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The Netflix Effect: How a Docuseries Helped Trigger an F1 Boom

From fiery crashes to uplifting comebacks, the storylines in 'Formula 1: Drive to Survive' have given the sport a major boost in the U.S.

Guenther Steiner, the team principal of Haas F1 Team, posed a single question in the premiere of Netflix’s docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive. “Why you watch Formula One?”

He went on to answer himself, not skipping a beat. “You want to see action. You want to see drama. You want to see the underdog making a good result. A story. Each race should have a story, and the story should not be all the time Mercedes or Ferrari wins, because that story gets old pretty quickly.”

The story of the 2021 season: 20 countries, 22 races, 10 teams.

Formula One is the highest class of international auto racing, a pillar of luxury with the likes of Rolex and Emirates Airline & Group as partners and Aston Martin and McLaren as teams. It’s one of the most diverse sports leagues in the world, with drivers hailing from all over the globe. Overall, 15 countries are represented among the 20 drivers and many more within the paddock and teams, like the United States’s Haas F1 Team—the first American Formula One team in more than 30 years.

Drive to Survive provides a behind-the-scenes look at the circuit that uses the world as its playground, highlighting the action and providing context to storylines that emerge both on and off the course. There are harrowing moments (like Romain Grosjean’s fiery wreck that almost cost the Switzerland-born driver his life) and complicated decisions displayed (like Pierre Gasly getting sacked by Red Bull and bouncing back to win at Monza with AlphaTauri).

While driver Max Verstappen spoke out about the series’ tendency to over-dramatize certain events to “boost popularity [of F1] in America,” there’s no denying that the end result is compelling—and doing just what Verstappen said: Formula One viewership has skyrocketed in recent years after the series, which is now in its third season, debuted in March 2019.

ESPN, which has teamed with Sky Sports to air races since 2018, said that the 2021 season is averaging 931,000 viewers through 14 races, which is 53% higher than the 2020 season average and 40% higher than the first 14 comparable races in 2019.

“There is not a way to quantify if the Netflix series has contributed to the audience increases, but it’s all positive,” John Suchenski, director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, said in a written statement. “Having additional F1 content out there that reaches a wide and different audience helps increase awareness and interest, and hopefully incentivizes them to tune into the races.

“A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Romain Grosjean escapes a fiery crash.

Grosjean survived a fiery crash in one of the show's most dramatic moments.

Sean Bratches, the former managing director of commercial operations for Formula One, was “the godfather of Drive to Survive,” says Paul Martin, executive producer of the series.

He was a part of the Liberty Media Company takeover, in which the company bought the league in 2016 for $4.4 billion. One of the biggest criticisms the previous owner, Bernie Ecclestone, faced was his struggle to evolve in the digital landscape. Bratches, however, had the dream to land Formula One on a streaming platform and eventually struck a deal with Netflix. Box to Box Films, which made the show, was tasked with creating “something that was very different from the live coverage that existed of the sport,” says Martin says, who co-founded the production company.

“Having spent some time at a couple of races before we started the show, we felt that there was a whole part of the sport that was happening behind the scenes— in the paddock and in the hospitalities and in the preseason and in the gaps between the races,” Martin says. “People didn't really know about [that], or if they did, they didn't really understand.”

The producer says that when it came to the drivers, “If you're really into Formula One, you sort of knew who they were. But above and beyond hardcore [fans], nobody knew who they were and why they were so powerful and why they were trying to do what they were doing.”

The film crews set out to tell the drivers’ stories, capturing them in a way that’s harder to show in live race coverage. But getting the series up and running presented its challenges, especially when it came to gaining teams’ trust. Each squad is understandably sensitive about its car designs, operations and data.

Ferrari and Mercedes, two of the most dominant teams, both decided to not be a part of the first season, but Ian Holmes, director of media rights at Formula One, says he wasn’t surprised. The pair were battling for the championship that season and wanted to focus on racing.

“Although you're talking about the most successful team, perhaps arguably the biggest brands,” Holmes says, “the beauty of it and what it demonstrated was that actually this is about people's stories. It doesn't mean that the people in the Ferrari team or Mercedes team aren't the most interesting people. They're not the least interesting people either. You can still be interesting, regardless of what team you work in.”

When Bratches approached the teams about his idea, Steiner was onboard, but what he didn’t expect was for himself or the Haas F1 Team to become a major part of the series (or fan favorites) because they were the youngest and smallest team.

The team principal tends to forget he’s mic'd or being filmed because he’s focused on doing his job. And it’s noticeable through the show, whether it's his banter with the drivers or bluntness in interviews.

And as part of the only American team, he started being recognized more frequently, along with other stars in the show.

“Data shows us well that this helped a lot [in] the American market,” says Steiner. "It helped a lot to get people interested—not the avid fan, the guy who watches every race car race. This is different. This seems to be interesting, and then they start to watch and come to races. [The series] had a big impact and what I noticed is the people who recognize it are mainly young people, because the way they use TV is [to watch] Netflix.”

Netflix is protective over its numbers, but over the last few years, there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence of new F1 fans saying, “I saw it on Netflix.” Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing said over the summer, “It’s got to be the single most important impact in North America. Almost every comment you get out of someone out of the U.S., they reference Drive to Survive.”

And it shows in sales. Per Formula 1, the United States Grand Prix on Sunday has been sold out for a few weeks.

“The U.S. is a fantastically large and complicated market dominated by three or four 800-pound gorillas,” Holmes says, referring to the major sports leagues. “But it is such a big market. We feel that there's plenty of growth that we can enjoy. But we must pay attention not at the expense of the rest of the world, but to collaborate. The rest of the world wants to see us race in America as well.”

While Sunday’s race in Austin is the only race in the U.S. this year, F1 will be back for two in 2022, with Miami being added to the schedule. And there have been discussions about adding a third race in future years.

Holmes says, “It's a dangerous and complicated sport, and we want to make sure that different people can engage with it in different ways…. It's caused us to sort of think and say, ‘Well, why has it been so attractive? And how can we extend the journey and provide more fun, interesting, scary, whatever it is, content around Drive to Survive?’”

Haas engineer Guenther Steiner looks intense.

Steiner has been one of the doc's breakout stars.

Steiner doesn’t watch the series. But it’s not for the reason you might think. “I don't want to watch the series because I just think then I overthink,” he says. “Because when you watch yourself you say, ‘That wasn't good, I can do better.’ I just want to be who I am, and that's why I don't watch it—so I don't get tempted to change myself.”

That’s what the behind-the-scenes show is—mostly authentic with a dash of luck and pinch of dramatic flair. After all, it is live sports and not a scripted show as drivers, pit crews and team members are used as real characters. The camera crews notice story arcs in real-time while others become more clear while reviewing the film.

“They capture during the season so it's kind of live, but they have an opportunity in post production to finesse the stories,” Holmes says. “So they can kind of build the storylines after the fact. Not create them. Build them.”

However, Verstappen commented to the Associated Press about how the series has “ faked a few rivalries which they don’t really exist,” which played into his decision to not be a part of the next season. Holmes says teams “can influence, but they can’t dictate the narrative.”

“[The teams] bought into the notion that for this to be a success, it needed access,” Holmes says. “We spent a lot of time talking with the teams. We highlighted two areas where they had protection, which is that if anything that was either sporting or commercially sensitive at the time of release in the series, then that could be requested to come out…. There shouldn’t be anything that brings anyone—a team, individual—into disrepute.”

Filming is largely being in the right place at the right time, and the crews have adjusted their strategic plan over the years, going from filming everything and anything to being embedded with certain teams for each race.

“It's just about finding that balance of having enough planning done that you're confident that you can execute the show every year,” Martin says, “but have been nimble enough that you can pivot and go down a different path.”

Martin says that whenever Formula One is mentioned now, people frequently bring up the show, especially when he’s in the United States. What has surprised the Drive to Survive crew the most, he says, is “just how passionate about the show people in the U.S. have become.”

“That level of interest in the show is not something we even really thought about,” Martin says. “We just wanted to make the best version of the show that we could, and when you do that, you hope that it finds an audience.”

He remembers thoughts of Is this any good? Is anyone gonna watch it? crossing his mind while filming the first season because they were constantly in the center of the action. The crew took a break for the Christmas holidays, but as Martin and James Gay-Rees sat in the editing suite following the short hiatus, they realized that they struck gold.

“We're not trying to make the Kardashians, and [the drivers are] not reality TV stars,” Martin says. “First and foremost, they have really high pressure, really high profile day jobs. However much they are invested in the show and however much they liked the show, that day job will always come first by miles.”

So what really makes fans watch Formula One?

Is it the historical, high-profile Monaco race? Possibly the glitz and glam of traveling the world, one qualifier and race at a time? What about the mechanics and strategy in the paddock? Or could it be much simpler than that, a single underlying theme already presented in a Netflix docuseries?

“I think there's something inherently sexy about speed. These are the fastest cars in the world, the best drivers in the world. When you marry that speed with amazing backdrops like Monaco or the French Grand Prix or Monza or Austin, Formula One gets it right,” Martin says. “It's an incredibly seductive and sexy sport. It's good looking young guys strapping themselves into very fast cars in amazing locations. And people enjoy seeing that.

“I think that's why Formula 1 has endured for as long as it has—at the basic level, people just like to see good looking young guys driving fast.”

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