The Netflix show sold the European sport to a U.S. audience. But will the romance last after the series is gone?
The Ferrari of Charles Leclerc during race weekend.Credit…Brian Finke for The New York Times
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One Thursday morning in May, the Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas was enjoying an alfresco breakfast with his girlfriend, the cyclist Tiffany Cromwell, on the secluded terrace of a South Beach hotel. It was a last bit of vacation before the start of practice sessions for that weekend’s Miami Grand Prix. Bottas and Cromwell had spent an hour biking along the beach. Now they were sitting under a trellis of bougainvillea, chatting casually in the way that romantic partners do.
Except it wasn’t quite in that way. After omelets had been ordered, and the merits of the house-roasted Kenyan coffee were discussed with a server, Cromwell found herself alone with Bottas. At that point, she leaned forward to pose a question that wouldn’t have been out of place in the drivers’ weekly interview session. “Is there a race that you’re really looking forward to this season?” she asked.
Standing beside me, 30 feet from where Bottas and Cromwell were talking at their marble-topped table, Cassie Bennitt nodded. A showrunner on the documentary series “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” which is currently shooting its fifth season for Netflix, Bennitt had two camera crews with boom microphones filming the couple. She assured me that nothing Bottas and Cromwell were saying had been scripted. “But we might suggest, ‘It would be nice to get your thoughts on Miami,’ or something like that,” she said. “Then we sit back and see what happens.”
The logistics of the shoot had come together the previous evening. Bottas’s team, Alfa Romeo, was aware that “Drive to Survive” wanted a scene with the couple in an intimate setting. Miami, where Bottas planned to spend a few days with Cromwell before the race weekend, offered an opportunity. Bottas owns a company that roasts coffee in Lahti, Finland, and sells it online; he had scouted out this hotel cafe as one he wanted to try. “He was going to have breakfast there with his girlfriend,” Bennitt, who wears cat-eye glasses and has multicolored tattoos on her arms, said. “So it was, ‘Can we tag along?’”
Bottas had last been seen by Netflix viewers in a painful sequence late in Season 4. Toto Wolff, who runs the Mercedes team, casually explained over lunch why Bottas was being replaced after five years. Bottas landed at the Alfa Romeo team. Its cars, unlike those of Mercedes, don’t rank among Formula 1’s fastest. In the three seasons since the manufacturer returned to the sport after more than 30 years away, they hadn’t achieved any of the top-three finishes that put drivers on the victory podium. At the table, Cromwell suggested that Miami might provide the breakthrough. Bottas agreed. “I feel it coming,” he said. Hearing that through the monitor in her ear, Bennitt looked delighted. If Bottas did make the podium, the exchange would make the entire shoot worthwhile.
That Sunday, 20 Formula 1 drivers set out along a serpentine track that had been built beside Hard Rock Stadium, where the Miami Dolphins play. The inaugural Miami Grand Prix felt less like a sports event than a high-end theme park. There was a fake beach and sunbathing areas where spectators brandishing margaritas seemed only vaguely aware that cars were hurtling at insane speeds around them. The corporate and V.I.P. hospitality areas were stuffed with American sports celebrities: LeBron James, the Williams sisters, Tom Brady. “It’s like the Super Bowl,” said Tom Garfinkel, the president of the Miami Dolphins and one of the owners of a company that stages and promotes the weekend-long event. He amended the comparison. “It’s like three Super Bowls.”
Also like Super Bowls, some Grand Prix races turn out to be more exciting than others. This one didn’t ultimately provide much of a plotline for the 85,000 spectators who filled the bleachers or for the thousands more who purchased $500 grounds passes (seat not included). The Red Bull team driver Max Verstappen, the sport’s reigning champion, took an early lead he never relinquished. Ferrari drivers finished second and third. Bottas spent much of the race in fifth place. With seven laps remaining, he brushed against a wall and fell back to seventh. Unless you were a fan of Alfa Romeo or the roastery in Lahti, you probably didn’t notice.
After following drivers and executives all weekend, a “Drive to Survive” crew spent the race in the media center, poised to respond to something dramatic. Because the show has access to everything that the official Formula 1 broadcast team records, its crews don’t need to bother with what happens on the track. Rather, they hope to get reaction from their protagonists to an exciting passing sequence or to cars colliding during an attempted overtake. But such dramatic events don’t always occur, which is why the material accumulated in the days leading up to each race is so important.
Sometimes that means straying far from the victory podium. In an Alfa Romeo, Bottas clearly wasn’t going to be one of the leading drivers this year. But as an appealing character with whom viewers had become familiar, he was worth an investment. If, in some race later this year, he managed to finish in front of George Russell, the highly regarded Mercedes driver who replaced him, his dialogue with Cromwell could appear in an episode chronicling his journey. “You have to back a few horses,” says Tom Rogers, who runs postproduction for the series, “and then hope they pay off in some way.”
Like all reality TV, “Drive to Survive” structures its episodes around emotional plotlines. It benefits from the almost preternatural competitiveness of the drivers and team executives, and the unusual access that the show has negotiated with the sport, punctuated by the occasional fiery crash. It can seem more like a soap opera than a sports show, a real-world “Friday Night Lights.” Except just when the narrative starts to flag, cars suddenly scream down a straightaway at 200 miles an hour. With a boost from the bingeing of competition-starved viewers during the pandemic, it has nudged Formula 1 into the United States mass market. “Formula 1 has always been the top racing in the world, but Americans didn’t know about it,” said Emerson Fittipaldi, who won two championships in the 1970s. When I asked him about the recent surge in interest, Fittipaldi’s eyes opened wide. “When you see what’s happening now,” he said, “it’s magic.”
For decades, Formula 1 struggled to gain a foothold in the American market. The competition, which involves custom-built cars that are considered the most technically advanced in the world, started in England in 1950. In most years since then, at least one United States Grand Prix was run. Occasionally, there were two. But only during a brief interlude in the 1970s, when the American driver Mario Andretti moved from Indy racing — a United States-based competition that has its origins on oval tracks — to Formula 1 full time and became its champion, was it treated here as anything more than, as the former Fox Sports president David Hill puts it, “an effete European sport that happens in Monaco.”
From 1961 to 1980, a Grand Prix was held annually at a track outside the hamlet of Watkins Glen, N.Y. For the internationally famous drivers, the annual weekend in the Finger Lakes served as a respite from the Beatles-like attention they received around Europe. Since then, the United States Grand Prix has had an itinerant feel. Every few years, the event alighted in a new market, accompanied by local fanfare. After a few years of indifference and mounting bills, it was inevitably abandoned in each place. There have been Formula 1 races on the streets of Long Beach, Calif.; on the grounds of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas; even on a track built inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. None lasted long. For years, there was no Formula 1 presence in the United States at all. During a span of nearly two decades, only three U.S. Grands Prix were held.
For nearly all that time, from the late 1970s until 2017, Formula 1 was controlled by an eccentric British businessman named Bernie Ecclestone. A failed driver and then a successful team owner, Ecclestone worked a lucrative television deal in 1978 that gave his company nearly a quarter of the income. He ran the sport as his fief, increasing its revenues but taking little interest in the emerging platforms that could promote it. He refused to let sponsors use race footage in ad campaigns or allow drivers to share it on social media. He had no marketing staff, nobody selling partnerships. If he couldn’t instantly figure out how to monetize an aspect of the business, such as all those potential American fans, he ignored it.
In January 2017, John C. Malone’s Colorado-based Liberty Media paid $4.6 billion for the entire sport. With Formula 1, Malone perceived an underdeveloped asset that had huge potential for growth. To succeed Ecclestone, he hired Chase Carey, a television executive. During a storied career, Carey helped acquire N.F.L. rights for Fox, created and ran Fox Sports and coaxed DirecTV to profitability. To handle the commercial side of the property, Carey chose Sean Bratches, an ESPN executive vice president. Neither Carey nor Bratches had ever seen a Formula 1 race. “I didn’t even know the direction that the cars ran around the track,” Bratches says. He relocated to London to run the business. “That’s when I realized that there was no business,” he said. “There was no sponsorship group, no media rights. There was nothing there.”
It’s hardly a coincidence that a former television executive, working under another former television executive, turned to a video-entertainment company to help expand their new venture. Around that time, Bratches says, Amazon approached Mercedes with an idea for a short series. The Mercedes team included Lewis Hamilton, Formula 1’s most visible and successful driver. But to Bratches, who controlled the race footage, it made sense to include all the teams. And though Amazon had recently started making original docuseries, Bratches thought he could do better.
Erik Barmack, a former ESPN colleague, was now at Netflix. Bratches pitched him an idea. “We’re a global sport,” Bratches said. “We have half a billion fans. With Netflix, we’d have an opportunity to showcase to them what goes on behind the scenes.” It turned out that Brandon Riegg, the vice president for nonscripted series at Netflix, was looking for exactly that kind of programming. Netflix had a popular series on small-college football called “Last Chance U,” and research indicated there was room in its portfolio for more sports. Riegg also knew that Netflix wanted content that would attract viewers in Europe and Asia. “And Formula 1 was looking to expand in the U.S.,” he says. “So there was a good match.”
Before “Drive to Survive,” sports docuseries typically focused on individual teams. The teams invariably controlled the content, which meant that embarrassing revelations or scenes critical of a player or management rarely made the final cut. The shows usually had the wide-eyed feel of promotional videos. Before signing off on “Drive to Survive,” Riegg insisted on keeping creative autonomy. And unlike the N.F.L. teams that HBO accessed on “Hard Knocks,” or the soccer clubs featured on Amazon’s “All or Nothing” series, Formula 1 didn’t have the standing to refuse.
Now Riegg needed to commission someone to actually make the series. Nat Grouille, who was working under Riegg, suggested Box to Box Films, a London-based production company. James Gay-Rees, one of its two principals, had been a producer on “Amy,” a powerful 2015 film about the decline and death of the singer Amy Winehouse that won an Oscar for best documentary feature. More to the point, he was also the creative vision behind “Senna,” a study of the Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna that relied entirely on interviews and existing footage. “One of the best documentaries ever, period,” Grouille says. “Just a work of art.”
In retrospect, it seems clear that the timing was right for a series on Formula 1. But it’s difficult to separate the impact of “Drive to Survive” from the production company that ended up creating it. When I asked Hill, who now helps supervise the worldwide Formula 1 telecasts, why “Drive to Survive” had such an effect, he responded that there was a simple answer. “Three words: James Gay-Rees.” Hill has been making documentaries for years, he said, and he considers most of his and everyone else’s unwatchable. Gay-Rees provided “the secret sauce” that made “Drive to Survive” the exception.
Gay-Rees began his career as a Hollywood producer — “the more commercial, the better,” he says. Eventually he discovered that he preferred working within the limitations imposed by events that actually happened. But he never lost his skill at getting viewers to emotionally invest. From wherever he is in the world, he watches and gives notes on rough cuts of each “Drive to Survive” episode as it evolves, often six or seven versions in all. As the footage shot during the season’s races — and additional interviews done with drivers and team executives at their homes and on their vacations — are distilled into 10 episodes, each about 40 minutes long, Gay-Rees shapes the narrative, sometimes homing in on a subplot or a throwaway scene that he knows belongs at the heart of the story, Rogers told me. While some editors might get lost in the sea of a season’s worth of footage, Gay-Rees has a knack for looking at the massive amount of tape and saying, Here’s what you really have.
When Netflix released its initial season of “Drive to Survive” in March 2019, Formula 1 had a devoted but limited following in the United States. The ratings on ESPN were tiny, about half a million viewers per race. (By comparison, NASCAR races average nearly four million viewers; the Indianapolis 500 is usually seen by more than five million.) One American Grand Prix was held each season, in Austin, Texas, and interest there was dwindling.
Three years on, ESPN’s ratings have nearly doubled. The attendance at last October’s race weekend in Austin was announced as the largest at any Grand Prix in the history of the sport: 400,000 fans over three days, including 140,000 for the race itself. This year, Miami was added to the schedule as a second American stop. In 2023, there will be a third, in Las Vegas; no other nation has more than two. Instead of the $5 million it had been paying to Formula 1 in annual U.S. television rights fees, ESPN agreed to a deal last month that will cost between $75 million and $90 million annually. Nearly everyone, inside and outside Formula 1, credits “Drive to Survive.”
Netflix is famously proprietary about its viewership metrics. But according to Formula 1, Season 4 of “Drive to Survive” became the most-watched Netflix series in 33 countries, including the United States, and more than a third of the spectators in Austin last year mentioned “Drive to Survive” in an on-site survey about why they decided to attend. From the start, Riegg insists, the series scored especially well in Netflix’s internal metrics. “Once people started hitting play on the first episode,” he said, “there was a very good rate of watching them all.”
Even as Netflix battles falling subscription numbers, and a plunging stock price that erased $50 billion of its value in a single day, Riegg has commissioned new shows on tennis and golf. He promises more series involving various leagues and formats. “It’s a virtuous cycle,” he said, invoking a phrase common in the Netflix vernacular. “The merchandise sales, the ratings. It’s a win for everybody.”
Or almost everybody. After four seasons, the show’s creative editing and designed story lines, the same elements that make it so insidiously watchable, have started to alienate some of the featured performers. One of those is Red Bull’s Verstappen, who refused to sit for “Drive to Survive” interviews during the 2021 racing season. He then told the BBC in March that he wouldn’t participate because the show “faked rivalries.” (After getting assurances that he would have input on how he was portrayed, he said in late June that he was now willing to be involved.)
Over the course of the four seasons, too, audio clips and reaction shots have occasionally been used misleadingly to help create a heightened narrative. In a Season 3 episode entitled “Man on Fire,” Hamilton was shown responding to a competitor’s near-fatal crash by saying, “It’s a little scary, makes you feel vulnerable.” It turned out that he was actually referring to catching Covid-19. Recently, Stefano Domenicali, the sport’s chief executive, suggested that the show should reduce its efforts to amp up conflict. “In order to ignite the interest of a new audience, a tone was used in some ways focused on dramatizing the story,” he said. “It’s an opportunity, but I think it needs to be understood.”
Riegg is blasé about the controversies. He believes the insular environment of Formula 1, in which the entire industry travels together for eight months a year, provides an endless supply of inherent tension. Sometimes, he suggests, the protagonists can’t perceive it because they’re so intimately involved. “It’s not like the camera caught something that wasn’t there,” he said. And with the series far exceeding expectations for its marketing power, team executives remain eager to trade nearly unfettered access to garages, boardrooms and even their own dinner tables for the opportunity to be featured. “We’re in the entertainment business,” Zak Brown, who runs McLaren Racing, says. “We recognize the importance of the show to our fan base.”
Not long after assuring the teams that he would discuss the tone of “Drive to Survive” with Netflix, Domenicali signed off on a fifth and sixth season. “Making TV shows is a tough business,” Riegg told me. “It’s great when the stars align.”
A month into shooting the first season of “Drive to Survive,” Gay-Rees and Paul Martin, his partner at Box to Box, made the crucial decision not to use external narration. It was as if they were pretending to come across an existing cache of material, as Gay-Rees did with “Senna” and “Amy,” except that they would be shooting that material along the way. The technique of only using participants to tell the story, as opposed to a disembodied voice intoning from above, adds ambiguity to the viewing experience: It isn’t always clear whom to believe. Still, “Drive to Survive” fudges it a bit. Two journalists appear regularly to add perspective and, when necessary, advance the narrative. And when the hundreds of hours of existing television coverage can’t provide the requisite scene-setting, announcers are brought in to record facsimiles. About a quarter of the race voice-overs that show up in the finished episodes are done after the fact.
All of that artfulness would yield little without the access, which often determines whose stories get told and how. Originally, the plan for “Drive to Survive” was to prominently feature Red Bull, which won consecutive team championships from 2010 to 2013; Mercedes, which won the next four; and Ferrari, the sport’s marquee name. But when Bratches took the concept to the 10 teams before filming started on the first season, Mercedes and Ferrari asked to be excluded. After the success of the first season, both teams changed their decision. But until they did, Gay-Rees and Martin were forced to look further afield for story lines — to teams and drivers at the back of the grid that were all but unknown to the American audience.
None were more obscure than Haas, one of the smallest Formula 1 teams, and the first based in America since the 1980s. Gene Haas made a fortune in tool manufacturing, then started a NASCAR team. He later served more than a year in prison for attempted tax evasion. After his release in 2009, he dove into Formula 1. Headquartered in North Carolina with some of Haas’s other ventures, Haas F1 has been badly underfunded compared with the larger teams. It doesn’t have the budget to design and build cars that can win races. Predictably, it has struggled to attract top drivers.
What it does have is the team principal Günther Steiner, whom “Drive to Survive” has transformed into one of Formula 1’s most popular personalities. An Italian from the German-speaking region of South Tyrol, Steiner has worked in racing for three decades, including briefly as Red Bull’s technical director. During all that time, almost nobody outside the sport was aware of his existence. “I’d been following Formula 1 for years and had been to races as a spectator,” Rogers says. “And I had no idea who he was.” When I first met Steiner in 2017 during the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, we walked together unbothered through the paddock, the pedestrian thoroughfare used to access garages and temporary office space that teams are provided for the week. In Miami, he was recognized every few moments. Box to Box had discovered Steiner’s propensity for German-accented candor and salty language and utilized him as a recurring character. That made him a cult figure after the first season, and eventually a star. He insists that he hasn’t ever watched the show. “For the simple reason that you look at yourself, and maybe you behave differently,” he says. “And I don’t want to behave differently.”
He’s probably better off not seeing the second episode of Season 2, titled “Boiling Point.” In it, William Storey, an energy-drink entrepreneur with a flowing beard down to his chest, is shown on a helicopter ride. He explains that he has invested 35 million British pounds in Haas. “They’re a little bit rock ’n’ roll,” he says, “and they are Davids taking on the Goliaths of motor sport.” The rest of the episode chronicles the series of disasters that the team suffers during the season’s early stages. There’s a spin into a wall in Canada, a collision involving both of its cars in England, engines that mysteriously fail. “This is the worst experience I’ve ever had in any racecar ever,” Kevin Magnussen, one of Haas’s two drivers at the time, says at one point over the two-way radio. The cameras capture Steiner describing both his drivers as “[expletive] idiots” and Steiner’s adolescent daughter asking him during a family walk if he likes his job. Soon enough, Storey pulls his investment, leaving the team in financial turmoil. By the end, Steiner seems close to tears. If Haas ends up failing, he says, “I would have no idea what to do next.” It was poignant stuff. Nobody watching just the races would have known any of it was happening.
As Steiner was becoming wildly popular while his Haas team remained all but irrelevant, Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, took note. From the start, Horner has been one of the show’s most compelling characters, a charming but Machiavellian aristocrat shown feuding with Wolff, his counterpart at Mercedes, as their two teams battled for the championship last season, but also expertly riding a galloping horse on his country estate with his wife, Geri Halliwell, the Spice Girl. According to Bratches, Horner called Netflix early in the show’s run to say that if they sent a crew to Red Bull’s headquarters in southern England, he would make it worthwhile. “These guys are ridiculously competitive, and not just with the cars,” Bratches says. “We took advantage of that.”
Just as Steiner’s character might not have emerged if Ferrari and Mercedes had participated in Season 1, and Horner might not have opened the Red Bull doors quite so widely had Steiner not captured the spotlight, “Drive to Survive” wouldn’t have the extensive access that it does now if not for the pandemic. Season 2 was released on Feb. 28, 2020, right as the world was shutting down. Fans had all day and night to watch sports, but no live events. The viewership metrics of “Drive to Survive” took off, Riegg reports. “All of a sudden, it was like that hockey stick,” he says.
That July, Formula 1 resumed competition by constructing a virus-free bubble that included only team members indispensable to the races. Somehow, Netflix successfully made the case that “Drive to Survive” deserved access. Its crews were issued regulation team uniforms to make clear to local officials that they were part of the bubble. In effect, they embedded with the drivers and engineers. “The material we got as a result was incredible,” Rogers says. “The access you get when you’ve become part of the team gets you those moments with the real intimate feel.” More than two years on, the presence of Box to Box camera crews dressed as team employees has become part of the landscape of the sport.
Before “Drive to Survive,” races in the United States were relaxed affairs — for executives, who had few sponsors to entertain, and for the drivers. “This is a country where I’ve had a lot of privacy,” the former world champion Fernando Alonso, who now competes for Alpine, told me when I saw him with a crowd of fans at an electric-bike shop in Miami. “Not anymore. In the airport, in the hotel at reception, in the lobbies, there are people coming up to me everywhere. Restaurants I’ve gone to here are decorated with checkered flags. It’s the kind of thing we’re used to seeing in European countries.” In Miami, too, larger-than-life photos of several of the team principals, including Steiner, were displayed on pillars outside Hard Rock Stadium. That could only have come from “Drive to Survive.”
The growth in American interest has had a salubrious effect on Formula 1’s business side. It has attracted new sponsors, notably Oracle, which is now aligned with Red Bull. Mario Andretti’s son Michael is attempting to buy an existing team or start a new one. Including stops in Canada and Mexico, five of the 23 races on the 2023 schedule will be held in North America. (New York and several other American cities are clamoring for a race of their own.) Yet the status of Formula 1 as perhaps America’s trendiest new diversion has created a sense of unease around the sport, similar to the effect that investments by United States businessmen have had on English soccer. At an informal press gathering in Miami, Horner was quizzed about the ongoing Americanization of Formula 1, which is now wholly owned by an American company. As the chief executive of a “high-tech technology business,” he was excited by the opportunities that the additional engagement provided. “I don’t think I’ve got a busier schedule at any Grand Prix than I have this weekend,” he said.
Some observers — from former drivers to motor-sports columnists — have also voiced the suspicion that decisions inside the sport are being made with a consideration for their entertainment value, especially after the controversial end to the 2021 season. Entering the final weekend in Abu Dhabi, the co-leaders Hamilton and Verstappen were equal on points. In that race, Hamilton was leading when an accident forced cars to drive under a yellow flag, which prohibits passing. The race director made decisions that, contrary to the usual protocol, repositioned the cars on the track for the final lap in such a way that Verstappen had easy access to challenge Hamilton. Verstappen then passed Hamilton to become champion. It was an ending so thrilling that many believed it was manipulated with the American audience in mind. “The finish was effectively rigged by the stewards in order to produce a dramatic finale for the theater,” said Peter Hain, a member of the House of Lords who is vice chairman of a parliamentary commission on Formula 1. After an investigation, the sport’s governing body attributed the mistake to “human error.”
None of this is slowing down interest in the “Drive to Survive” model. After noting what the series has accomplished for racing, the commercial arms of some of the world’s most popular sports are striking similar deals, both with Netflix and other media outlets. “ ‘Drive to Survive’ showed the other leagues around the world what a well-made series could do for their fans and for recruiting nonfans,” Riegg says.
But how much those who have come to Formula 1 through “Drive to Survive” actually care about the sport itself remains unclear. The popularity of the series has led the international broadcast team to prioritize storytelling during the races — cameras inside the cars now allow drivers to be observed while speeding down the track, and commentators often talk about team principals during the broadcast. Still, compared with the structured narrative of a “Drive to Survive” episode, the inherent chaos of a live event can feel unfulfilling. At some point, “Drive to Survive” will end, as all series do. When it does, will those Formula 1 fans it helped create even bother to watch the races?
I asked myself that question as I was leaving Hard Rock Stadium. By then, I knew who had won and who had and hadn’t raced well. I also understood that much of what happened in Miami that weekend would be revealed only if “Drive to Survive” eventually chose to include it. Maybe there was a battle for position farther down in the pack that had an emotional subplot, or something startling hidden in the radio communications between the drivers and the pit crews. I enjoyed watching the race, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it. That wouldn’t be possible until Season 5.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to the magazine. He last wrote about the new developmental basketball league Overtime Elite. Brian Finke is a photographer from Texas who lives in Brooklyn. His next monograph, “Backyard Fights,” from Hat & Beard Press, will be published this summer.