Motor racing is a strange spectator sport. It is, in essence, the monopolization of monotony. The same set of actions are repeated 50 to 70 times a race. The track does not change. The strategies are permutations and combinations of the same lot. The conditions (usually) stay the same. The drivers are pro athletes paid to master the art of tedium. Their skills reframe mundanity as mayhem, routine as rivalry, pattern as pace. The human eye gets so conditioned to a sense of regime that the slightest deviation feels like a daring embrace of the unknown. Formula 1, more than most, is a battle of engineering – the men maneuvering the machines lend an identity to the men manufacturing them. Over its three seasons so far, the Netflix documentary series Formula 1: Drive To Survive has contextualized the physical velocity of racing by revealing the psychological velocity of the man-machine relationship. Like an endless loop, one remains at the mercy of the other.
A running joke among long-time F1 loyalists is that the sport’s on-air commentators have it tougher than the drivers. Their voice holds the crippling responsibility of shaping the repetition of rhythm – it’s not just the volume that must concoct thrills out of thin air, but also the words that must somehow establish and fetishize individual stories at the whims of live telecasting. (Imagine the honeybee drone of those high-octane engines without Steve Slater’s jet-octane tone). In many ways, Drive To Survive is a narrative embodiment of this voice. It is perfectly modulated proof that what we see on track is not action so much as reaction. No event is isolated; the ubiquitous cameras locate life in a sport that commissions the limits of living. Every episode is dedicated to a different space in the garage – and by extension, a different definition of success, failure and ambition. The best-case scenario for a Williams or Haas team is the worst-case scenario for a Mercedes; one driver’s redemption story is another’s darkest hour.
As a result, the series is a modern marvel of access storytelling – a constantly moving reminder that motion is merely a transaction of perspective, that a travelling circus of speed is at its core a corporation of chasing momentum. The “backroom dealings” and paddock politics that generally pass off as gossip are presented as palettes of genuine emotional conflict. This in turn demystifies a sport that is built on a legacy of distance from its spectators – the suspense of revelation and the elation of discovery combine to weaponize our language of watching. More importantly, the white-collar eliteness of top-tier motor racing acquires the blue-collar humility of human nature. Every legacy is reduced to the person behind it; every race is elevated into a drive to survive.
Season 3, in particular, stands out because the sport itself emerges as a respite from monotony. The potential stillness of the Covid-19 pandemic that suspends the 2020 Australian Grand Prix is punctured by the kinetic sameness of the Austrian double-bill in early July. The six-month-long war of routine is set against the bloody backdrop of a world already wounded by the curse of mundanity. Consequently, there is now an added sense of ethos about the family of ‘masked’ crusaders who – in adapting to the minimalism of the new normal – go about proving that doing the same thing again and again, with increasing efficiency and determination, can be a rewarding and self-sustaining experience. Not all heroes wear capes: Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is back with his caustic grin, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff returns with his Bond-villain-esque eloquence, Haas principal Guenther Steiner returns with his comical charm, Racing Point owner Lawrence Stroll returns with his mafia-like swagger, Daniel Ricciardo’s restless career remains at odds with his brutish smile, and last but never least, the adorably reckless Roman Grosjean does a last-gasp Rod Tidwell in his decade-long Jerry Maguire film. Immortality, rather than a new contract, awaits him.
This docu-series has single-handedly renewed an interest in new-age Formula One – not just as a medium of nostalgia but also as an update of it
The curtailed 18-race season is distilled into around 400 minutes of seamless storytelling. Grosjean’s miraculous escape from a fireball in the Bahrain Grand Prix forms the core of a penultimate episode that belongs to the upper echelons of non-fiction filmmaking. Most makers might have focused an entire episode on the peripheral drama of the near-fatal accident. But the fact is that the race restarted in little time, with most drivers still mentally reeling from the horrific aftermath of the blaze. The show went on. To club this trauma with an on-the-brink Sergio Perez’s scintillating last-to-pole victory is then a masterstroke: it extends the idea of an athlete who escaped physical tragedy into the realms of a man who escapes a professional one.
Another example of the show’s sense of perspective is reflected in “twinning” episodes 6 and 8: In the former, we see demoted Red Bull driver Pierre Gasly winning at Monza in his lowly AlphaTauri, and in the latter we see the Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz Jr. storm the Italian castle of his future employers. In episode 6, a white-knuckled period is devoted to the closing moments of the race: Gasly scrambles to keep the lead ahead of a rampaging McLaren. The viewer prays for the slower Gasly to beat the faceless mid-table opponent, and he does. In episode 8, a tense phase is centered on the final lap. Sainz Jr. fights his way up to second place, on the verge of taking pole. He is inches away from the leader, but misses by a whisker: It isn’t until the finish line that we realize how Sainz Jr. was in fact the rampaging McLaren whom Gasly had barely resisted in the previous episode. The same race – Monza – is also seen from a more somber (third) vantage point in the Ferrari episode. The sheer logistics of having to cull three distinct narratives out of the same weekend is both baffling and beguiling, and oddly befitting of the mountains-from-molehills madness that defines the sport.
On a personal note, my love for the sport survived the first and second retirements of Michael Schumacher. But it receded once the uncertainty of racing was hijacked by the certainty of engineering. Far from the Ferrari-McLaren tussles in the glory days of the late 1990s, or even the Alonso-Hamilton-Button tussles of the late 2000s, the Red Bull domination followed by the ruthless Mercedes rule have turned F1 into a real-world franchise of Real Steel. There is seldom any space for human error, and even less room for iconic rivalries. As was perhaps intended by the Netflix-F1 collaboration, this docu-series has single-handedly renewed an interest in new-age Formula One – not just as a medium of nostalgia but also as an update of it. The results may be predictable, Drive To Survive admits, but the process is not. The domination may be boring, but the act of excelling is not. It reveals that even within the high-performance zone of motor racing, the working-class aspirations of job security, ‘adequate’ output and averageness can afford to exist: The Haas episode, specifically, points to a duo of drivers who are simply satisfied to be part of an underdog single-parent family, away from the crushing pressures of big-team expectations.
It says something that when the lockdowns happened last March, my first thought on the indefinite suspension of sport was: Does this mean there will be no Drive To Survive season next year? One can argue that perhaps Netflix has done such a fine job that some of us are even sidetracking the live action in order to amplify our viewing experience of the docu-series. I barely followed the 2020 World Championship, as a result of which Season 3 felt like a glorious blind date. Everything felt like an unexpected twist. I resisted Google, too. Sebastian Vettel goes to Racing Point, Ricciardo crosses over to McLaren, Perez snaps up the haunted Red Bull second seat, and a certain Mick Schumacher is slated to be the most hyped rookie in modern history – Season 4 of Formula 1: Drive To Survive is bound to be a humdinger. The 2021 World Championship is incidental.