Speed is something of a universal language, so it’s no surprise that “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” — a show with plenty of it — has become a Netflix sports doc staple. Following the drivers and teams on the international Formula 1 open-wheel racing circuit, the series tracks the on- and off-track exploits of some of the world’s top drivers as they navigate treacherous road courses and the persistent drama of a high-stakes, high-reward enterprise.
It’s a method the show returns to again and again, but the tension of these drivers lined up at the starting grid waiting for the signature five red lights to disappear and signal the start of the race is as primal an idea as you can get in the sports world. Going from nothing to all-out exertion, even if it’s done with the aid of a finely honed, multi-million-dollar vehicle is something to build a show around. Even though “Drive to Survive” has all of that innate drama, it doesn’t just rely on it. In fact, the show’s newly released Season 4 is an ideal point for finding out how this show create (and keeps) incoming fans.
Watching “Drive to Survive,” for those who don’t follow the actual Formula 1 season as it progresses, is a little bit like escaping into a time vortex. The show doesn’t necessarily go out of its way to disguise when these races happen, but in Season 4, aside from a few odd mentions of 2021 and the invocation of the annual “summer break,” “Drive to Survive” can feel a little unstuck in time. You can feel the strain in some teams of having to pass the endurance test of the 22 races that made up the 2021 schedule, even if the show never explicitly states that these contests run most of the year, from March through December.
“Drive to Survive” usually relies on the unofficial tiering that occurs in Formula 1 every season. With a disparity in quality of the cars and of experience of the men racing them, there are rivalries built on levels. There’s an upper echelon with the sport’s greats, but that weirdly makes the race for 3rd or 5th place a secondary prize all its own. Rather than a one-against-all philosophy (which would make sense, given the sport’s star Lewis Hamilton in the middle of a seven-year championship run going into the events of Season 4), it’s those natural standing pairings that “Drive to Survive” uses to its advantage.
Without giving away too much of the late-season fireworks, there’s an element to Season 4 that makes it an even easier entry point for anyone unfamiliar with the sport. While a number of other Netflix docs are built around the arc of a season that often crests with a title hunt or a final championship, “Drive to Survive” is able to take the best of those rhythms and graft it onto a sport that thrives in the absence of down-to-the-wire drama.
Even at the back of the pack, there’s still an entry point for “Drive to Survive” to build out a world beyond a specific calendar year. Season 4’s drama with driver George Russell and the recently receded Williams team gives the show a chance to tap into the idea that not every group is destined to maintain the excellence that some outfits manage to reach. Like some of the world’s most recognizable franchises, history and tradition aren’t always enough to guarantee success. If anything, sometimes those might even be a hindrance.
In other ways, “Drive to Survive” is a nice corrective to the “[fill-in-the-blank]-hour movie” approach that some ambitious sports doc series take. Each episode of this show exists as its own self-contained chapter, foregrounding a particular team or driver. There’s time to follow these front-of-camera personalities to their homes across Europe as they ramp up to race day or cool down in the other direction. For an organization that has a humongous global fandom outside the one cultivated by the series, it’s also interesting to see how the most visible figures in Formula 1 deal with the attention that comes with being in the paddock on a race weekend or simply wandering around the streets of London.
“Drive to Survive” also benefits from a straightforward scoring system. Aggregated offscreen over the course of the season, the basic idea is that half of the men who start in any given race will get points toward the overall tally of the year. (Thrusting newbies into the idea that these teams use “P2” or “P10” instead of “2nd place” or “10th place” is one way that the show gets you situated to a fan’s wavelength with relative ease and speed.) That slow buildup of season-long work, coupled with the more instantaneous thrills of any individual race, makes it a perfect match for a doc project spread out over 10 episodes.
The finishing touch on “Drive to Survive” is the access the show gets to the drivers and decision-makers. It’s not necessarily revolutionary to be patched into the team communications between crew and driver — that’s long been a staple of live broadcasts from Formula 1 to NASCAR — but this show does manage to create the illusion that you can drop in any time, regardless of how much tension might be brewing. Drivers chew out their mechanics or complain about fellow competitors, and some vitriol even gets aimed at race officials tasked with making in-the-moment decisions about rules or punishments. (What would a sports doc be without a little referee second-guessing?)
And that peek into everyone’s psyche continues in between races. Sometimes it happens in overheard conversations around the garages, while other times it’s in the on-camera sitdown debriefs that drivers and team principals and CEOs give throughout the course of the year. It’s the slightest veneer of a reality competition show combined with the pace and energy of a blistering lap around a 3-mile road course. That insight makes it easy for a casual viewer to latch onto being a fan of a particular driver, but it also works for agnostics, too. The real star of “Drive to Survive” is the sport itself, which might well be its best asset.
“Formula 1: Drive to Survive” Season 4 is now available to stream on Netflix.