Review: Formula 1: Drive to Survive

I first learned about the auto racing sport, Formula 1, from the 2013 movie Rush, which tells the story of the competition between Formula 1 legends Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). This movie introduced me to the luxurious, intriguing, and complex inner workings of the world of F1. I immediately found myself wanting to watch the sport - but as quickly as I learned of it, I forgot about it.

The next time I heard of Formula 1 was during Bill Burr’s fantastic Monday Morning Podcast. I have been a devotee to Burr’s caustically funny podcast since high school. He’s a big fan of F1 and often offers his take on recent races. I was always intrigued by the names he would throw out, such as Kimi Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo, and Lewis Hamilton. And the cars - Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren! Everything sounded so exotic and alluring. I eventually decided one lazy summer Sunday to watch a recent race. Once I realized that there was so much to learn about the sport -- the physics of the cars, the history of the teams, the intricacies of each track -- I was immediately hooked. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Formula 1 is a uniquely non-American racing sport, even though Haas, one of the competing teams, is an American company, and the Circuit of the Americas in Texas is one of its twenty race sites. The destinations, such as elegant Monte Carlo and futuristic Marina Bay, represent a level of wealth unattainable to the everyday F1 fan. It is different from NASCAR for many reasons: It is more expensive, has fewer drivers, and showcases advanced auto engineering. Even the F1 steering wheel looks like a complicated masterpiece, with its video game controller appearance and insane $60,000 cost.

Altogether, Formula 1 is a complex sport, requiring serious attention and investment from the viewer if they wish to be a devoted fan. It is, of course, entertaining enough to follow the drivers and their path to the championship. However, the foundation of the sport is not the drivers, but the physics behind the design of the cars and the data-driven strategies for race day. For example, one of the major considerations for the cars’ physics is the idea of downforce. While airplanes want to orient their wings to produce lift, Formula 1 cars are designed to keep the cars as close to the track as possible. NASCAR vehicles incorporate downforce as well, but it is not as critical because the tracks are not as sharp and demanding on the tires. I am not so naive to believe that NASCAR is the primitive version of Formula 1. NASCAR is a technological behemoth in its own right -- just at a lower cost.  A NASCAR team can expect to budget $6.5 million for their cars, while the top F1 teams will pay upwards of $325 million. Not to mention that Formula 1 teams have to ship the cars all over the world, from Abu Dhabi to Sochi.

Generally, F1 fans esteem the sport as a posh version of NASCAR. They think it will never be popular in America. They see it as the world’s dressage to America’s rodeo -- and while the world might want to dig into the mechanics of their sports, the US has historically preferred a simple looped race. Netflix’s recently released documentary, titled Formula 1: Drive to Survive, may change this. Drive to Survive provides both new viewers and lifetime fans great insight into the inner workings of the F1 world. It covers the business and interpersonal interactions that keep the sport alive. The documentary also details the competition between teams, and within them, in a similar manner of Rush. While I appreciate that Formula 1: Drive to Survive closely tracks many of the drivers during their 2018 season and sets the scene for what is to come in the 2019 season, its heightened focus on quarrels between drivers and teams cheapens and erases the sophistication of the sport.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive follows everyone but the stars of Ferrari and Mercedes. While I was at first disappointed that I would not be able to learn more about the two top teams and their drivers, I realize that it is more important to give a comprehensive look at the entire F1 roster than to focus on the teams that we already know and love. Teams like Williams and Force India would never see the light of day without making an effort to tell their story. The battle in the middle -- Red Bull Racing, McLaren, Haas, and Renault -- is also very exciting, and well-covered in the documentary.

Here is where my main complaint about the documentary resides. Renault, McLaren, Haas, and Red Bull are respectable competitors in F1. They each have different strengths that make their cars, drivers, and overall strategy intriguing. The documentary could have simply given the audience an elegant but honest re-telling of each team’s paths -- how they began, who were their top drivers, and why they design the cars in the way that they do. Instead, the documentary focused on the quarrels between team principals (i.e. coaches). For instance, it depicts Christian Horner (Red Bull) and Cyril Abiteboul (Renault) as two petty team principals, not two leaders of esteemed F1 teams. The true components of the competition between Red Bull and Renault -- such as the fact that Red Bull, who receives their engine from Renault, consistently had issues with their engine during 2018 -- is only quickly touched upon. The same is done with Max Verstappen, who we only see as the rich young driver who spends his time relaxing on a yacht in Monte Carlo and, occasionally, attacking other drivers. Perhaps Netflix and Formula 1 believe that drama will attract more fans, or make the sport more appealing. It is the same idea that formed the foundation of Rush -- don’t focus on the sport, focus on the drama. I believe that digging deeper into the intricacies of the sport would have made for a more rewarding watch. Luckily, the drama is only a small component of the 10-part series.

We particularly learn a great deal about Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian superstar with tanned skin, a beautiful smile, and a hilarious personality, on top of sharp driving skills. He jokes when he introduces himself in the first episode: “Hi, I’m Daniel Ricciardo, and I’m a car mechanic.” I enjoy that the documentary chose to follow Ricciardo -- it’s impossible not to base a film around the joyful driver. Through Ricciardo, we are given a look into the complicated web that connects an F1 driver with major international companies, the physical demands of the sport (which curiously focuses on neck strength and reaction times) and a luxurious lifestyle. To the audience, Ricciardo, who is extremely down to earth and kind, is still enshrouded by an aura of fame and fortune. We meet him at his humble home in Australia, doing tricks on bikes in his backyard, but we’re reminded of his extravagant lifestyle when we see him clad in brands and cool behind sunglasses as he’s being interviewed before a race. It’s impossible to forget that the drivers have contracts worth tens of millions of dollars per season. The glitz and glamour of Formula 1 reigns supreme in this documentary, and takes a different form with each of the F1 drivers.

After watching the documentary, I was very excited to dive into the 2019 season. The opening race in Melbourne was an exciting one, with Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas surprising everyone with his easy victory and point for the fastest lap. This season is full of new young drivers, too, such as the internet favorite 18-year-old Lando Norris at McLaren. Many are excited to see how Charles Leclerc, the young new Ferrari driver, will fare alongside his veteran teammate Sebastian Vettel. He already succeeded in seizing pole position (starting in first place) at Bahrain -- he’s certainly a top contender. And yet, all eyes remain on Lewis Hamilton, who won last year’s championship and placed first in Bahrain last weekend.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look into Formula 1.  The exclusive access to the Formula 1 world can turn any casual fan into a serious viewer. It should be considered required watching for anyone interested in jumping into the sport this season. Watch it, then watch a Sunday race -- next weekend’s will be at Shanghai International Circuit, complete with intense turns, long straights, and a beautiful destination. (Unfortunately, it will take place at 2 a.m. EST. Don’t forget to record it!)

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