points being rescinded – a rare U-turn decision which the episode ignores completely.
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To an extent, it is understandable that details like this are overlooked. F1 is a complicated sport, this is a series targeted at new viewers and the producers already have plenty of explaining to do. Drive to Survive appears to have been very successful at attracting new F1 viewers, if the number of fans on social media citing the series as their introduction to the sport can be taken at face value, and that’s something we should all welcome.
The constant exposition does start to grate, however. It comes across in talking head explanations and sections of dialogue presented as live race commentary which were clearly recorded specially for the series. It’s tolerable up to a point, but the hyping up of test and practice sessions in some episodes really is too much. A bit less ‘tell’ and a bit more ‘show’ is needed.
Like Mercedes, Ferrari granted Netflix access to their team for a single race, as the two did in 2019. On that occasion the Drive to Survive team turned up at one of the few late-season races where Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc didn’t have some kind of tiff, and the result was a rather forgettable 35 minutes.
The series three Ferrari episode is far more compelling, though like much of last year’s championship it will make grim viewing for the tifosi. It follows the team’s horror show weekend at Monza, mercilessly probes the debate over the legality of the team’s 2019 power unit and reveals how strained relations between Vettel and Ferrari became following their pre-season decision not to renew his contract.
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Similar scenes are found in episode five, covering Daniel Ricciardo’s departure from Renault, where Cyril Abiteboul cuts the unhappiest figure in the series. While fuming at the perceived betrayal by his star driver, Abiteboul has plenty of anger left over to direct at Racing Point for their ‘Pink Mercedes’.
RaceFans readers will approach Drive to Survive already well aware of how the events shown turned out. The most satisfying moments in the series are where having that knowledge enhances your enjoyment of the episode. The Pierre Gasly-focussed sixth part is an excellent example, as Red Bull team principal Christian Horner bats away suggestions they should recall the driver they fired 12 months earlier, before proceeding to the Italian Grand Prix, which the AlphaTauri racer sensationally won.
The opposite is true in the case of “Guenther’s choice”, episode seven, the least satisfying of the series. Having played up the conceit Steiner will choose whether to fire Romain Grosjean or Kevin Magnussen, when he eventually axed both, the revelation of his final decision comes as an anti-climax, revealed in a short news report at the end of the episode.
While Haas’s motivation for hiring Mick Schumacher is explored – the visit to a sponsor pitch with 1&1 is the most revealing part of this episode – the existence of Nikita Mazepin is ignored until he is announced as one of their drivers. The reason for dropping both drivers isn’t probed beyond Steiner noting Mazepin’s father owns a successful company who “may want to” sponsor the team.
Unsurprisingly, Grosjean features heavily in another episode, “Man on Fire”, which describes his Bahrain crash in detail which borders on the unbearable at times. In real life he escaped from his burning cockpit in 27 seconds; in this version it’s over four minutes, though one imagines it felt even longer than that for Grosjean.
As with many of the big stories of the season, it was covered so extensively at the time there’s little more for Netflix to add here. So blending Grosjean’s story with that of two other drivers who were facing the loss of their seats at the end of the year – Alexander Albon and Sergio Perez – is a deft touch. It’s just a shame that, again, the big reveal at the end of the episode – Perez’s career being saved by Red Bull – comes across awkwardly, in a staged phone call with Horner.
Given the constraints they had to operate within, its impressive how much of season three of Drive to Survive feels like business as usual for Netflix. Several of the episodes are as good as any of the best from previous series. I only wish they’d dedicated more time to acknowledging the departure of the Williams family, a hugely significant moment in the history of one of F1’s greatest teams.
The season finale is more functional than thrilling, though remembering how poor last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was, it’s not like they had much to work with. The series comes to a fitting and even provocative end with a reminder of why so many F1 drivers chose to speak out against racism during 2020. It’s a vital addition, enhanced by Hamilton speaking with the passion and conviction we came to expect from him on this important subject.
As an introduction to the sport and a review of the key moments and themes of the 2020 championship, Drive to Survive is once again a highly entertaining watch.
“Drive to Survive” season three arrives on Netflix on March 19th.
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