The Drive to Surive series, or Pilot of their Destiny in French, retraces the 2021 Formula 1 season in 10 episodes, available since Friday on Netflix.
The 2021 Formula 1 season has been one of the most watched in history. TV ratings have never been higher, and a large fan base has sprung up around the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton in his number 44 Mercedes, and Dutch youngster Max Verstappen in his number 33 Red Bull.
If this enthusiasm is linked to the configuration and the unique outcome of this 2021 season, Netflix is no stranger to the renewed interest in Formula 1, especially in the United States. Series success sign Drive to Survive, the latter has been extended for at least one season. So on this Friday, March 11, many motorsport lovers found themselves in front of their television screens to enjoy the fourth season of the Netflix documentary series.
With a historic season like that of 2021, Netflix was expected at the turn, and the series already criticized in the past for its lack of realism should not disappoint. Even before the broadcast of the ten episodes, the withdrawal of Max Verstappen did not announce anything good. As a reminder, the young pilot withdrew his participation from the series, he who found that it brought unfounded and useless controversies. A decision by the Dutch athlete that he confirmed this week at a press conference, when the series has already signed for a fifth season.
2021: a year too rich for Netflix?
When we look at the multiple elements that have made this year 2021, we feel compassion for the editors of Netflix who will have choices to make. But there are also many motorsport fans who fear that the red N will do too much in a season that already has its share of tension and spectacle. Without being catastrophic, the result is unfortunately very (too?) Hollywood for a documentary series.
From the first episode, it’s a cold shower. The different teams are quickly presented with the exception of Aston Martin, which is only entitled to a few seconds, and Alfa Romeo, which we will not hear about during the season. The end of the grid team will never be mentioned during the ten episodes. An astonishing editorial choice when you know that Netflix has always tried to show behind the scenes in all the stables, despite the news of each.
Finally, the first episode focuses on the race in Bahrain, the first meeting of the season. Already with the few days of testing, Netflix manages to create potential suspense and a rivalry between Red Bull and Mercedes. A vision of things that is difficult to defend with a public of connoisseurs, who know the relative importance of these test days.
As the episodes follow one another, the series takes turns of an American show, and it moves further and further away from the realities on the track. We also regret a problem (chronic for this series) of continuity between episodes. Netflix jumps from one grand prize to the next and sometimes jumps 3-4 months before jumping back. In this sense it is quite hard to understand what are the stakes of the competition since the grand prizes are shown to us several times, each time from different angles.
Even more awkward on the part of Netflix, the series only very quickly returns to the races in Baku (in Azerbaijan) and that at Le Castellet during the French Grand Prix. Two events that had a significant impact on the season. We also hear a discussion between Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff about the race in Baku, without understanding what is really going on there.
Similarly, Netflix is not dealing with Max Verstappen’s victory at home in the Netherlands at all. The absence of the Dutch driver in the interview area is felt, but we quickly have the impression that the whole Red Bull clan is silenced by the production. Only Christian Horner, the team director, seems spared.
An unnecessary exaggeration
Even more problematic for Netflix, the series greatly exaggerates reality, which has the effect of making the “real” battles less intense than they were in reality. Charles Leclerc’s accident in Monaco thus takes a back seat when it was a real turning point in Ferrari’s season. Similarly, the victory of French Esteban Ocon in Hungary is treated rather oddly. A false suspense settles on what must be the end of the race when in fact the victory of the Frenchman was acquired a few laps before the checkered flag. Alonso’s magnificent racing work is not mentioned at any time in this episode.
This victory is put on the same level as a battle between Esteban Ocon (still him) and Yuki Tsunoda, a young rookie driver from the Alpha Tauri team during the French Grand Prix for 12th and 13th position. By exaggerating things that should not be, Netflix makes the rare extraordinary moments quite innocuous, which will have the gift of making Formula 1 lovers jump.
Netflix’s vision struck us as seriously leaning towards Mercedes (in the fight against Red Bull). On this point, it’s a shame not to have the vision of Max Verstappen who would, without a doubt, have brought a real plus. The few interventions from Michael Massi, the race director, are welcome, but they come too late, especially when you know the role he has had to play all season. We also regret the growing lack of explanation from season to season. The series seems to want to get closer and closer to the connoisseur fans, but it always makes two or three fatal errors on this point.
Drive to Survive: who is the series for?
But ultimately, the problem may have to be seen the other way around. Indeed, if Formula 1 fans have been complaining since the first season of Netflix’s ultra-theatrical production, the streaming platform should not be seen as the big villain of the story. Indeed, Netflix never wanted to make summaries of the season with former pilots, who would come to analyze in detail the moments of changeover (something that Canal+ does very well).
The idea with the series Drive to Survive is to introduce Formula 1 to people who know nothing about it. Netflix is above all an entertainment platform and the teams behind the series will sometimes take great largesse from reality, for narrative purposes. In the same way that a director will make some deviations in the realization of a biopic for example.
While the series ends in apotheosis, the last two episodes are really good and well paced, the question is what do we expect from Drive to Survive ?
If the choices of the saga can be disputed, in particular for its glaring lack of realism, it is ultimately our approach to the latter that must evolve. Netflix will not change its recipe, especially given the audience brought back Drive to Survive every year. It is therefore up to the public, whether passionate about Formula 1 or not, to adapt to this offer.
You must not take Drive to Survive for a summary of the season, because it is not. The series must be seen as a fiction, made to entertain and introduce the viewer to a completely foreign universe. As such, Formula 1 lovers will probably not find what they are looking for.
The insides: the real highlight of the series
The only consolation prize brought by the series, the few exclusive inside images, such as the signing of Geroge Russel at Mercedes, the apprehensions of Lewis Hamilton vis-à-vis the pandemic or even the moments of politics and pure business in the Haas team. On the other hand, we can regret the overmediatization of Yuki Tsunoda, the absence of a tribute for Kimi Raikonnen or the treatment of the Belgian Grand Prix, which will have been so special.
In short, the series can be a perfect appetizer to introduce Formula 1 to an audience unfamiliar with motorsport. For people who have followed the season and the 22 races on the calendar, watch Drive to Survive is more of a chore than a pleasure.