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Formula 1’s Drive To Popularity

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in Netflix's Drive to Survive
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. Digital illustration by Bhavya Khanchandani.


These were the words that echoed as 108.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the season finale race of the 2021 season. The race saw a +29% higher viewership than the same race in 2020 – and the highest viewing figures for a race during the season. The championship decider in Abu Dhabi and its controversial ending kept social media users buzzing, with the attention on the sport seeming at an all-time high. All this success in recent years can be attributed to Netflix’s Drive To Survive, a documentary-style show that follows Formula One and its teams over the course of a season. The nature of the series allows fans to get a never-before-seen glimpse into the paddock (An enclosed area behind the pits in which the teams keep their transporters and motor homes) and the inner workings of the championship.

With the fourth season of the show just on the horizon, it’s almost adamant that we recognize and credit this reality TV show’s contribution in giving the sport an entirely new audience and making Formula 1 the fastest-growing major sports league on the planet in terms of follower growth in 2021.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive is a documentary series released in 2019, produced in a collaboration between Netflix and Formula One to give a behind-the-scenes look at the drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship. It started off with the coverage of the 2018 World Championship eventually covering the following championships in the next two seasons. This was new ownership, Liberty Media Company’s attempt to evolve in the digital landscape. The sport as a whole was often criticized in the past as being the sports of “geeks and nerds” but the inception of this show has changed this completely.

Under the new ownership of Liberty Media Company, the sport has been trying to reach out to new fans. A stark contrast to the approach from one previous owner, Bernie Ecclestone, who favored rejecting social media and young fans in order to focus on appealing to the established purist and loyal fanbase.

Through a mix of broadcast footage, recorded interviews, and dashcam cameras, the series has reimagined the sport as a high-stakes clash of big egos, tense power struggles, and stunning betrayals. Drive To Survive is about Formula 1 races, but it’s also about the interpersonal drama between the racing protagonists and that’s what makes it so captivating. It has established as well as up-and-coming drivers with backstories describing their histories and the relationships between them, which is quite an attraction for the viewers.

Ferrari and Merceded in Netflix's Drive to Survive.
Digital illustration by Bhavya Khanchandani

Drive to Survive has been criticised for exaggeration to add drama and make it a spectacle, but it has to be in order to draw people in and create a narrative arc strong enough to keep viewers who might not otherwise watch F1 interested. This has in turn brought a much more diverse and younger set of fans to the racing paddock. It’s the stories about the people behind the on-track action which are so engaging and have contributed to the series’ success. The film crews set out to tell the drivers’ individual stories, capturing them in a way that’s harder to show in live race coverage. This up close and personal access as well the exclusive nature of some footage make this show so unique and gripping.

Essentially this show can be described as a reality TV show, one with behind-the-scenes footage and real-life characters like the drivers, pit crew, and team members. Introducing people to the human side of motorsport, instead of overwhelming them with a tidal wave of car aerodynamics factoids and hoping they’ll eventually follow along has certainly proved successful.

While not all of this growth can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Drive to Survive without a more robust data set, the correlation between the audience for that series and the audience for F1 itself appears significant from the numbers available outside of F1 and Netflix's internal systems. That has cast more attention on the series in the F1 paddock, where the drivers and team executives that act as the protagonists of the show have become increasingly aware of the part they play in the program.

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. More viewers bringing more exposure to the sponsors and thus more money to the teams. Money has been a motivational factor to participate in this "drive to popularity" with this being a sport with a very apparent financial disparity between the teams of different sizes and monetary muscle. Whenever Formula 1 is mentioned now, people inevitably bring up the show Drive To Survive, especially in markets where the sport is experiencing growth, which is a testament to the very apparent success of the series.