What Drive To Survive Got Right
by Georgia Kay | Director of Partnerships Development | Talisman Agency
With Season 3 soon to be released, Netflix is quietly triumphant about the wave created by their F1 behind-the-scenes docuseries, Drive to Survive.
One of the most significant barriers to entry in following sports leagues is not the timezones (thanks, delayed broadcasts) or the broadcast rights (thanks, VPNs) - but the ability of a layperson to sit down in front of the television and understand what they are watching. I have long courted a theory that Australian children are born with an innate understanding of AFL, just as their American counterparts enter the world with a perfectly formed definition of a touchdown.
F1 should already be at an advantage when it comes to understanding how the race works….the first car to cross the line with the checkered flag is the winner. But years of developing technology and racecraft means the sport isn’t as accessible as it once was. A life-long fan would
argue the reason fans continue to remain loyal to F1 is because of the technical developments, the constantly updated FIA race rules, and driver changes.
The ever-developing nature of the sport means avid fans will remain engaged. But the flipside of this dynam
ic is that new fans find it difficult to understand and interpret race rules. Netflix has done an admirable job attacking the question: how can you enjoy something you do not understand?
By allowing Netflix incredible access to the teams and the right to create a narrative around the race season, Liberty Media has given potential fans the ability to understand the sport. But Liberty isn’t the first sports property owner to develop narrative content around their sport….here’s why Netflix’s Drive to Survive got it right.
Rather than speak directly to avid fans, Netflix used F1 commentator Will Buxton to narrate and explain the technical rules that guide the sport. Technical rules like tyre changes, refueling, DRS, and Safety Cars were positioned in a carefully constructed historical narrative. This narrative meant new fans could place rules in their historical context, linking events like refueling rules with Jos Verstappen’s iconic 1994 Hockenheim fire. Netflix has tactfully used the ‘educating through a narrative’ technique to bridge the gap between historical context and current rules.
Team & Driver Narrative
Unlike other F1 content creation pieces that lead with technical details, Netflix placed the drivers and ten F1 teams at the center of the narrative. Netflix invited casual viewers into the sport by opening with personal narratives (both Teams and drivers) and behind-the-scenes interviews. Drive to Survive leverages universal themes of sportsmanship, nepotism, and financial stress to lower the barrier to entry for casual viewers. This is a departure from previous strategy during The Bernie Years that sought to distance the viewer from personal or ‘trivial’ narratives. Netflix invited them in and kept them watching with verbal altercations, purposeful shunts, and public spats.
Drivers as the Pinnacle of Success
Unlike other sports that promote viewership through participation, F1 is inaccessible for aspiring drivers. Instead of framing motorsports as the ‘everyman’s sport’, Netflix emphasized the incredible difficulty in entering the sport and staying at the top. The viewer watched this struggle directly in the episode profiling Alex Albon’s will-he-won’t-he addition to the Red Bull Racing Team. Netflix has capitalized on a simple formula of abundance to make fans believe they are gaining access to the most inaccessible characters. There may be hundreds of pro basketballers and footballers, but only 20 F1 drivers.
The Crash Voyeurism Debate
Perhaps the most contentious element in the Netflix production room was the choice to include footage and commentary around dangerous and deadly crashes. Contrary to Hemingway’s belief (“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games”), modern sports fans have determined that sport need not be existential to be entertaining. Leaning too hard on violence for entertainment risks a level of danger that is seen as outdated and macabre, an issue felt acutely by the producers of UFC and boxing. Instead of profiling all the season’s crashes in one episode, the producers carefully folded accidents into storylines that focused on the rise and fall of the driver’s journey. Even Anthoine Hubert’s tragic death was placed as part of Gasly’s (fellow Frenchman and friend) promotion-and-demotion narrative.
Avid fans level criticism at Netflix’s use of Will Buxton to explain basic terms all motorsport fans understand. But this series is not aimed at existing fans….it is trying to convert new ones.
I have connected colleagues, friends, aunts, strangers to Drive to Survive. It starts with the objection “but I’m not interested in cars!,” but always ends with “when is the first race, I need to watch it!”