As a kid growing up in Indonesia, motor racing sat at the periphery of my sporting interests. In fact, I knew very little of it save the occasional clip on television. There was one exception, and that was Formula 1. Something about it grabbed my attention, and I remember vividly watching the Monaco Grand Prix as brightly colored cars raced through an exotic city I had never heard of. This was in the days of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, both untouchable in their craft. I didn’t understand the greater depths of Formula 1 then, but I knew that these two were immense, unstoppable forces in a sport where feats of skill and physics are only inches from catastrophe. I liked the fast cars, the great sounds, and the pageantry that came with the sport of millionaires.

It was 1989, when the Monaco Grand Prix was won by Senna, but his season was met with disappointment in Japan after being disqualified for missing a chicane. Prost won his third Championship that season. The rivalry between the two, heightened by the fact that they were teammates, made for the kind of drama you can only dream of scripting. And it was in part, why Formula 1 was such enthralling viewing.

It didn’t stay that way. The recent years have seen a decline in viewership, struggles and conflicts with Formula 1’s new ownership group – an ownership group that has received fresh criticism from the sport’s own promoters association (FOPA) – a flatlining in young viewers and to top it off, slower cars and a lack of competitiveness. It certainly doesn’t bode well from what you read. But Formula 1 isn’t quite ready to pit just yet. Like any great monolith of sport and media, demises are often exaggerated- at least that’s what they want you to think. Throughout the 2018 season, Formula 1 teamed up with Netflix to create and film a documentary about the season (a season won once again by Lewis Hamilton) and titled it Drive to Survive. An apt title that truly means many things.

Formula 1 fans are serious business. I am not a serious fan, rather, a casual one whose fandom waned after my initial connection. I don’t get into the minutiae of aerodynamic engineering, the details of every season and every driver, or the finer points of the constant rule changes, but I do enjoy good sports documentaries. Drive to Survive, like the terrific Sunderland Til I Die, is Netflix’s most recent entry into the field. By taking what HBO did so well for so long and giving it the new Netflix sheen, they have proven that sometimes letting the drama of reality unfold (with a nudge and a push), results in an infinitely better product. Drive to Survive is a 10-episode series, cut roughly into 30-40 minute episodes with season-long narrative arcs coupled with shorter episodic arcs, spliced between the 10. Mercedes and Ferrari aren’t featured, and so while we get passing glimpses of Lewis Hamilton, he does not feature in the documentary. Instead, we are given the narratives of the “best of the rest” (the battle for fourth and fifth place between longstanding French team Renault and upstart American battlers Haas), interwoven with interesting conflicts between oft-third place team Red Bull, and the rest of the championship ladder.

Netflix are fantastic at production. It’s proven in Drive to Survive. The access they were given (outside of Mercedes and Ferrari) is close to all-access, and the way the series unfolds is all glorious high-definition action, fast-paced adrenaline ballet. I didn’t know who Christian Horner was (Red Bull Racing’s Team Principal), or Cyril Abiteboul (Renault), but they’re given the spotlight and their hilariously ticky-tacky feud that encompasses everything from their team drivers, to their engines (Red Bull Racing had, until 2019, used Renault engines in their cars), is a microscope of what really goes on behind the scenes. These are the things that make Formula 1 interesting, and a reason why this documentary resonated with me as a casual fan. Like any sport, the personalities that clash, the memorable ones, become the stories that make the sport enduring. While the series shows plenty of race footage, the most captivating are those of the drivers away from the track, as they balance the incredible pressures of being a race car driver at its ultimate level. True, this co-production means that you’ll only get so far under the skin of the sport, but regardless of whether or not this series is one big shiny promo (what production isn’t?), it doesn’t take away from the results.

Red Bull vs Renault
Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Principal and Cyril Abiteboul, Renault Sport F1 Managing Director, really, really don’t like each other.

I cared about the careers and lives of upstart drivers like Esteban Ocon and Charles LeClerc, felt a connection to the tumultuous season of French driver Romain Grosjean (who will henceforce be known as “Crashy McCrasherson”), and I felt the pain and frustration of all-time great Fernando Alonso as he struggled to drag the apparent carcass of the once-great McLaren team (at the season’s conclusion, a handler tells Alonso as he’s talking that the press want him to “walk slower”, for what I assume is for better photographs and media, only for him to retort, “I want to be fast at least once this year”). It worked because of the personalities that make up the kaleidoscope of Formula 1, and because Netflix were able to craft and shape the reality into perfect storytelling.

It is this connection, this caring from casuals and occasional viewers that will help salvage Formula 1. You don’t have to care that the rules are constantly changing. You don’t have to know that the cars are slower (or faster) this year than they were last year. And you don’t have to know who Nigel Mansell is or that the Tyrell “six-wheeler” is still the coolest race car ever designed. You just have to like human stories, emotion, drama, and good documentary production.

As the Australian Grand Prix roared past my window a few weeks ago, I hoped that Daniel Ricciardo would succeed on his home turf. Not because he’s Australian, but because we got to see a little more of who he is away from the wheel (a good Aussie bloke and a fantastic driver who just needs a little bit of luck).

For the first time in a long time, I’m interested to see how the season unfolds. I know who the players behind the sparks, the speed, and the sounds are now. And thanks to Netflix’s Drive to Survive, I care once again about the pageantry, the extravagance, and the thrills of the sport of royalty.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.

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