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Netflix’s ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive” season five: Spoiler-free review

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Ahead of today’s arrival of the fifth series of Drive to Survive, producer James Gay-Rees dismissed claims the series inspired the notorious conclusion to the 2021 world championship.

FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi, who lost his job over the farcical Abu Dhabi finale, “was just under a lot of pressure and got things slightly wrong” when he broke the rules in arranging the last-lap restart which changed the destiny of that year’s title, Gay-Rees reckons. “I don’t think he was thinking ‘What does Netflix want?'”

Perhaps he wasn’t, but he certainly gave them what they wanted. The pivotal moment Masi swung the outcome of the 2021 world championship is shown repeatedly over the opening episodes of the new series.

“You couldn’t make it up” the cliche-mongers cried in response. But to claim that about F1 would be to woefully underestimate the capacity for imagination seen in Drive to Survive. This is, after all, the series which feigned a bitter rivalry between McLaren chums Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lando Norris (‘Carlando’, if you really must).

Drive to Survive season five
Wolff clashed angrily with rival team bosses
Max Verstappen took exception to Netflix ‘faking rivalries’ after the first series aired and declared he wouldn’t participate any more. He stayed away for a few seasons, but after he bagged the title F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali had a word in his ear and persuaded him to get back in the chair.

But Verstappen will have little to complain about this time. Partly because the egregiously over-egged driver rivalries of past instalment are largely avoided this time around. The programme-makers have increasingly realised they need to film the team principals to see the real angst.

Moreover, at times the programme pushes a narrative which clings to the Red Bull party line in a manner which the team must wish Sky would draw inspiration from. This is most strikingly so in the ninth episode, which retells Red Bull’s cost cap breach from a perspective which is largely sympathetic to theirs.

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To an extent this is reasonable, as the sequence of events includes the sad death of the company’s founder Dietrich Mateschitz last October, which undoubtedly deserves sensitive handling. However the episode also minimises the extent of Red Bull’s breach and the scale of both their overspend and their resulting punishment.

Drive to Survive season five
Season five increasingly focuses on team bosses
In reality, the FIA found Red Bull had overspent by 1.6% of the cap, which was £1.8m; in Drive to Survive’s parallel universe the figures – related by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner – are 0.6% and $400,000. “Really, has that made the difference?” he asks the cameras. Of course he is always going to spin the best angle he can for him team, but this is Netflix’s show, and they should ensure their viewers are given accurate figures before inviting them to make that judgement.

Playing fast and loose with the facts in this way has made Drive to Survive an increasingly divisive offering. So much so that any fan who expresses a liking for some modern facet of the sport risks being branded a DTS neophyte.

But that is also a tacit acknowledgement of DTS’s huge success in drawing new fans to the series. The key reason for this is well-worn but bear restating: It humanises a sport which can be opaque and inaccessible.

For those who loved F1 long before DTS came along, the insight it provides has always been its saving grace. It continues to be so even as the protagonists play to the cameras more with every passing series.

The second episode offers the best example of this, with a scene depicting a meeting between team bosses over the issue of ‘porpoising’ which features a chastising Wolff telling his rivals they are “playing a dangerous game” by refusing to consider rules changes to reduce porpoising. “Are we playing to the cameras here?” retorts Horner.

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Szafnauer crossed swords with Brown over Piastri
Tensions hit similar peaks in a pair of episodes covering the mid-season musical chairs in the driver market which saw Alpine forced to take their third choice of driver after losing Fernando Alonso to Aston Martin and reserve driver Oscar Piastri to McLaren, who were busy elbowing DTS favourite Daniel Ricciardo out of a door. If Drive to Survive ever loses the Horner-Wolff antagonism, it may well have Brown-Szafnauer to fall back on if the teeth-gnashing exchanges here are anything to go by.

The fifth series of Drive to Survive mixes high-drama episodes like these, a few with only a few memorable moments, and a couple of by-the-numbers efforts. Netflix allows viewing at up to 150% speed, but I found even this was too slow for the Gasly-Tsunoda ‘bromance’ episode.

Now 50 episodes old, a sixth series of Drive to Survive is already confirmed, which will bring it up to 60. The majority of F1 fans have likely already made up their minds about whether it’s for them or not. I wouldn’t miss it, but its construction of events still needs to be taken with fistful of salt, as Verstappen realised from the start.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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12 comments on “Netflix’s ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive” season five: Spoiler-free review”

  1. In reality, the FIA found Red Bull had overspent by 1.6% of the cap, which was £1.8m; in Drive to Survive’s parallel universe the figures – related by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner – are 0.6% and $400,000.

    As I understand it the lower figure is the amount after taking into account a tax rebate they could have claimed but failed to. I recall it widely being reported at the time that the breach amount was this lower figure rather than the higher one you mention as well.

    Don’t flame me in the comments, I support Williams and Valtteri Bottas so I am not baised!

    1. @geemac The breach amount as reported by the FIA is linked in the section you quoted, and includes the explanation that had Red Bull altered aspects of their paperwork their overspend could have been lower, but the recorded breach they were penalised for was £1.8m.

    2. It’s a bit the same as this site still reporting Masi “broke the rules” while the FIA never reported this in their investigation. I guess everybody has their view of the reality.

      1. FIA obviously would have been in a bit of a pickle if they’d admitted rules were broken, when there wasn’t really a way to undo the result. And it’s FIA who had Masi sign an NDA, so we know they’re hiding something, they can lack integrity, and we can’t blithely say rules are only broken if FIA say so. The fact is, the rules say the SC does a lap after the lapped cars are unlapped and it was told not to, not to mention the selective unlapping which isn’t allowed anywhere.

        It’s no surprise DTS had to deny it was them, when it was such a contrived drama, and it was FIA who contrived it, on behalf of we all know who, and have been deceitful about ‘the mistake’ ever since.

      2. Well he did categorically not follow the clear rules set out. So in other words the rules were broken by Masi. This cannot be in dispute I’m sorry. That’s reality.

  2. I’ve only the last two episodes left & thus far, the heated discussion in Montreal is my favorite scene or moment.

    1. Edit: All ten since & still my favorite scene.

  3. I’ve long since given up on DTS as it’s pretty obvious that it’s not really aimed at the longer time, dedicated & knowledgable fans who are able to easily see through all of the ‘for show’ fake drama and other such nonsense.

    It’s a shame as when it was announced I was hoping it would be more of a true documentary but it was obvious very early on that it was going to be a drama series rather than an actual documentary and that continues to be disappointing.

    It’s brought in new ‘fans’ but looking at what direction Liberty are taking the sport to appease & keep them and how some of these new ‘fans’ have been quite a toxic addition to the fanbase I still don’t think it’s been a new positive for the SPORT which has very quickly been turned into just as artificial feeling a show as DTS. We’ll see how long many of these ‘fans’ stick around & once that boom bursts F1 better hope they haven’t turned off all of the longer term fans completely because there going to need us.

    1. Yes me too. I just started the new series and gave up after a few minutes, it’s whole presentation is so overdone I couldn’t believe in it.

    2. I haven’t watched fter season 2 as it was too manipulated for drama. Disappointing.

  4. The FIA should not abuse driver personalities for their own purposes.

    F1 time is racing time. So everyone should shut up, race a car and then go home. That is what sport is about.

    Yes, I have been learning a lot from recent arguments on FIA policies.

  5. Had the first episode running while doing other stuff at home and didn’t find a moment that caught my attention. Quit altogether in the middle of the second episode. Keeping a Netflix subscription is becoming even more pointless if this is the sort of drivel money gets put into. Or may be it works for a certain type of Netflix audience.

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