In the past year or so, you may have started hearing enthusiastic rants about Ferrari or Mercedes in unexpected places and from unexpected people. This is most likely the result of someone you know scrolling through Netflix, hitting play on Formula 1: Drive to Survive, and suddenly developing opinions about high-speed racing that they simply must share. The documentary-ish series, whose highly anticipated fourth season debuts March 11, is a key part of the sport’s strategy to develop previously untapped viewership. And it’s working: The teaser trailer for season four has drawn more than 2.5 million views since its release on February 28.
If you like cars that go fast — like, if you’ve enjoyed so much as a single frame of a Fast & Furious movie — this show is probably for you. If your favorite Olympic events are slopestyle, skeleton, and ski jumping, it is definitely for you. And if you can’t get enough of soapy, unscripted shows like Real Housewives and the endlessly discussable but ultimately low-stakes drama they entail, Formula 1: Drive to Survive is extremely for you: The show delivers, in Costco-style abundance, behind-the-scenes drama among teams, driven primarily by the open loathing between two of the team principals (analogous to baseball’s general managers), Red Bull’s Christian Horner and Mercedes’s Toto Wolff. The two drivers for every team have to work together to accrue points for their team and themselves, but they’re also each other’s fiercest competitor. And without sharing any details, season four will end in a controversy that’s going to continue to ripple through the 2022 racing season.
Drive to Survive offers more than simply frothy, behind-the-scenes fun about which teams can build the fastest cars and then dispatch their daredevil drivers to send them rocketing at death-defying speeds around race tracks the world over. It provides viewers with opportunities to get to know the drivers, choose favorite teams, and take sides in rivalries. In other words, it’s nurturing a fandom. Correlation isn’t causation, but here’s one illustrative data point of the fandom’s robustness: The fan-fiction site Archive of Our Own is home to more than 9,000 fics tagged Formula 1. Writers have posted over 360 of those stories about drivers and their (quite sexually explicit) fictional relationships in the past month alone. Stories about NASCAR, by comparison: 158 total.
If that sounds like something you want in on, allow me to illuminate the road ahead with answers to your most pressing questions about Drive to Survive and the upcoming season.
Okay, my interest is piqued, but what exactly is Formula 1?
There are two answers to this question. The accurate and bloodless one is: Formula 1 (also called F1) is the most competitive, technically complex, and high-speed international motorsport. The entire field consists of 10 teams and 20 drivers. The races, each called a Grand Prix, take place at tracks all around the world, so the season is effectively a luxurious traveling circus, hopping from Barcelona to Bahrain, Monaco to Azerbaijan, and so on.
Here’s a better answer: F1 is a very, very expensive extreme sport. Each Grand Prix is a luxury-class excuse to put 20 risk-addicted elite athletes with catlike reflexes and incomprehensibly good spatial awareness into highly engineered and aerodynamic carbon-fiber shells, and then send them zipping around a very twisty track at an average speed of 160 mph. They do their best not to crash.
I’ve never watched a single lap of a Grand Prix — am I going to understand what’s going on?
Good news: You’re actually the target audience for Drive to Survive. Remember, the unstated goal of the show is to expand F1 viewership, so the producers incorporate on-ramps to enthusiasm in each episode. As with every sport, F1 is just as much a soap opera as a competition, and as with every good soap opera, new viewers can join the party anytime. You’ll have expert guidance and contextualization in each episode from F1 reporters Will Buxton and Jennie Gow, plus plenty of commentary from some of the most colorful team principals and drivers.
Nearly everyone who appears as a talking head on Drive to Survive will remark on how a driver’s performance in a given Grand Prix rests on their ability to keep a cool head. This is crucial not just for individual performance but for being wildly competitive while not causing anyone to crash and have to retire from the race. The drivers never intend to crash their incredibly expensive cars, but, of course, they do crash. They crash in practice, during qualifying laps, and during races. Sometimes the drivers walk away without a scratch, and sometimes they don’t walk away at all.
Safety conditions in F1 are always improving, but it is very literally a sport that requires its athletes to defy death every time they get behind the wheel. And let’s be honest, that’s a big part of the sport’s appeal. Drive to Survive’s editing obscures the slight snooziness of a race where nothing goes wrong, while compilation videos such as Top 5 Most Nail-Biting Moments From Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Top 10 Team Mate Collisions in F1, and Grosjean’s Insane Fireball Crash are available everywhere you look on YouTube.
Got it: Don’t crash! So who is the winner at the end of the season? Is it just the driver who wins the most races?
There are always two competitions happening concurrently in F1: the Drivers’ Championship, which is won by an individual driver, and the Constructors’ Championship, which is won by a team’s drivers for the car manufacturers. You’ll hear lots of references to the need to win points, which are determined by what place a driver finishes in each race. Only the top ten drivers for each race win points, so a team whose drivers finish anywhere between 11th and 20th place don’t earn points at all.
That’s part of why crashes are both terrible and perversely good for competition: If you’re languishing back in 14th place, but four drivers have to retire due to a crash or a bad pit stop, you now have a chance to finish in the top ten, earning points for both of the championships. (The specifics of F1’s scoring systems are beyond the scope of this explainer, but if you live for such arcana, you can learn more in this very detailed Wikipedia entry.)
The Drivers’ Championship is the flashier of the two: At the end of each race, the top three finishers are up on the podium, wearing celebratory caps embroidered with gold laurels in place of actual laurels, grinning when they receive their trophies, and then spraying each other with champagne. But the Constructors’ Championship is overall a much bigger deal. Unlike in the NBA, the losing-est teams don’t receive an equivalent to the consolation prize of higher draft picks. In F1, the losing-est teams get next to nothing, while the teams at the top of the standings receive tens of millions of dollars to finance their updated car designs, and offer higher salaries to their drivers and top earners in the company. (Where the monies come from is a whole other kettle of fish, summarized neatly for the spreadsheet fanatics among you in How Do Formula 1 Teams Make Money?)
I think I saw a headline about one of the teams firing a driver last week. That sounds like some juicy gossip!
It does, but it’s the result of tragedy. Season four will debut just as Formula 1 finds itself a part of the global news landscape. As the 2022 racing season is about to begin (the Bahrain Grand Prix will be held on March 20), the Russian invasion of Ukraine is having real-time effects on the sport: Haas has dropped its main sponsor, the enormous fertilizer company Uralkali, due to the company’s ties with Vladimir Putin. Haas has also fired one of its drivers, Nikita Mazepin, who is the son of Uralkali’s owner. F1 has canceled the Russia Grand Prix and severed its relationship with the company that promotes that race. There will be no F1 races in Russia for the foreseeable future. None of this will be covered in the upcoming season of Drive to Survive, but knowing about it will inform your impressions of Haas and Mazepin.
Well, that’s more of a bummer than I was expecting from this otherwise fun explainer. Can we pivot to the big rivalries of the upcoming season?
Absolutely. Season four relies on fewer adrenaline-fueled story lines than past seasons, in part because the 2021 Drivers’ Championship was a neck-and-neck competition all season between the top two drivers, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and his great rival, Max Verstappen (Red Bull). The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix concluded with a genuinely surprising, thrilling, and still-controversial final two laps. I’m being a little bit coy here for the benefit of viewers who love to be surprised, but if your burning curiosity is threatening to scorch you, by all means hit up your search engine of choice before watching it all unfold in season four. You’re still going to be yelling at the screen when that episode rolls around.
Make sure to keep an eye out, though, for standout story lines earlier in the season such as the usually sunny Daniel Ricciardo worrying that he’s washed up at the great age of 31, the last-ranked but venerable Williams team bringing in an energetic new CEO to help them become competitive again, and Mercedes pushing out veteran driver Valtteri Bottas for 2022 in favor of ambitious up-and-comer George Russell.
Okay, you’ve hooked me! Do I need to watch all 30 episodes before diving into the new season?
F1 is a sport that rewards viewers who know lots of context, so if you’re motivated to feast on the entire series to date, great! If you’re too keen to wait, but don’t want a fully blank slate when you hit play on season four, you’ll be good to go after watching these three episodes — one from each of the previous seasons:
• Season one, episode one (“All to Play For”): Rodgers and Hammerstein were right, the beginning is a very good place to start. The series premiere, covering the first race of the 2018 season in Australia, introduces viewers to the basics of a race weekend. You’ll learn a bunch of F1-specific terms and meet some of the most interesting drivers and team principals, including Daniel Ricciardo, Christian Horner (who is also Mr. Ginger Spice), and Guenther Steiner, all of whom feature in story lines across the four seasons.
• Season two, episode six (“Raging Bulls”): This episode follows Red Bull’s decision to send one of its drivers, Pierre Gasly, back down to the junior team, Toro Rosso, and to promote Alex Albon to Gasly’s seat. Gasly’s demotion reflects how difficult it is to maintain the composure necessary to be a success in F1, while Albon’s promotion highlights his determination to race, overcoming major financial hardships and his mother’s incarceration during his teen years. Their intertwined story lines culminate in a terrible shared loss during the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix weekend.
• Season three, episode ten (“Down to the Wire”): The final episode of season three will set you up very nicely for season four, walking you through end-of-season team lineup changes and the winners of the Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships. This one also addresses the unbearable whiteness of Formula 1, with Lewis Hamilton — the only Black driver in F1 history — speaking about his experiences with racism and classism throughout his racing career. As season four begins, there are exactly five F1 drivers who aren’t white: Hamilton, Sergio Perez, Alex Albon, Yuki Tsunoda, and Zhou Guanyu.
Okay, I feel ready to embrace the wild and woolly ups and downs of this sport!
Wonderful! And welcome to the club — you’ll be delightedly hollering your way through 2022 races in no time.