Drive to Survive season four screengrab

How F1’s Drive to Survive phenomenon was born – once the teams were won over

2022 F1 season

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Formula 1 expects its popular Netflix series Drive to Survive to continue beyond its current deal to cover the 2022 and 2023 seasons, and is welcoming the competition of similar series from other motorsport championships.

Drive to Survive has delivered an unparalleled behind-the-scenes look at the whole F1 paddock, a privilege previously only available to media, since the 2018 season. It has become a streaming phenomenon and vehicle for bringing new fans to F1.

Ian Holmes, F1’s director of media rights and content creation, spoke at the recent BlackBook Motorsport forum in London about Drive to Survive’s creation, its strategy and also its future beyond its current contract for two more series: a fifth, which is filming the current championship, and a sixth that will follow the 2023 F1 season and appear the year after.

“I think if we’re happy with it, if people want to consume it and watch it, and Netflix is happy with it, then I think we will continue [beyond series six],” Holmes said.

“What we saw, certainly in the last series, maybe the last two series, the team principals seem to take a more central role. But effectively we’re dealing with 30 people. And this is where I think we have an advantage over perhaps some football leagues [with shows]. Pretty much every sport is looking at their own sub-version, shall we say.

“But we have an advantage. We have 30 people, and that’s it. So you can actually go in quite deep with them, and cover the whole grid. So I think our sport lends itself to that.

“Plus the fact that for years and years and years there was little or no coverage of the behind the scenes.”

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Holmes said McLaren’s Grand Prix Driver series on Netflix’s streaming rival Amazon Prime instigated the idea to create Drive to Survive at a time when watching F1 almost exclusively meant watching races live on television. The championship’s new owner Liberty Media thought there could be more success in a production of its own design rather than delivering “an arm’s-length licence”, as previous F1 owner Bernie Ecclestone preferred, that administered capped filming and footage rights to shows focusing on individual drivers or teams.

Mercedes did not participate in the series at first
“Off the back of Liberty wanting to take a slightly different approach to things, and an approach that was more inclusive, we thought wouldn’t it be better to actually adopt a narrative that focuses on the sport as a whole?” said Holmes. “All of the teams, all of the drivers, all the team principals, et cetera.”

Amazon already had a highly successful series, All or Nothing, which covered a range of different sports including NFL, soccer, rugby union and NHL ice hockey. F1 pitched a similar product to Netflix and opened negotiations with the company.

“We actually did a deal with Netflix pretty quickly,” said Holmes. “But the deal was subject to delivering the teams. So then we had to sit down with 10 teams, which took quite a lot longer, to put it mildly.”

Famously, Ferrari and Mercedes refused to participate with the series at first. “But again, it was new for all of us,” Holmes continues. “And essentially what we’re asking of the teams, and it’s important again that they recognise this, okay it took Ferrari and Mercedes a little bit longer, but they embraced the concept.

“Because we needed their buy-in. We felt that for the series to be successful, essentially they would have to provide a level of access that we couldn’t provide. A level of access that has never been provided with us [before].”

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It required not only a huge turnaround in the teams’ attitudes to being filmed in what is usually a highly secretive environment, but also in F1’s approach to footage access after years of cracking down on distribution of any video from F1 race weekends that wasn’t from its licensed international TV broadcasters.

Review: Drive to Survive season four – Still as fun, flawed and unmissable as ever
“I’ve read certain stories about people in F1 having to write to Lewis Hamilton or whoever it was to tell them to remove footage from their social media accounts, and probably I sent a few of those myself,” Holmes recalled. After Liberty Media took over F1, Hamilton showed them a collection of ‘cease and desist’ letters he received from Ecclestone over his social media use.

“The way it [the show] works is contractually the teams have certain very, very defined areas where they are allowed to request amendments and changes. Areas such as anything that accidentally reveals anything either commercially or sportingly sensitive – at the time of release, of course.”

But with each series of the show going online a couple of months after each F1 season ends, the teams’ bargaining power against the narrative interest of the programme is limited.

“[The teams] get to see the rushes, but they don’t get to see it in the form of the final cut. And essentially it is so no one is going to throw anyone under the bus.

“There’s been a few things here and there that have caused some controversy. But it’s a very collaborative approach. There have been requests coming from teams that perhaps don’t strictly meet the criteria in which they are allowed to make them, but if we don’t think it will detract or dilute the narrative, and I know that Netflix themselves and the production company are also quite helpful, [then it can be cut]. Because it is a two-way thing.”

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The editorialisation of the show, given it is a docu-drama series rather than a straight retelling of each F1 season race-by-race, has come under scrutiny. But Holmes denies Drive to Survive’s filming presence influenced the highly controversial conclusion to last year’s world championship at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Some have accused Drive to Survive of fabricating rivalries
“I think the answer is no,” he bluntly replied when whether the Netflix cameras might have stirred up a more dramatic conclusion. “Certainly it doesn’t influence the outcome of a race or a session or the championship.”

F1’s live viewing figures rose for that race as free-to-air deals were struck for the title decider between Hamilton and Max Verstappen, who entered the final weekend level on points. Drive to Survive’s success was also a contributing factor to an increased live audience.

“We realised the full extent of the potential for success [with Drive to Survive] was in series three,” Holmes said. “Series one was very well-received, Netflix was happy. They famously don’t share a great deal of data in terms of viewing, but conversationally we had a good idea of how it was doing.

“Second series [of shows] never normally rate as high as the first series, there’s usually a small drop-off. And that was the case with us, we had a 5% drop-off, which is totally normal. And then series three, there was a 50% increase. And that’s when we sort of sat back and thought ‘that’s not normal’.”

He drew a comparison with Netflix’s acclaimed series The Last Dance on basketball star Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls NBA team. “The contributing factors, over and beyond just the narrative that was in series three, is that the genre’s grown. The Last Dance, many people have seen that, and people watch The Last Dance who perhaps don’t watch basketball. The same can be said for Drive to Survive.

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“And that comes back into the viewing numbers. It’s not just how many people watch, it’s actually who’s watching. That’s where the value is. Because what we saw was that people were engaging with F1, who don’t necessarily sit down on Sunday afternoon and watch Sky, Canal+ or ESPN. Many of them now subsequently do as we’ve seen in our viewing figures. But essentially the real value is reaching out to a broader demographic.

The series has been credited with growing F1’s popularity
“There’s a myriad of different ways of looking at it, and essentially it does translate to viewing figures. There are people who perhaps got into the sport watching Drive to Survive. Or indeed following a driver on social media, who then have translated through and will now watch the live coverage on Sunday afternoon or Saturday, whatever it might be. When we’ve looked at it internally, obviously that is the direction of travel that we want to see, but it’s not the absolute requirement.”

Anticipation for the next series of Drive to Survive is already growing, and there’s still a long way to go before the F1 season is complete. Mercedes and Red Bull’s team principals have continued to take shots at each other following their bitter 2021 rivalry, Ferrari’s title challenge has been compromised by unreliability and strategy errors, the silly season has been its most dramatic in years. As well as the F1 debut of the Miami Grand Prix there is also the return of four grands prix that provide some of the season’s most visually appealing footage.

But while F1’s current popularity may be driven in part by Drive to Survive, it is only because the championship is putting on such a strong on-track show that Netflix is continuing to have such brilliant narratives to play with.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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13 comments on “How F1’s Drive to Survive phenomenon was born – once the teams were won over”

  1. I’ve always thought “Drive to Survive” was an odd name. It suggests that if you don’t drive, you won’t survive.

    Surely your chances of surviving actually decrease if you get behind the wheel of an F1 car?

    1. If they do an Alpine/Piastri episode they could always call it “Re-sign to resign”, I guess.

    2. I think they said before that it refers to the teams rather than the drivers. Surviving in F1 is the aim rather than literally.

  2. DTS may have benefitted the all mighty dollar and grown the amount of folks who watch F1 which i’m sure from a pure business perspective is great for liberty.

    But I do question if the actual effect of DTS on both the sporting side and the fandom side will end up having been a positive.

    It’s clear that many of the ‘for show’ changes that are been forced through be it the sprint races, points for fastest lap, Other proposed bonus points and other awards as well as gimmicks like reverse grids and other weekend format changes aimed at ‘gimmicking up the show’ are been done primarily to appease the Netflix crowd who thanks to DTS think that F1 is way more show/entertainment/drama than it actually is because that is how it’s presented in this ‘documentary’.

    And then you look at the fans it’s attracted. It just seems that a lot of them (Not saying all of them), Maybe even most of them are watching because it’s the cool thing to do now or just because they latched onto how a certain driver was presented in DTS. They don’t have a love or passion for the sport & many of them have no knowledge or respect for it’s history or the integrity of the sport and many don’t want to learn because they don’t care.

    It’s those ‘fans’ who are pushing for the gimmicks, Who are pushing for ‘the show’ because thats all they care about. F1 is not a sport to them so they care nothing about tossing the sport aside for gimmicks so long as they can keep saying they are cool for watching.

    And look at how the fanbase has changed the past 4-5 years. Look at all the issues that are cropping up with fans at race weekends, How divided it’s become and how ‘us vs them’ it’s got with tribalism that I believe is at least partly driven by the way DTS presents the rivalries and tries to make it about how everyone is against each other. That has to spill over and has to have contributed to how tribal and divided the fanbase is now.

    I’ve been watching F1 since the 70s, I’ve been to dozens of races, test sessions & other events in that time and have met many fellow fans in person and on the internet and I just don’t recognise the sport anymore or the fanbase because in the space of the 4-5 years since Liberty took over & since DTS began it’s all changed….. The feel of it has all changed and I don’t think the way it’s changed has been for the better.

    1. Yeah… I guess it’s just the nature of it. F1 has existed for years and it clearly hadn’t ever attracted these people before but an over-dramatised, semi-fictional TV show did. It’s reasonably to therefore expect that a high number of people who came to F1 via DTS will want the sport to be as DTS portrays it. Many of them won’t be interested in long, tactical races with minimal action and many won’t accept things like safetycar finishes.

      Liberty and the FIA are going to have a really hard time keeping both groups happy because it feels like compromising and aiming for something that satisfies both will ultimately satisfy neither. In that case – which way do you go? Do you push all of your long-term fans away in the hope that enough of the newer fans don’t get bored and move on to the next trend or do you try and keep the sport as it is in an attempt to appease long-terms fans to keep them on board whilst hopefully finding ways to make it shiny and exciting enough for the newer fans?

      1. Nothing stays the same, that is a given. I think it is the case that ‘pure’ F1 has lost some of its excitement because of predictability, and that comes about from the very detailed knowledge the teams have these days, with their designers, modelling, wind tunnels, data acquisition and so on. It is more of a science experiment now than a sport in some ways, hence the need for forced pitstops, DRS and other excitement building tricks.

        Trouble is, by pandering to populist desires, one attracts those spectators who want an exciting show, and alienates purists. In the short term that is certainly good for the bottom line, but long term? Plenty of sports have bloomed and died back, because those new spectators, some of who are just following the latest thrill, can be fickle. If it does die back, are those more purist followers still around, or did they give up?

        I’m a purist to a large extent, I don’t much like how some aspects of it are now, and I accept that I have absolutely no right to determine the direction of F1 – but it is up to me whether I stay watching.

      2. The DTS attitude is why the season ended the way it did last year.

    2. Completely agree with all of that. But, it’s how things are now.

    3. Whilst I agree 100% with all you write I guess the new crowd has every right as well to become fan of a sport. Change is inevitable. I might not like it… and believe me, I certainly don’t like it since Liberty took over… imagine their artificial gimmickery at the olympics… I mean what they do absolutely makes no sense within the boundaries of being a sport. They clearly do not regard F1 a sport. But hey, who am I in all of this. I hope someday should Liberty go too far (which I certainly expect will happen) we will get a new governing body with a new set of rules and a no profit objective. I hope someday we will have a racing category that returns to the the basics: Be a sport. Be about car builders (no factory teams anymore please). Find a way to get talent into the pinnacle of motorsport.

  3. Amazing timing that this came along just at Covid lockdowns happened around the world, leaving people everywhere
    looking for shows to “consume”. Timing is everything…

  4. I think it has to be remembered that F1 was kind of withering on the vine when Liberty, which is a media company first and foremost bought it.

    Part of the reason was its lack of social media presence, so I can’t fault them for some of the things they have done in an attempt to reignite interest in it.

    DTS holds zero interest for me, but it’s not aimed at me. Nor are sprints or celebrities appearing at races, but they too are not aimed at me.

    Whether all this semi artificial “excitement” manages to hold any long term interest in a fan base actually works remains to be seen, but based on the fact that other reality shows involving things like a certain family, or “housewives” seem to have long runs on TV’s it’s likely to be here to stay.

    Will I still watch F1 and go to events – probably, although I’m definitely not as committed as I was, I cherry pick a few events rather than all of them these days but my guess is that they’ll be happy with us longer term fans watching some but not all, as long as they have others watching the ones I don’t watch.

    As people have said, things have changed. Whether it’s a good change we won’t know for a few more years. For me, I’m less passionate, but I’m not who they want.

    1. @dbradock Although you are less passionate, you’re still much more hardcore than 99% of people. Like myself, we are crawling through sites in off weeks, off months, talking about F1. It’s still an avid interest, just not as enjoyable as it once was (for me anyway.) Seeing and hearing about recent ‘fan’ behaviour, I’m in 2 minds about attending events from here on in, 1 why should I now out and leave the paddock to boofheads and hooligans, and if others like myself stop attending it will only before the bad apples. 2, is it worth attending if the potential for victimisation is all of a sudden much higher for anyone in my circle of friends and family that are reluctantly dragged along and have never really been fans. F1 has been supported for decades by our passion, it’s going to be a rocky road when we stop purchasing and attending, unless the new crowds stick to F1 and don’t move onto the next hyped up thing.

      1. My phone scrambles words, I may sound drunk and incoherent. I’m pretty sure my phone is some kind of addict or its severely dyslexic

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