Drive to Survive, the fly-on-the-wall documentary about Formula 1 racing, started streaming its third season on Netflix last Friday. Once again, the camera crews were in the right place to capture some spectacular footage, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch, particularly in 4K. Fans of the previous two seasons will be treated to more effing and blinding, particularly from Gunther Steiner, team principal for Haas F1. But the devoted F1 follower may well feel short-changed from the 10-episode run that leaves out some of the 2020 season’s biggest storylines.
When F1 changed hands in 2017, one major job for the new owners at Liberty Media was to start growing the sport. In years past, F1 repeatedly claimed it was the most-watched sport on the planet after the Olympic Games. But the sport’s audience has shrunk precipitously over the past couple of decades, mostly because of pay-per-view TV deals in its key markets like the UK and Germany that took the races off free-to-air channels.
Among the moves that Liberty made was inviting a Netflix documentary crew into the paddock throughout 2018, giving the media company’s cameras unprecedented access on race weekends. Most of the teams and drivers were similarly accommodating, although not all—neither Mercedes nor Ferrari agreed to participate, and both teams and their four drivers were virtually absent from season 1. That first season definitely got F1 in front of a lot of new eyeballs, and the absence of megastars like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel allowed some of the drivers to shine.
Season 2 was much of the same, although this time the dominant Mercedes team allowed the cameras in to witness what was an utter debacle of a race that was supposed to celebrate the car company’s 125th year in racing. Ferrari—the team most synonymous with F1—also showed up for a single episode focusing on the intra-team dynamic of a four-time World Champion getting eclipsed by a young hotshot. But again, a viewer new to F1 could well come away with the impression that the sport’s biggest names were Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo and the aforementioned Steiner.
If you were expecting more of the same for season 3, you won’t be disappointed. As always, Drive to Survive looks spectacular, especially when you have all the pixels. (Our author just had to replace a TV and so is easily wowed by 4K content.) Ricciardo is presented once more as the affable would-be champion. Steiner is faced with another tough year, and that’s before one of his drivers, Romain Grosjean, ended his F1 career in a fiery blaze in Bahrain.
It’s an incomplete picture of the 2020 season
But there are plenty of omissions that will baffle F1 fans. How, for example, do we explain the near-absence of Lewis Hamilton, who won a seventh world championship and took his win tally to 95, eclipsing even the great Michael Schumacher, particularly in a year in which Hamilton’s political activism came to the fore? Instead, Hamilton’s record-breaking season is reduced to about three minutes; by contrast, his teammate Valtteri Bottas got an entire episode to himself.
Some of the year’s other biggest storylines are almost completely absent as well. There’s nothing about Honda’s shocking decision to depart the sport, leaving the Red Bull and Alpha Tauri teams to find a new engine manufacturer. George Russell’s substitute appearance in Hamilton’s Mercedes barely merits a minute. Same, too, for supersub Nico Hulkenberg, who merited an entire episode in Season 2 yet couldn’t get a second of screen time for season 3 despite a pair of stunning races for Racing Point. And I’m pretty sure that some of the car noises overlaid on the racing footage belong to the naturally aspirated V8s that haven’t raced since the end of 2013.
For the casual fan or someone completely new to the sport, none of this will be a problem. And that’s the demographic Liberty needs to reach if it wants to increase F1’s reach. And for those of you who know the difference between a barge board and a mass damper, at least you have something pretty to look at before the cars fire up in anger this coming Friday morning.
Listing image by Netflix