Documentaries don’t tend to have “characters.” They have “subjects,” because they’re usually real people. But Netflix’s documentary series Formula 1: Drive To Survive definitely has characters, and you meet the main one in the first few seconds of the first episode: His name is Daniel Ricciardo, and he introduces himself as a car mechanic.
In reality, he’s a Formula 1 driver, part of the Red Bull team at the time, and Drive To Survive’s decision to open the show with Ricciardo—a big personality even in a sport full of big personalities—making a joke about what he really does for a living is the perfect setup for the show’s version of Formula 1 racing. It’s not necessarily here to tell you what happens from season to season, it’s here to tell an entertaining story that, while clearly based on real events, is actually better than reality.
That’s not to say Drive To Survive fictionalizes events like a reality show on Bravo, but anyone with experience watching F1 races will be able to pick out the things that don’t really make sense. The show, for instance, includes voiceover race commentary that never happened. It’s a subtly artful stand-in for narration (and you can tell what’s fake because real commentators would rarely have any reason to describe the moment-to-moment action of low-tier teams).
The show also tweaks the timeline of practice and qualifying sessions or plays up the drama between drivers to set up what can only be described as character arcs. An episode in the show’s newest season, its fourth, repeatedly highlights the confidence of Lando Norris (the young hotshot driver for the McLaren team and Daniel Ricciardo’s new teammate) in early races and practice sessions, implying—without ever directly stating—that the two are vicious rivals and that he thinks he’s better than Ricciardo. It comes to a head in a later episode when Ricciardo gets a big win, breaking a lengthy slump (seemingly), with the show’s decision to carefully avoid showing Norris (who got second) making it seem like he must’ve been positively seething. Stuff like that is absolutely heightened by selective editing, but it’s also a handy shorthand for the way the dynamic actually works between Formula 1 teammates.
There are currently 10 teams in Formula 1, and each one has two drivers. Only one person can ever win a race, so even if you’re on the best team in the world (Mercedes, if the last decade is anything to go by), you can still only have one winner. Throw in the competitiveness of getting and keeping a spot on an F1 team—again, there’s only room for 20 people in the entire world—and you have a situation where a driver is always, on some level, competing with their teammate.
Over four seasons, that is easily Drive To Survive’s favorite thing to hang a storyline on, and it’s one that has followed Ricciardo in particular. On the Red Bull team in the beginning of the show, his teammate was future world-champion Max Verstappen, and it was clear to everyone—especially Ricciardo—that Verstappen’s career was being prioritized over his own within Red Bull’s management. The team’s boss, Christian Horner, is another one of Drive To Survive’s favorite characters, both because he clearly loves the fact that he can shape the narrative by sitting down for interviews and because he’s married to former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell (a.k.a. Ginger Spice), who also shows up from time to time).
In Verstappen, the show finds an easy villain. The mild-mannered Dutch driver is essentially the polar opposite of Ricciardo, so when his star began to rise higher than his teammate’s, Drive To Survive positioned him as cold and calculating in contrast to the bright and boisterous Ricciardo. The show has trained you to see things from Ricciardo’s point of view, which means that when he and Verstappen crash into each other in one episode, you assume that it’s because Verstappen was being reckless. Later, when Ricciardo decides to leave Red Bull, it’s not because he’s scared of fighting Verstappen (as Horner theorizes), it’s because the team has clearly chosen Verstappen as its superstar and Ricciardo is being unfairly overlooked.
The two of them are no longer teammates (and a blink-and-miss-it background shot of them goofing around in the latest season proves that any animosity was played up by Netflix), but Verstappen’s reluctance to do Drive To Survive interviews (he doesn’t participate in some seasons at all) and aggressive driving style have effectively made him and his boss the de facto bad guys of the series. That choice becomes a very important part of the narrative as Drive To Survive heads into the endgame of the 2021 Formula 1 season in its latest batch of episodes.
For those who don’t follow the sport, this past F1 season impossibly and absurdly culminated in one final race to determine who would be the world champion: Verstappen or British driver Lewis Hamilton. The latter, the first and only Black driver in the history of F1 and a man who has won more races than anyone else ever, is a full-on icon in F1 and arguably the greatest driver of all time. He’s been knighted; he’s not afraid to be political (in the show’s third season, he uttered the headline-grabbing explanation “cash is king” for why F1 was slow to cancel races during the COVID pandemic); and, perhaps most importantly, he’s extremely handsome and charming. He should and could easily be the star of this show.
And yet, for most of the show’s fourth season, their historic battle for the championship is an afterthought. That’s because Hamilton, a driver for the Mercedes team, also rarely sits down for Drive To Survive interviews. It’s like watching The Mandalorian and knowing that Luke Skywalker is out there somewhere, but what he’s doing is so much more important than what everyone else is doing that he only has time to occasionally stop by.
Instead of Hamilton, the show finds stories where it can, like in the American Haas team—led by the lovably profane Guenther Steiner, a man who somehow manages to appear in almost every single episode just to make a hilarious comment when he doesn’t know the cameras are on him. Haas had two rookie drivers in the 2021 season: Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin, both of whom came with some baggage.
The former is the son of F1’s other arguable GOAT, Michael Schumacher, and the other is the son of a Russian oligarch named Dmitry Mazepin, whose sponsorship money saved the Haas team during the pandemic but whose close ties with the Putin administration have since cost Nikita Mazepin his F1 seat and probably his whole F1 career. (In yet another extremely justifiable bit of editorializing, Drive To Survive underscores every appearance from the elder Mazepin with what can only be described as “bad guy music.”)
Even during one of the most ridiculous and dramatic F1 seasons ever, Drive To Survive is more concerned with the smaller teams and less-accomplished drivers, the ones who are eager for the PR boost of having their “storyline” get a showcase. And with the benefit of knowing how races end, the show can structure episodes around those storylines to create satisfying arcs. For example, if an episode is about one or two specific drivers who are brand new to the sport or who have been struggling lately, you can bet that it’s going to end with one or both of them triumphantly reaching the podium (that’s when you finish in the top three) or tragically crashing.
It’s not bad that you can see those strings. It just means Drive To Survive is good fiction that happens to be a documentary. Formula 1 can be a frustrating sport, and it can suck the fun out when races with obvious winners become routine, but Drive To Survive zeroes in on drivers and teams who might go unnoticed and gives them a chance to tell their stories—stories that would otherwise go unheard.
Does it really matter, then, if the stories are told with slightly phony commentator narration? If races aren’t necessarily shown in the order they happened in? If the actual mechanics of F1 rules about qualifying laps or the number of points given out after a race are skimmed over to make things easier to understand? If it does, then Drive To Survive’s biggest bug is really a feature: That stuff is so obviously faked that you can take a step back from the “documentary” label and appreciate the show on its own merits as a phenomenal storytelling platform.