The streaming series is filming its fourth season and is bringing new fans to the sport.
“Drive to Survive,” the Netflix series about Formula 1, has offered an intimate look into a notoriously secretive sport and, to the delight of its executives, has drawn the American fans they have been eager to attract for years.
“I think it’s got to be the single most important impact for Formula 1 in North America,” said Zak Brown, chief executive of McLaren Racing. “Almost every comment you get from someone out of the U.S., they reference ‘Drive to Survive.’
“People are going from ‘I’ve never watched a Formula 1 race in my life’ to ‘I’ll never miss a Formula 1 race again.’”
The show debuted in 2019 on Netflix with a 10-episode season, filmed during the previous year’s championship. Season 3 was released in March, and filming for Season 4 is underway.
Getting the series off the ground wasn’t easy. At first, gaining the trust of the teams, which are sensitive about their car designs, data and operations, was a challenge for Box to Box Films, the makers of the show.
In fact, two of the dominant teams, Mercedes and Ferrari, refused to be part of Season 1.
“I think there was a sense from the teams of, ‘I don’t think you guys realize what this world is!’” said Paul Martin, executive producer of “Drive to Survive.” “I don’t think we did, and I think they were skeptical whether we could really deliver on what it was we were saying.
“We wanted to deliver an authentic portrayal of what it’s really like to operate, live and work in this paddock.”
Formula 1 worked with the teams on the access they would allow, ensuring that their secrets would be protected.
“We gave the teams the security they needed,” said Ian Holmes, director of media rights at Formula 1. “They’d like a lot more. But it gave Netflix the confidence to capture something that would resonate with the fans and wasn’t a puff piece, but genuine behind-the-scenes content they haven’t seen before.”
Eight of the 10 Formula 1 teams agreed to be part of the first season, minus Ferrari and Mercedes. “They had more to lose,” Holmes said. “I think if one did or didn’t do it, the other would do the same. They were very focused on winning the championship.”
Missing the two most famous and successful teams did not stop the first season from being a success. Fans learned about the inner workings of the sport, the personalities, politics and pettiness.
By the time Season 2 began filming, Ferrari and Mercedes had changed their minds.
“It showed me a new angle to attract a new audience, different to how I perceive F1,” Toto Wolff, team principal of Mercedes, said in 2019, explaining why the team got involved starting in Season 2. “This is why I decided to join and be part of Netflix in 2019.”
The teams quickly learned to be comfortable around the cameras, allowing them to be authentic. Even when Formula 1 enforced strict Covid-19 protocols last season, teams incorporated the camera crews into their bubbles so they could keep filming, a sign of the trust between them.
“They understand the environment and are well integrated,” Wolff said. “Obviously, you know that they are around. But nobody’s trying to act like a Hollywood actor.”
The three seasons have captured many of Formula 1’s biggest moments, including drivers’ being fired midseason and scoring emotional first wins. One of the most dramatic episodes in Season 3 was Romain Grosjean’s escape from a fiery crash that had left him trapped in the burning wreckage of his car for about 27 seconds.
But a large part of the success of “Drive to Survive” has come from showcasing the personalities and lives of drivers off the track.
“Everyone sees on Sunday, we’ve got a helmet on, we race and that’s that,” said Daniel Ricciardo of Australia, one of the most visible figures in the show. “But it shows the ins and outs of the sport, what we get up to on weekends off. Diving into more of our everyday life, everyone can relate to that.
“For so long, it’s been a very private sport. To let a few more people in, and to show them how awesome the sport is, I think is where the show has really done well for us.”
Netflix is protective of its viewing figures, but according to FlixPatrol, which gathers data on movies and TV shows, “Drive to Survive” ranked No. 1 for TV series worldwide shortly after Season 3’s release in March. It also brought in more viewers than the first season, something Holmes said was “unheard-of.”
“I’m told by Netflix that 99 times out of 100, the second series never quite delivers the same audience as the first series, and so on and so forth,” Holmes said. “Series 3 did more than Series 1. The completion rate and the speed at which the completion rate takes place went up as well,” which suggests that people were bingeing on the series.
The first season had a huge impact on Formula 1’s audience in the United States. Raceday ticket sales for the first United States Grand Prix held after “Drive to Survive” debuted in 2019 rose 15 percent from 2018. The race’s promoter Bobby Epstein said it was because of the show, and is preparing for an additional 20,000 fans for October’s race in Austin, Texas.
“We haven’t had a race in two years, and I think the series’ popularity has grown through that,” Epstein said. “We’re only now really seeing it. We can definitely attribute that growth to the Netflix series giving people access to the behind-the-scenes personalities. It definitely opened some eyes that there are people paying attention here.”
Formula 1’s TV audience in the United States has jumped since “Drive to Survive” was released. ESPN said its average viewers per race had risen to about 928,000 so far in 2021 from about 547,000 in 2018.
“There is not a way to quantify if the Netflix series has contributed to the audience increases, but it certainly hasn’t hurt,” said John Suchenski, director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN.
“Having additional Formula 1 content out there that reaches a wide and different audience helps increase awareness and interest, and hopefully incentivizes them to tune into the races,” he said. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The growth in popularity in the United States comes at an important time for Formula 1. A second Grand Prix in the United States, in Miami, will be added in 2022, as the sport tries to expand further into the country.
Americans do not have a large presence in the sport, with just one team, Haas of Kannapolis, N.C., and no drivers.
“It’s such a fascinating sport, with the politics and personalities,” said Brown of McLaren Racing. “I think ‘Drive to Survive’ has nailed that and exposed that to the world, and it seems to have really resonated in the U.S.”
Drivers have also noticed the growing U.S. fan base. “I started getting a lot more messages and mentions, especially from America,” said Pierre Gasly of France. “In the U.S., it had a pretty big impact when the series came out every year. I now have more Americans following me.”
“From an American fan perspective, there’s a lot more of them,” said Lando Norris of England, who drives for McLaren. “People I meet have got into motorsport and become fans of not just me, but of Formula 1, just through watching ‘Drive to Survive.’”
Martin, the producer, has been overwhelmed by its impact. But he attributes the show’s success to Formula 1’s qualities as a sport.
“It’s quite unbelievable, people’s reactions,” he said. “Our show only works because, actually, the sport’s an incredible spectacle. It is incredibly dramatic and tense. There’s mistakes, and there’s huge characters. Our show only shines a light on what’s there.”