F1: Drive to Survive Season 4 Finds The Sweet Spot Between Sport And Storytelling

One of the great joys of this series has been its multiverse-style language. The foreground of one episode often appears as the background of another
F1: Drive to Survive Season 4 Finds The Sweet Spot Between Sport And Storytelling

Executive Producer: James Gay-Rees, Paul Martin
Showrunner: Sophie Todd
Streaming on: Netflix

Watching Formula One these days is like watching the climax of a whodunnit before the movie. Who imagined that the sport itself would become a spoiler in our grand experience of its spectacle? The "movie" I refer to is, of course, the Netflix docu-series, F1: Drive to Survive. The series started in 2018 with an aim of reviving global interest in grand prix racing – and also to tap a new streaming generation that never saw the golden years of motorsport. Truth be told, the competition had become so lopsided, and the speed so finance-driven and technical, that F1 barely looked like a spectator sport anymore. But the Netflix crew did such a terrific job that it nearly worked against them. For instance, a few former F1 enthusiasts like myself consciously avoided race weekends and results so that we could enjoy the nifty storytelling with a bonus ingredient of suspense.  

The 2021 Formula One Championship changed everything. When the first few rounds demonstrated that Mercedes wouldn't run away with its 8th title in a row, watching the races became hard to resist. With Red Bull stepping up, this was no more a mechanical one-horse marathon. Yet, tracking the most dramatic F1 season in the history of the sport came with a bittersweet caveat. With no title drama for years, the docu-series often came alive with its impeccable story-finding – its charm was rooted in its ability to humanize the strivers, the backmarkers, and the small battles scattered across the one-sided war. The "characters" and storylines of teams like Haas, Renault and Alpha Tauri made us fall in love with the faces inside the helmets. There was very little of the frontrunners, namely 7-time champion Lewis Hamilton and heir inapparent Max Verstappen. But the title rivalry of 2021 – where both drivers entered the final race deadlocked on points – got so compelling that I wondered if the docu-series would manage to retain its soul. Would it forget about the little guys in pursuit of the superstars? Would the 'indie spirit' be sacrificed at the altar of commercial meat? More importantly, how do you elevate that showdown on screen? 

F1: Drive to Survive 4 answers all those questions – and more – with thrilling precision. The fourth season opens up a different dimension of narrative-building, seamlessly merging a high-profile core with the peripheral colour of the paddock. Four of the ten episodes are dedicated to the two title rivals; they become the blazing sun around which the planets revolve. But at no point is one trajectory exclusive from the rest. One of the great joys of this series has been its multiverse-style language. The foreground of one episode often appears as the background of another – the makers count on us noticing these shifts of perspectives, like parallel stories colliding (sometimes literally) in the same space. For example, the second episode about the McLaren-Ferrari duel features French driver Charles Leclerc retiring with a gearbox failure before starting his home race at Monaco on pole position. But most of the episode is focused on Daniel Ricciardo's choppy move to McLaren, and a rousing performance for the new "Number 2" drivers Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris. In the third episode, which returns to the scrappy title contest, the Leclerc heartbreak is revealed in a wider context. From the vantage point of Verstappen, who starts second on the grid, we see pacesetter Leclerc's crash in qualifying, followed by his mechanics' struggle to fix the car for Sunday's race. Verstappen benefits from Leclerc's non-start; his lucky Monaco break becomes the turning point of the Red Bull season. Similarly, the Hungarian Grand Prix crash that takes out five cars is seen in a different light across two episodes – one, as an Esteban Ocon and Yuki Tsunoda redemption story, and two, as a rousing Williams' fairytale centered on a rare points finish. 

This isn't just narrative trickery for the heck of it. What the style does is convey how sport, like life, is essentially a zero-sum game of perspective. For every Mercedes or Red Bull that's disappointed to finish outside the top 4, there's a Haas or Williams that's delighted to land a single point. The composition of the series is such that it never reduces the struggles of a Guenther Steiner – who just wants his two rookie drivers to finish a race – even when it's neck-deep in the bad blood between Toto Wolff and Christian Horner. There is constant acknowledgment of each 'story' for what it is; survival for one setup can mean more than winning for the next. In terms of a unique sport where teammates tend to be the biggest rivals, this beautifully edited balance between the external and the internal defines the craft. The N95 masks, too, add an extra layer of intrigue. As a viewer, one starts to construct a mental bridge between emotions and expressions, between moments and reactions, with the eyes and skin creases revealing and concealing at once. The interplay of sound, too, is no gimmick; it punctuates not just isolated actions but mega gravity turns on the track – which is easier said than done, when it's only the F1 commentary and talking heads that can shape patterns. 

The choice of storylines, as we've learned, has been the one criticism leveled against the series. Several drivers, too, have complained about a subtle manipulation of narratives across the three seasons. The 2021 championship offers an embarrassment of on-track riches, so these creative decisions were going to be tougher to make. (The "bench strength" is no lesser than the names that make the roster). But the film-makers go a long way in correcting the follies of previous seasons. Future champion George Russell, whose footage was allegedly edited out of Season 3, is the star of not one but two separate episodes here – one as a Williams underdog, and the second as a potential Mercedes successor to the outgoing Valtteri Bottas. In fact, Russell is seen wryly addressing his exclusion from last season in his first interview – which suggests that the producers have no qualms admitting their own shortcomings.

Formula One race director Michael Masi, who ultimately plays a leading role in the final race of the season, is established in the very first episode. There are snippets of him scattered across the rest, too, often as the first voice of contact for warring team principals Wolff and Horner. I suppose there could have been more about Masi's controversial handling of the rain-infested Belgian Grand Prix – especially because he seems to have been the official brought in explicitly to challenge the Mercedes juggernaut. The farcical non-race is used as a key plot point (imagine using the term "plot point" to describe a nonfiction series) in George Russell's ascent to Mercedes. But there's no denying that the race might have better laid the foundation for Masi's Abu Dhabi googly in the final minutes of the season. The inclusion of Russian driver Nikita Mazepin might raise a few eyebrows, given where the world stands today. But the empathetic and honest slant towards a young driver at odds with his image as the flag-bearer of F1 nepotism (his father is the new sponsor) makes for a rewarding watch. The curiosity as (Netflix) artists – and not just glorified advertisers of a sport – is on full display here; these are proper character portraits that inform the broader DNA of the docuseries. 

There are certain liberties taken, particularly in how the ebbs and flows of a weekend extend into the ebbs and flows of an entire season. But most of them work without being disingenuous. The opening minutes suggest that big bad Mercedes has a target on its back this time; everyone is out to get them. People hate incessant winners. Quickly, though, we see pre-season testing problems, with the champions slowly morphing into underdogs while heading into the first race. So when Hamilton does triumph early on – or even when he frankly calls Verstappen a bully – one can only admire the British icon's grit and perseverance in what is a slightly inferior car. The storytelling stops short of antagonizing Red Bull, instead presenting them as ruthless go-getters that are necessary to end Mercedes' stranglehold over the sport. It's not unrelated, but I felt pangs of admiration for Fernando Alonso, who did the same to end Ferrari's dream run in the mid-2000s. We were so busy taking sides back then that we never noticed just how difficult it is to be both the party crasher and the history warden at once. 

I've never been a fan of the way most episodes open with the protagonist – either driver or team principal – on their downtime with friends and family. You can sense that partners (Geri Horner, for instance) have been briefed to slip in questions about work; it's a tool of exposition that can feel reality-show-level clunky. But Season 4 finds the sweet spot in terms of 'staging' these scenarios. The episode with Haas boss Steiner – ever the comic relief in the cutthroat landscape – scaling a mountain during his break ties superbly into his job stresses. Ditto for Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda, whose change of physical environment – from Milton Keynes to Italy – plays a key role in his evolution as a top-tier rookie. There may not be an awe-inspiring "Man On Fire" episode this time around, but each of these tiny pockets of humanity accumulate to unveil a coherent snapshot of time. Take one piece away and the puzzle feels incomplete.

In spite of a riveting finale that straddles the thin line between fury and farce – a line previously occupied by the 2019 Cricket World Cup final – F1: Drive to Survive 4 continues to drive home one important truth. In a sport that relies on machines being the difference between man's mortality and immortality, a series like this is a soothing reminder that man is no machine…yet. Usually, the film-making tries to be worthy of the sport it encapsulates. But in this case, at last, it's the sport that lives up to the film-making. This harmony between art and actuality is all the more impressive, when you consider that the actuality of the 2021 Formula One Championship felt indistinguishable from art itself. 

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