Excitement may be building for the new Formula 1 season, but fans will have spent recent days looking back on last year after the release of Drive to Survive.
Season four of the Netflix docu-series dropped last Friday, right in the middle of the second test in Bahrain, recapping one of the most dramatic and controversial seasons in recent F1 history.
But more than ever, it felt like fans were cottoning on to the subtle edits or changes in timeline which, while required to aid dramatic effect, left many frustrated or disappointed with what they were watching.
It was for that same reason Max Verstappen revealed last October that he had refused to take part in the most recent season, saying rivalries had been “faked”. As we noted in our review, the absence of the world champion does set season four back a bit.
At the time, Verstappen’s comments sparked debate over the use of creative licence in Drive to Survive. I wrote that very same week there was nothing wrong with using it a bit, given the positive impact it has had on F1 as a whole, taking it to the top of Netflix worldwide and reaching millions of new fans.
But the feeling does appear to have shifted a bit with the release of the latest series. Verstappen made clear in Bahrain that he would not reconsider his decision to be part of the series, adding he would “probably watch it and see how over the top it is”.
Even going into season four, there was already a degree of scepticism - not aided by the events of Abu Dhabi, which one driver commented had been “made for TV” - about just how much Drive to Survive would stick to real events and timelines. Memes and YouTube skits had already been made mocking how Drive to Survive would handle various incidents, spicing them up to be more dramatic than they actually were.
One of the stand-out examples of that in season three was the relationship at McLaren between Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. The bromance between the pair was widely lauded by fans and known throughout the paddock, yet the episode focusing them seemed to create tension where there wasn’t any.
“I think in the case of Lando and I, it was pushed a bit too far,” said Sainz. “All the fans that know Formula 1 -that are a lot, especially now, we are followed so much around the world - realise that Netflix probably went a step too far with Lando and me.
“But I do believe Netflix know it, and they are capable of correcting and judging mistakes, and they will adapt and maybe try and make it a bit more realistic in that sense.”
It is to be expected that certain scenes are set up to help move the storyline along, given Netflix cameras can’t be privy to many of the actual meetings that took place. A couple of recent examples include Christian Horner calling up Sergio Perez at the end of season three to say “welcome to Red Bull”, as though that was when the Mexican first found out, or Toto Wolff’s meeting with George Russell at Zandvoort to inform him he had the Mercedes seat - a least two weeks after he had really been told ahead of Spa.
The absence of Verstappen in the current series means a lot of the Red Bull title fight has to be told by Horner, whose jibes towards Wolff and Mercedes seem constant. Many scenes are cut showing him making a comment after seeing Hamilton or Wolff on a TV screen, but naturally, there is no real way to know how things have been cut.
“Last year was hugely intense, and a documentary series like Drive to Survive, at the end of the day, is a television show,” said Horner. “They’re taking snippets from a season-long battle and turning that into a television programme. Of course the effect of that has been a dramatic uptake in the following of Formula 1.
“But one has to remember, it is designed ultimately to entertain. So of course, elements are taken from it, and sometimes aren’t even from the race in question.”
“There are obviously some comments and things here and there which are maybe out of place for sure,” added Norris. “When you’re the person that it’s about, you maybe don’t agree with it so much because it can make you look like you said something in a time and place which is definitely not correct.”
One example Norris cited was at the Red Bull Ring in 2020, profiled in season three, during a battle with Sainz. “There’s a bit of me and [Sainz] going side-by-side in Turn 1 when we’re not even close, and I claim he pushes me off - which is from a completely different race,” said Norris.
“There are things maybe are a bit too much like that and I maybe don’t agree too much with it.”
Although the added dramatisation may go unnoticed by many casual fans who only consume F1 through Drive to Survive, the issue would be if it caused more drivers or teams to take the same approach as Verstappen, and opt against taking part. After all, the series needs these personalities to be a success.
That fear seems unfounded for now, though, as most agree the benefits still Netflix has for F1 still outweigh these drawbacks.
“It’s still just exciting and good for everyone,” said Norris. “As long as they don’t overdo it and literally make someone look like they’ve done something which they definitely haven’t done, I think that’s too far, so as long as they don’t do that it’s good.”
“I still believe Netflix is a good thing for myself and for the brand of Formula 1,” added Sainz. “I will still be featured if they want me to be in it.”
It has always been a hard thing for Netflix to balance, ensuring storylines are dramatic enough to be exciting and entertaining for the casual fan while not straying too far from reality. A lot of it does come down to who is the series targeted at - and truthfully, it isn’t the diehard F1 fan.
But as it remains such an important part of F1’s global image and output, and as more of those casual fans become more and more dedicated, ensuring that balance does not veer too far one way must be a priority moving forward.