I love that people love sporting events, but they’re not for me. I’m only capable of following the game as a story, and even then I don’t particularly excel. The characters change too quickly! There are too many of them! I enjoy sports docs and fictional movies for precisely this reason: Directors refine the narratives and do a ton of hand-holding through the elements of play. This is why I started watching Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive. The reason I continued to watch, though, is not because it’s a fun show about race-car drivers zipping around a track, though technically that is true. I kept watching because within four episodes I realized that, at heart, it’s not a sports docuseries. Fundamentally, Drive to Survive is a secret, unofficial, barely disguised Real Housewives franchise.
Several seasons in, I still understand only the barest outline of how Formula 1 racing operates, but if you know truly zero about this sport, here is what I’ve gathered: A bunch of guys (always guys) drive superfast, highly technical cars on twisty racetracks around the world. There’s something to do with points? At the end of the day, it’s a race to see who goes fastest: which specific driver wins the most races but also which team’s car design performs best. Until I watched this actually play out in an ongoing reality-series setting, I had not gathered that the particular quirks of F1 are primed for Housewife-style storytelling. First is pure lifestyle: It’s an exclusive sport played almost entirely by people whose wealth and privilege mean they live in a separate, fully disconnected world. It costs several hundred million dollars to run an F1 team, which means many of the central figures are either billionaires who buy their way in or people with slightly less stratospheric wealth attempting to keep their sponsors happy.
Drive to Survive is at least 30 percent lifestyle gawping. It’s watches and designer clothes and brisk jaunts past your childhood school in Monaco; it’s short, restorative trips home to fabulous English country manors or glorious vacation houses by the sea. Any great Housewives series needs a distinctive background texture of flagrant, unapologetic luxury to an absurd degree — furs, parties, mansions. Drive to Survive has all that in spades. One scene from season four that had me giggling: Christian Horner, the team principal (like a coach but also a CEO) of Red Bull Racing, taking a casual moment with his lovely wife to ride their beautiful horses around a lush British countryside. Another motif that cracks me up: shots of fans watching and cheering from their yachts.
Any show could be about wealth, though. That’s not the essence of Real Housewives; that’s just the setting. It’s really about scale, personalities, and a structure that invites conflict between those personalities. The first thing any new Housewives franchise will emphasize is that even though the scale seems large, encompassing an entire city or state, the world is actually infinitesimal. There are only a handful of key players, which means that anyone new to this world can grasp it very quickly but also that they all know each other and have known each other for years. F1 has ten teams and two drivers per team. Even when you add in team principals and some of the more boisterous owners, the sport is so insular that everyone is constantly in everyone else’s business.
The tiny, hyperconcentrated scale makes Drive to Survive a hothouse for drama. Everyone goes to the same parties; everyone shows up to the same press conference and has to give excruciating quotes about their teammates. And like any great Housewives scene, Drive to Survive lives and dies on tiny reaction shots, little moments when one person watches someone else and flinches in horror or gasps in dismay. F1 is unusually well designed to support that: Although the drivers themselves wear enormous face-obscuring helmets for protection when they inevitably crash, there are huge support staffs who spend each race staring at monitors tracking every tiny move, their faces fluctuating wildly between joy and dismay. (There is a scene in season four when Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, wears an expression that looks like he’s about to rip open his own skin and transform into an apocalyptic combat robot.)
For Drive to Survive, the personality issue almost takes care of itself. Nine out of ten people who sign up for this sport are self-selecting thrill seekers with more money than they know what to do with, and the drivers tend to be attractive, egotistical young dudes with a nagging need to prove themselves and zero awareness of their own mortality. Some are better on TV than others, sure. Daniel Ricciardo is charismatic and bouncy; Max Verstappen’s brooding aggression makes him an easy villain. The Housewives casts are necessarily limited to women who want to see themselves on TV and thus are nearly guaranteed to be messy; the participants on Drive to Survive tend to be people whose brains mostly make zooooooooom zooooooom noises and who are willing to make deals with Russian oligarchs so they have enough money to make the cars go fast. Huge, ethically uncomfortable mess!
The moment I realized they are really just the same show, though, is when I grasped something very simple and very bizarre about how Formula 1 racing works. Technically, it is a team sport with both drivers operating identical cars to contribute to total team points. But there is very little benefit to supporting your teammate, and in fact, most teams are made up of two drivers who want nothing more than to grind each other into dust. This is fun to watch in the way a gladiator battle is fun, but because drivers are perpetually switching teams and working to get signed to more lucrative contracts, it also has the appeal of a deep-game political thriller. The team principals say things like “Hey, guys, let’s knock it off,” and then with the inevitability of the sun rising in the morning, the drivers crash directly into each other. “We’re teammates but also mortal enemies” is a trope familiar to other sports, but Drive to Survive doesn’t even pretend the team element has meaning. It is totally devoid of warm, gooey sentimentality or the façade of sportsmanship.
Let’s tally it up. Drive to Survive is a series that follows an insular, wildly wealthy group of people. There are rivalries between them that go back decades, but at every moment the drama is also painfully simple: Did you win the race? Did the car crash? Who is standing on a podium and who isn’t? Many of the participants are self-important, charismatic ninnies whose entire field of vision is consumed by their own desire to dominate. And — not to be too literal about this — it’s a show where you win the race by being the fastest person to go around and around and around the same goddamn track you have been circling for hours, hoping each time that you win just a little more ground over your rivals. It is the best physical manifestation of a Real Housewives conflict I have ever seen.
It should go without saying that a comparison between these two series is not meant to denigrate either party. What compliment could be higher than “This show is as addictive as Real Housewives”? But it is a comment on the structure of Drive to Survive, which is not a traditional “rah-rah athleticism and team cohesion” sports narrative (or the equally familiar “sports as ticket out of poverty” story). It is a cutthroat, no-holds-barred mud-slinging contest. It is Real Housewives, except Mary Cosby’s cult has been replaced by a weird obsession with Ferrari and everyone’s secret money comes from billionaire oil barons. So let this serve as a recommendation for both sides: If you’re a Housewives person, consider a version in which their arguments sometimes end in actual fiery crashes. But if you’re a Drive to Survive viewer, you are not gonna believe what happened on Salt Lake City this season.