The fundamental pleasures of watching Formula One are pretty straightforward. Twenty drivers comprising ten teams face off in a competition where they drive alien-looking automobiles around racetracks all over the world at stupidly fast speeds, risking disaster or worse. It’s boyish. I won’t pretend to intellectualize it; watching one of these races, my heart sings, and the best my brain can critically muster is “Vroom vroom, very cool.”
Similarly straightforward are the pleasures in Drive to Survive, Netflix’s wildly popular docuseries that doubles as an incredibly effective marketing vehicle for the sport. The series has been openly credited for driving a surge of new interest in Formula One, and much of its power lies in the sheer quality of its simple storytelling. Here’s a show that’s adept at taking the tangled mess of each racing season, identifying the salient narrative threads, and executing those stories to perfection. (Often to the detriment of historical fidelity, but let’s not dwell on that.) The beats of each Drive to Survive episode should feel familiar even to those who don’t know what a Valtteri Bottas is, as they’re more or less grounded in classic sports-narrative archetypes: grizzled vet gets paired with young hotshot; guy faces one last chance; a former prodigy facing the prospect of not realizing his potential; the two top contenders pushed to the very brink; so on and so forth.
Drive to Survive is a show that makes the case for these world-class sportspeople as demigods. The argument is made with flair, and it helps that many of these Formula One types are genuinely compelling and uncanny characters. You have, of course, Lewis Hamilton, on track to be the winningest racer of all time, who remains distinctly mysterious despite being the most visible face of the sport at present. There’s Toto Wolff, the principal — general manager, basically — of Mercedes, Hamilton’s team, an Adonis with a financier’s affect whose Austrian accent adds to his air of gravitas. There’s Christian Horner, principal of Red Bull, closest challenger to Mercedes, who lives in a literal English manor, is married to the former Ginger Spice, and exudes a vicious Napoleonic pettiness in his pursuit of the throne. Many of these men clearly come across as testosteronic assholes, others not so much. Nevertheless, it’s all gravy. As portrayed in Drive to Survive, the details can get pretty wild, but no matter how messy everything gets, the whole thing hums together in service of maintaining the fantasy of Formula One as a glamorous, globe-trotting sport.
And then there’s Guenther Steiner, inarguably the saddest character on Drive to Survive. As the principal for Haas, a team that routinely contends for last place since its inception, he stars in what is clearly the most unflattering narrative in the series: the perennial loser fighting for the smallest of victories. Steiner-centric episodes are exercises in Sisyphean struggle; as portrayed across the docuseries, the Haas drivers frequently underperform or bear the extreme brunt of bad luck. The team’s plight was encapsulated by a phone call caught on tape in the first season in which Steiner grumbles to the team owner in his thick Merano accent, “We look like a bunch of fucking wankers.” The line took off among the Drive to Survive fan base, endowing Steiner with a strange kind of stardom.
Sure, Steiner’s kind of an asshole, but he’s also immensely fun and somewhat sympathetic to watch. In the face of increasingly worse odds, he remains funny, self-effacing, a scamp, and, for the most part, pretty relatable. Amidst a sea of chiseled demigods, Steiner — who bears a minor resemblance to Mr. Bean — comes off as an everyman trying to duct-tape everything together. Haas being a smaller team, finances are a persistent issue, and so a recurring motif in Steiner’s narrative is his quest to drum up new money. Drive to Survive leans into this aspect of the Steiner experience: We watch as he attempts to court a chocolate company, and later, as he poses with a ludicrously tiny wooden boat to fulfill duties as part of a marketing partnership with a discount-supermarket chain.
Things always seem to be shit for poor Guenther and constantly threaten to get worse. “It never rains, it pours on me,” he moans at one point in the series, head in hands. The third season’s standout episode recounts an incident in which a Haas car, driven by Romain Grosjean, slams into a wall and explodes into a giant fireball during an active race. Grosjean narrowly survived the disaster, suffering burn wounds on his hands in the process. The accident happened during an already precarious moment for Haas, when Steiner was in the midst of determining whether to reboot the team with new talent. He decided to let go of both his drivers, including Grosjean. (Nowadays, the Swiss French Grosjean is racing in the IndyCar Series and seems to be having a great time touring the United States.)
Things are no better in season four, which dropped last week. Needing to secure more financing so the team can simply make payroll, Haas ownership locked down a new title sponsor for the season: Uralkali, a Russian fertilizer giant whose majority shareholder, Dmitry Mazepin, is a Belarusian Russian oligarch. You can see where this is going. (On-camera, Steiner protests this characterization. “He’s not an oligarch, he’s a fertilizer guy,” he says, nervously laughing. The camera lingers as he pauses, quietly gulping.)
This deal, unsurprisingly, comes with strings attached. To begin with, the car’s livery sports a distinctly Russian-themed color scheme. Mazepin’s son, Nikita, who’s been accused of sexual harassment, was made a driver next to Mick Schumacher, son of Formula One legend Michael Schumacher; both are rookies. Nikita Mazepin is, frankly, a crap employee. When he underperforms while his racing partner shines, he blames the car, despite the pair being given the same equipment. As a result, Mazepin Sr. aggresses to become more involved, threatening to pull funding. All throughout, Steiner labors to manage the mess.
The Haas episodes illustrate that while Drive to Survive may essentially be a marketing vehicle for the sport, it’s also capable of sharper edges when it comes to its subject. (To a point, of course — Drive to Survive simply never touches the Mazepin harassment accusation.) Steiner’s episodes, in particular, feel like the most consistent gestures, no matter how faint or indirect, toward the dark underbelly of Formula One, an enterprise fundamentally steeped in the geopolitics of petrostates and the highest reaches of global capital.
The hits keep coming for Guenther, continuing beyond the frame covered by this Drive to Survive season. The latest Haas-centered episode ultimately resolves in an arc in which Mazepin marginally makes good in a race, a choice that’s already uncomfortable given the harassment accusation and gets even more so given the ongoing geopolitical crisis sparked by Russia. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Formula One has canceled the Russian Grand Prix, and Haas has terminated both its contract with Mazepin and sponsorship with Uralkali. Worth noting: Both Mazepins are directly targeted by E.U. sanctions, and the older Mazepin has been identified as a close ally of Vladimir Putin. The family is now agitating to get their money back.
So the rain continues to pour for Steiner, who in many ways is the face of the underclass in this cutthroat playground for the elite. But even in his growing litany of troubles, his story still serves Drive to Survive’s underlying fantasy. Viewed from an angle, Steiner exists as a kind of avatar for all the compromises and indignities you might need to shoulder in order to stay in this glamorous world. Is any of this shit truly worth it? Probably not. But watching Steiner push his boulder up the hill, sometimes I get where he’s coming from.