This article contains details of the upcoming series of Drive to Survive, which will appear on Netflix on March 11th.
Last year, for the first time since Drive to Survive’s cameras entered the F1 paddock, the series served up a championship fight which ran all the way to the final round.Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton started the finale tied on points. Throughout the race, Hamilton was poised to snatch the title away from his rival. But a final-lap restart handed Verstappen his chance: He seized the lead, won the race and clinched the championship with it.
Sadly what should have been a moment of pure sporting drama was spoiled by the controversy which surrounded it, as the restart of the race arranged by FIA race director Michael Masi contravened F1’s rules. That provoked an immediate (unsuccessful) protest by Mercedes, which was followed by the threat of a further appeal which took days to resolve, and led to an investigation which spanned months and culminated in sweeping changes to F1’s officiating – and Masi’s removal from his post.
Now in its fourth season, how would Drive to Survive relate the complex and controversial story of last year’s finale to the new viewers it has brought to the sport? And, given the extensive behind-the-scenes access the programme makers enjoy, what new details about it might they unearth for the interest of committed F1 fans?
These are covered in the final two episodes of the new series, which were not available to preview when the embargo on reviews lifted six days ago. Now those episodes have been shared with the media, the Drive to Survive take on the 2021 F1 season can be appreciated in full for the first time.
The fight for the world championship dominates the fourth season of Drive to Survive, far more so than was the case in the previous three instalments. Of the 10 episodes, half chiefly focus on Mercedes and Red Bull, meaning we see less of the midfielders and backmarkers than usual, particularly at Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo.
Yet the best moments of season four largely involve teams who weren’t in the title fight. Yuki Tsunoda provides comic relief as he settles into life as an F1 driver. Daniel Ricciardo struggles with a tougher-than-expected start to life at McLaren.
The Haas episode is the pick of the bunch, unearthing fascinating new details about the relationship between team and sponsor Uralkali, and the revealing how morale at the team deteriorated as driver Nikita Mazepin accused the team of giving him inferior equipment to team mate Mick Schumacher. Unfortunately this episode also includes one of the most contrived accounts of a race in the series to date.
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That readiness to treat accuracy as optional remains Drive to Survive’s biggest weakness. Happily, it largely avoids any serious lapses into embellishment in its coverage of the final three races of last season, which are spread across a pair of 50-minute episodes. What has been included is arguably less significant than what has been left out.
It’s amusing to think back to the days when Mercedes wouldn’t let the Drive to Survive crew into their garages even when they were winning world championships relatively easily. Now they are happy to let the cameras look in on their post-session debriefs in the midst of their tooth-and-nail fight against Red Bull. Such as at Losail, where Hamilton excitedly pounces on footage of Verstappen failing to slow for double waved yellow flags in qualifying. “It’s not that easy to see,” he concedes. “Is that a penalty then?”
Max Verstappen’s well-publicised fall-out with the programme makers over what he considers their misrepresentative handling of him during the first season means no face-to-face interviews with him. But the Netflix team have made use of the wide access they do have capture some new footage of Verstappen talking with the team.
This is augmented by more illuminating chats between his father and Christian Horner, and the latter leaning on Masi for information in Losail. And of course no shortage of Horner grizzling at Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who in Horner’s estimation “has no fucking idea.”
It’s telling that both title-contending teams shared a suspicion the competition would be tipped one way or another by those in charge for the benefit of the show. Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin remarks to Hamilton in Qatar that Verstappen is unlikely to be penalised after qualifying (though he later was) as “they’ll want Max on the front row”; similarly in Jeddah Horner fumes after two calls go against his team that “they got what they wanted, it goes to the final race.”
But those hoping for fresh insights into that final race, and the deeply contentious turn of events which unfolded, will be largely disappointed. Not only that, but the most revealing radio exchange previously broadcast from the race is missing. Radio of Red Bull’s Jonathan Wheatley telling Masi to allow cars to unlap themselves “then we’ve got a motor race” went viral on social media last month (despite having been published weeks before) as fans noticed its similarity to Masi’s later retort to Wolff: “It’s called a motor race.”
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Why was this exchange, which captured Red Bull’s successful lobbying of Masi better than any other, left out? Maybe because it didn’t involve Horner, who throughout Drive to Survive functions as a proxy for the lesser-seen Verstappen. But it’s hard to avoid the impression that, while the programme makers have previously been accused of manufacturing drama, they were reluctant to tackle the full magnitude of a genuine scandal which went beyond the competitors and involved championship officials.
The drama of the final race is turned up to 11, and boasts a smattering of previously unheard radio dialogue, but the controversy which followed it is largely ignored. This was partly to be expected: Production deadlines no doubt made it impossible to cover the outcome of the FIA’s investigation over two months after the finale.
But for a series which thrives on paddock intrigue, the decision to ignore Mercedes’ attempt to overturn the result on the night of the race is striking. Nor is there any mention of the three days the team spent considering an appeal, during which time Verstappen could not be definitively declared champion, as the race result remained conditional on Mercedes’ course of action.
As a result the final episode ends with jarring haste. We see some Red Bull celebrations, though even in his moment of triumph it seems Verstappen didn’t deviate from his refusal to speak to Netflix. There’s next to nothing from Hamilton, who imposed a total media blackout of his own shortly after the chequered flag. Nor is there anything further from Masi, who is interviewed earlier in the series, and is still yet to give his side of the story.
Season four of Drive to Survive opens with a stream of social media messages talking up how brilliant the new instalment will be given the astonishing and occasionally outrageous events of the 2021 world championship. “Better to be a controversial sport than a boring one,” proclaims one (the many dissenting views posted in reply to it do not appear).
This certainly isn’t a boring season of television. But there’s clearly a limit to how much controversy it is prepared to relate. When it involves the championship rivals, Drive to Survive goes all-in. But when the controversy concerns whether the sport correctly enforced its own rules, they decided to leave that crucial part of the story to someone else.
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2021 F1 season
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- Red Bull Racing spent £230m during Verstappen’s title-winning 2021 campaign
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- Abu Dhabi’s legacy one year on: How the controversial 2021 finale changed F1