Drive to Survive, the Netflix series about Formula 1, offers an intimate glimpse into a notoriously mysterious sport and, to the delight of its executives, attracts the American fans they have been trying to attract for years.
“I think it has to be the single most important single blow for Formula 1 in North America,” said Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing. “Almost every comment you get from someone in the US relates to ‘Drive to Survive’.
“People are switching from ‘I’ve never seen a Formula 1 race in my life’ to ‘I’ll never miss a Formula 1 race again’.”
The show debuted on Netflix in 2019 with a 10-episode season filmed during the previous year’s championship. Season 3 was released in March and filming for Season 4 is ongoing.
Getting the series off the ground wasn’t easy. For Box to Box Films, the makers of the show, it was initially a challenge to gain the trust of the teams, who are sensitive to their vehicle designs, data and processes.
In fact, two of the dominant teams, Mercedes and Ferrari, refused to participate in the first season.
“I think the teams felt, ‘I think you don’t know what this world is!'” Said Paul Martin, executive producer on Drive to Survive. “I don’t think we did, and I think they were skeptical that we could really deliver what we said.
“We wanted to provide an authentic picture of what it really is like to operate, live and work in this paddock.”
Formula 1 worked with the teams on the access they would give to make sure their secrets were protected.
“We gave the teams the security they needed,” says Ian Holmes, Director of Media Rights at Formula 1. “They want a lot more. But it gave Netflix the confidence to capture something that would resonate with fans and not be a puff, but real behind-the-scenes content that they had never seen before. “
Eight of the ten Formula 1 teams agreed to take part in the first season, minus Ferrari and Mercedes. “They had more to lose,” said Holmes. “I think if one did or didn’t, the other would do the same. They were very focused on winning the championship. “
The lack of the two best-known and most successful teams didn’t stop the first season from being a success. Fans learned about the inner workings of the sport, the personalities, politics and pettiness.
By the time filming of Season 2 began, Ferrari and Mercedes had changed their minds.
“It showed me a new perspective to gain a new audience, different from how I perceive Formula 1,” said Toto Wolff, Mercedes team principal, in 2019 and explained why the team was there from season 2 on to take part in Netflix in 2019 and to become part of Netflix. “
The teams quickly learned to feel comfortable around the cameras and to be so authentic. Even when Formula 1 enforced strict Covid-19 protocols last season, the teams included the camera crews in their bubbles so they could keep filming, a sign of trust between them.
“They understand the environment and are well integrated,” says Wolff. “Of course you know they are there. But nobody tries to act like a Hollywood actor. “
The three seasons have captured many of Formula 1’s greatest moments, including mid-season driver layoffs and emotional first victories. One of the most dramatic episodes of season 3 was Romain Grosjean’s escape after a major accident that left him trapped in the burning wreckage of his car for about 27 seconds.
But a large part of the success of “Drive to Survive” is due to the fact that the personalities and lives of drivers are shown off-track.
“Everyone sees on Sunday, we have a helmet on, we race and that’s it,” said Daniel Ricciardo from Australia, one of the most visible figures on the show. “But what we do on the weekends off shows the specifics of the sport. Immerse yourself in more of our everyday life, everyone can understand that.
“It has been a very private sport for so long. Letting a few more people in and showing them how great the sport is, I think the show was really good for us. “
Netflix protects its viewership, but according to FlixPatrol, which collects data on movies and TV shows, Drive to Survive was ranked # 1 on TV series worldwide shortly after its third season was released in March. It also drew more viewers than season one, which Holmes said was “unheard of”.
“Netflix told me that the second series never reached quite the same audience 99 out of 100 times as the first series, and so on and so on,” said Holmes. “Series 3 did more than Series 1. The completion rate and the rate at which the completion rate occurs have also increased,” suggesting that people were excited about the series.
The first season had a big impact on the Formula 1 audience in the USA. Sales of race day tickets for the first United States Grand Prix, which took place after the debut of Drive to Survive in 2019, increased 15 percent over 2018. The race’s promoter Bobby Epstein said it was because of the show and is preparing to attract an additional 20,000 fans for the October race in Austin, Texas.
“We haven’t had a race in two years and I think it has grown in popularity for the series,” said Epstein. “We’re only really seeing it now. We can definitely attribute that growth to the Netflix series, which gives people access to the personalities behind the scenes. It definitely opened some eyes that people are paying attention here. “
The Formula 1 TV audience in the US has skyrocketed since “Drive to Survive” was released. ESPN said its average viewer per race had increased from about 547,000 in 2018 to about 928,000 in 2021.
“There’s no way to quantify whether the Netflix series helped drive viewer numbers, but it certainly hasn’t hurt,” said John Suchenski, director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN.
“Additional Formula 1 content that will reach a wide and diverse audience will help raise awareness and interest, and hopefully motivate them to get used to the races,” he said. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The growing popularity in the United States comes at an important time for Formula 1. A second Grand Prix in the United States, in Miami, will be added in 2022 as the sport tries to expand further into the country.
Americans don’t have a huge presence in the sport, with only one team, Haas of Kannapolis, NC, and no drivers.
“It’s such a fascinating sport with politics and personalities,” said Brown of McLaren Racing. “I think Drive to Survive got that straight to the point and showed it to the world, and it seems to have really caught on in the US.”
Motorists have also noticed the growing US fan base. “I got a lot more messages and mentions, especially from America,” said Pierre Gasly from France. “It had a pretty big impact in the US when the show came out every year. I now have more Americans following me. “
“From an American fan perspective, there is a lot more of it,” said Lando Norris of England, who drives for McLaren. “The people I meet have entered motorsport and become fans not only of me, but also of Formula 1 just because they saw ‘Drive to Survive’.”
Martin, the producer, was blown away by its impact. But he attributes the show’s success to the qualities of Formula 1 as a sport.
“It’s pretty incredible the people’s reactions,” he said. “Our show only works because the sport is actually an incredible spectacle. It’s incredibly dramatic and tense. There are flaws and there are huge characters. Our show only throws a light on what is there. “