‘Drive to Survive’, the Netflix series about Formula 1, has provided an intimate look at a notoriously secretive sport and has, to the delight of executives, attracted the American fans they’ve been eager to attract for years.
“I think this has to be the single biggest impact for Formula 1 in North America,” said Zak Brown, chief executive of McLaren Racing. “Almost every comment you get from someone from the US refers to ‘Drive to Survive’.
“People go from ‘I’ve never seen a Formula 1 race in my life’ to ‘I will 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 three was released in March and filming for season four is underway.
Getting the series off the ground wasn’t easy. In the beginning, it was a challenge for Box to Box Films, the creators of the show, to gain the trust of the teams, who are sensitive to their car designs, data and operations.
Two of the dominant teams, Mercedes and Ferrari, even refused to be part of the first season.
“I think the teams were like, ‘I don’t think you realize what this world is!'” said Paul Martin, executive producer of “Drive to Survive.” “I don’t think we did, and I think they were skeptical if we could really deliver on what we said.
“We wanted to give an authentic picture of what it’s really like to operate, live and work in this paddock.”
Formula 1 worked with the teams on the access they would grant and made sure their secrets were protected.
“We gave the teams the assurance they needed,” said Ian Holmes, Formula 1’s media rights director. “They want a lot more. But it gave Netflix the confidence to capture something that would appeal to fans and bring it to the table.” wasn’t puff pastry, but real behind-the-scenes content they’ve never seen before.”
Eight of the 10 Formula 1 teams agreed to be part of the inaugural season, minus Ferrari and Mercedes. “They had more to lose,” Holmes said. “I think if one did or didn’t, the other would do the same. They were very focused on winning the championship.”
Missing out on the two most famous and successful teams didn’t stop the first season from being a success. Fans learned about the inner workings of the sport, its personalities, politics and pettiness.
By the time season two started filming, Ferrari and Mercedes had changed their minds.
“It showed me a new angle to attract a new audience, different from how I see F1,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said in 2019, explaining why the team got involved from season two. “That’s why I’ve decided to join and be a part of Netflix in 2019.”
The teams quickly learned to be comfortable with the cameras, which allowed them to be authentic. Even when Formula 1 imposed strict Covid-19 protocols last season, the teams included the camera crews in their bubbles so they could continue filming, a sign of mutual trust.
“They understand the environment and are well integrated,” Wolff said. “Of course you know they’re around. But no one is trying to act like a Hollywood actor.”
The three seasons have captured many of Formula 1’s key moments, including driver layoffs mid-season and emotional first wins. One of the most dramatic episodes in season three was Romain Grosjean’s escape from a fiery crash that left him trapped in the burning wreckage of his car for about 27 seconds.
But much of the success of ‘Drive to Survive’ is due to the presentation of the personalities and lives of drivers off the track.
“Everyone sees on Sunday we have helmets on, we race and that’s that,” said Daniel Ricciardo of Australia, one of the most visible figures on the show. “But it shows the ins and outs of the sport, what we do on the weekends. Diving into more of our daily lives, everyone can relate to it.
“It’s been a private sport for so long. To let a few more people in and show them how great the sport is, I think the show has really worked well for us.”
Netflix protects its ratings, but according to FlixPatrol, which collects data on movies and TV shows, “Drive to Survive” was #1 for TV series worldwide shortly after the release of season three in March. It also brought in more viewers than the first season, something Holmes said was “unheard of.”
“Netflix told me 99 times out of 100 the second series never draws the same audience as the first series, and so on,” Holmes said. “Series three did more than series one. The completion rate and the rate at which the completion rate is happening also went up,” suggesting people were bingeing on the series.
The first season had a huge impact on the Formula 1 audience in the United States. Race day ticket sales for the first United States Grand Prix held after “Drive to Survive” debuted in 2019 rose 15 percent from 2018. The race’s promoter Bobby Epstein said this was due to the show, gearing up for an additional 20,000 fans for October’s race in Austin, Texas.
“We haven’t had a race in two years and I think the popularity of the series has grown because of that,” Epstein said. “We’re only really seeing it now. We can certainly attribute that growth to the Netflix series that gives people access to the personalities behind the scenes. It has certainly opened my eyes that there are people here who are paying attention.”
Formula 1 TV audiences in the United States have grown since “Drive to Survive” was released. ESPN said the average viewership per race so far had increased to about 928,000 in 2021, from about 547,000 in 2018.
“There’s no way to quantify whether the Netflix series has contributed to the increase in audience, but it certainly hasn’t hurt,” said John Suchenski, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisition.
“Having additional Formula 1 content that reaches a wide and different audience will help raise awareness and interest, and hopefully encourage them to tune in to the races,” he said. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The growth in 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 in the country.
Americans do not have a large presence in the sport, with only one team, Haas of Kannapolis, NC, and no drivers.
“It’s such a fascinating sport, with the politics and personalities,” said Brown of McLaren Racing. “I think ‘Drive to Survive’ nailed that and showed that to the world, and it seems to have really resonated in the US”
Drivers have also noticed the growing US fan base. “I got more and more messages and mentions, especially from America,” says Pierre Gasly from France. “In the US, it had a pretty big impact when the series came out every year. I now have more Americans following me.”
“From the perspective of an American fan, there are many more,” said Lando Norris of England, who drives for McLaren. “People I meet have gotten into motorsport and become fans not only of me, but also of Formula 1, just by watching ‘Drive to Survive’.”
Martin, the producer, is blown away by its impact. But he attributes the show’s success to Formula 1’s qualities as a sport.
“It’s unbelievable, 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 mistakes and there are huge characters. Our show just sheds light on what’s out there.”