Why Netflix’s creative licence is a small price for F1 to pay

OPINION: Max Verstappen has voiced his frustration with the hyped-up drama in Drive to Survive, but any downsides of the Netflix show are far outweighed by the positive effect it has had on F1 as a whole - as underlined by the sellout crowd attending this weekend's United States Grand Prix

Why Netflix’s creative licence is a small price for F1 to pay

Today’s grand prix at the Circuit of The Americas marks an important moment for Formula 1 in the United States.

Sixteen years since hitting its low point with the tyre fiasco at Indianapolis in 2005, F1 will hit a new high in the American market with a sell-out event in Austin.

Momentum has been building for F1 in the United States ever since the 2012 return of the grand prix (absent for four years after Indy's final hurrah in 2007), accelerating further under American ownership with Liberty Media in the past five years. With a second American race planned for next year in Miami and an eventual third being mooted, it’s a good time for F1 on US shores.

Much of the recent growth can be put down to the success of Drive to Survive on Netflix. The series has helped break down so many barriers to get fans into F1, creating a new wave of avid followers, particularly in the US.

COTA chief Bobby Epstein has been honest about the impact of Drive to Survive on the Austin race, noting its role in selling out tickets for the 2021 race, the hunger having built among American fans in the COVID-forced absence last year as viewership of the Netflix series hit a new high all over the world.

It was therefore ironic that this week much of the conversation about Drive to Survive surrounded its drawbacks, instigated by comments from Max Verstappen in an interview with the Associated Press earlier this week.

“From my side as a driver, I don’t like being part of it,” Verstappen said. “They faked a few rivalries which don’t really exist. So I decided to not be a part of [it] and did not give any more interviews after that, because then there is nothing you can show.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, with Helmut Marko, Consultant, Red Bull Racing

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, with Helmut Marko, Consultant, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

There is certainly merit to Verstappen’s point of view. In the latest series, recapping the 2020 season, one of the episodes centred on McLaren and the intra-team dynamic between Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris. It played up their partnership to be a deep-rooted rivalry in which the gloves were off in the wake of Sainz’s move to Ferrari. Sainz had also been central to a rivalry showcased in season two of Drive to Survive that focused on his fight with Daniel Ricciardo to lead the midfield.

PLUS: How Netflix built on a successful formula in Drive to Survive Season 3

A number of other factors have also hyped up throughout Drive to Survive to provide a better or more dramatic storyline. Things such as how pit calls are portrayed, constructors’ championship battles, and driver switches - think of Christian Horner’s “welcome to Red Bull” phone call to Sergio Perez at the end of season three - are not entirely accurate, and may be a little irksome to some F1 fans.

The fashion in which rivalries are hammed up has even become part of the meme culture on the F1 social media sphere. In the wake of incidents this year, fans have been putting together parody “how Drive to Survive will portray…” videos that rack up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, using extreme exaggeration and clever editing to entertain fans.

But it does speak to Verstappen’s point. In the AP interview, he even made reference to when he and Lewis Hamilton bumped into each other at Imola during the post-qualifying interviews, saying: “Probably that will be in there”. (Someone already made a parody video of exactly that in May).

So has Netflix gone too far with the creative licence used in Drive to Survive, particularly when the championship leader no longer wants to take part?

It is worth remembering what the purpose of the series is. F1 fans looking to get an entirely accurate season review will have long worked out that is not what Drive to Survive is trying to achieve. The point of the series is to lift the lid on the personalities and characters that make up the F1 grid, making them more accessible to the casual sports fan - and shining fresh light on certain areas even for avid followers of racing.

The clue is in the name: Drive to Survive. Think about what that actually means. Yes, there is an inherent danger in motorsport, as we all know, but it is not something the avid follower is focusing on when they sit down to watch a race. It is about the competition. Again though, to try and capture the wider audience, F1’s risk factor is something that is played up on Drive to Survive - after all, what other sports have it? That is why crashes are often dramatised, complete with added sound effects.

George Russell, Williams FW43B being removed after spinning off in Turkish GP practice

George Russell, Williams FW43B being removed after spinning off in Turkish GP practice

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Verstappen was largely alone among his peers in taking such issue with Drive to Survive’s portrayal of F1.

“Yes, they create some drama,” said Verstappen’s team-mate, Sergio Perez. “The way they sell the sport, it’s a bit of a drama. I can imagine that it’s a show. But at the end of the day, it’s good for the sport and it’s good for the fans. I’m happy with it.”

“I'm fine with it,” added Lando Norris. “You can choose a lot of things which almost go in and don't go in. I think it's a cool thing. Especially coming to America, there's so many people which are now into Formula 1 just because of watching Drive to Survive, and I think I've come across alright on it.”

McLaren boss Zak Brown has frequently talked up the benefits of Drive to Survive.

“It’s driven a younger fan base, it’s driven a much larger fan base,” he said. "It’s really had an impact in America.

“I think it’s factual with a little bit of theatre added, and that’s what television is. I think it’s doing what we as a sport would like it to do, which is turn on a bunch of new fans. I think it’s been hugely successful.”

Brown is on the money. There is some theatre added that hardcore F1 fans may not appreciate entirely, but in truth, they are not the target audience for Drive to Survive. Again, the series is not meant to be a season review.

Drive to Survive fans: In defence of a valuable F1 asset 

Mercedes had its own misgivings about the impact of Netflix and the possible distraction when season one was filmed through 2018. But Toto Wolff was quick to realise the benefits were vast and had to be maximised.

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing, and the McLaren team celebrate Italian GP victory

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing, and the McLaren team celebrate Italian GP victory

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

“We were not keen at the beginning of Netflix because we wanted to concentrate on on-track performance - and I was wrong,” Wolff said.

“It’s clearly a big success. Everywhere in the world, it was the number one documentary on Netflix for quite a while and it’s become part of Formula 1 and you can clearly see it’s beneficial.

“We’re a sport and we need to stay true to the values of the sport and have no gimmicks – but sport is entertainment, and I think these guys have brought us a new angle, a new dimension.”

Anecdotally, this writer had a conversation with one of the producers on Drive to Survive earlier this year about the impact of the show in the United States. He told a story of how he met an American family at a hotel in Austin a couple of years ago who had become fanatical Esteban Ocon fans, having previously not held an interest in F1. Ocon had been a big part of the storyline in season one as he fell through the cracks in the driver market for 2019.

Relayed this story on Friday, Ocon explained how he credited Drive to Survive with helping save his F1 career.

“It has made the [view] of me in difficult times where I didn't have a seat, and that came out and people could actually see that I was desperate to have a drive again,” he said. “That probably helped for my career to come back. I just think it's great for everybody to have that access nowadays.”

As 140,000 fans pack out COTA on Sunday and provide a buzzing atmosphere, it is worth accepting that a little creative licence on Drive to Survive can offer bigger gains than the few concerns it may cause.

Just as it did without Hamilton and Mercedes in season one, Drive to Survive will continue to be a hit and bring new fans to F1 - with or without Verstappen.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A521

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

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