Motor racing is a strange spectator sport. In essence, this is the monopolization of monotony. The same set of actions is repeated 50 to 70 times a race. The song does not change. Strategies are permutations and combinations of the same batch. The conditions (usually) remain the same. Drivers are professional athletes paid to master the art of boredom. Their skills reshape simplicity as chaos, routine as rivalry, model as pace. The human eye becomes so conditioned by a sense of mode that even the slightest deviation feels like a bold embrace of the unknown. Formula 1, more than most, is an engineering battle – the men who maneuver the machines give an identity to the men who make them. In its three seasons so far, the documentary series Netflix Formula 1: Make it survive has contextualized the physical speed of competition, revealing the psychological speed of the human-machine relationship. Like an endless cycle, one remains at the mercy of the other.
A joke among longtime Formula One loyalists is that sports commentators are tougher than drivers. Their voice has the crippling responsibility of shaping the repetition of the rhythm – not only the volume should create excitement out of nowhere, but also the words that must somehow establish and fetishize individual stories on the whims of the live TV show. (Imagine the honey drone of these high-octane engines without Steve Slater’s jet-octane tone). In many ways, Drive to survive is the narrative embodiment of this voice. This is perfectly modulated proof that what we see on the track is not so much an action as a reaction. No event is isolated; ubiquitous cameras localize life in a sport that defines the boundaries of life. Each episode is dedicated to a different space in the garage – and in general, a different definition of success, failure and ambition. The best case scenario for a Williams or Haas team is the worst case scenario for Mercedes; the story of buying one driver is the darkest hour of another.
As a result, the series is a modern marvel of storytelling for access – a constantly moving reminder that movement is simply a transaction of perspective, that the traveling speed circus is essentially a corporation for the pursuit of inertia. “Backstage deals” and paddock politics, which usually go as far as gossip, are presented as palettes of real emotional conflict. This in turn demystifies a sport that is built on heritage from a distance from its viewers – the suspense of revelation and the pleasure of discovery combine to arm our language of viewing. More importantly, the elite of motor racing at the highest level acquires the humility of the blue collar of human nature. Every inheritance comes down to the man behind it; every race is built in the pursuit of survival.
In particular, season 3 stands out because the sport itself is emerging as a respite from monotony. The potential immobility of the Covid-19 pandemic, which halts the Australian Grand Prix in 2020, was broken by the kinetic similarity of the Austrian double bill in early July. The six-month routine war is set against the bloody backdrop of a world already wounded by the curse of ordinaryness. Therefore, there is now an added sense of ethos for the family of “masked” crusaders, who – adapting to the minimalism of the new normal – prove that doing the same thing over and over again, with increasing efficiency and determination, can be rewarding and self-sustaining experience. Not all characters wear cloaks: Red Bull team director Christian Horner returns with a big smile, Mercedes boss Toto Wolf returns with his Bond villain eloquence, Haas boss Günther Steiner returns with his comic charm, the owner of Racing Point Lawrence Stroll returns with his mafia swing, Daniel Ricciardo’s troubled career remains at odds with his rough smile and last but not least, the lovely reckless Roman Grosjean takes his last breath Rod Tidwell in his decade-long film about Jerry Maguire Beauvais Oier not a new contract.
This series of documents once renewed interest in the new era of Formula 1 – not only as a means of nostalgia, but also as an update of it
The shortened 18-race season is distilled in about 400 minutes of seamless storytelling. Grosjean’s miraculous escape from a fireball in the Bahrain Grand Prix forms the core of the penultimate episode, which belongs to the upper floors of non-fiction cinema. Most producers may have focused an entire episode on the peripheral drama of an almost fatal crash. But the fact is that the race resumed for a short time, with most pilots still mentally shaking from the horrific effects of the fire. The show continued. Then to strike this trauma with the brilliant victory of Sergio Perez at the last pole is a large-scale blow: it extends the idea of an athlete fleeing a physical tragedy to the realm of a man fleeing a professional.
Another example of the show’s sense of perspective is reflected in the “twinning” episodes 6 and 8: In the first we see a downed Red Bull driver Pierre Gasley winning at Monza in his low AlphaTauri, and in the second we see Ferrari-related Carlos Sainz Jr. storming the Italian castle of his future employers. In episode 6, the period with a white bone is dedicated to the final moments of the race: Gasley fights to keep the lead over the unbridled McLaren. The spectator prays that the slower Gasley defeats the faceless opponent in the middle of the table and does so. In episode 8, the tense phase is centered on the last lap. Saints Jr. fights for second place, on the verge of taking the pole. He’s inches away from the leader, but he misses with a mustache: It’s only on the finish line that we understand how Sainz Jr. was actually the furious McLaren, whom Gasley barely resisted in the previous episode. The same race – Monza – is seen from a darker (third) point of view in the Ferrari episode. The very logistics of extracting three different stories from the same weekend are both confusing and enticing, and strangely befitting the madness of the mountains of moles that defines the sport.
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In a personal note, my love of sports experienced the first and second retirement of Michael Schumacher. But she backed down after race uncertainty was distracted by engineering security. Far from Ferrari-McLaren fans in the glorious days of the late 1990s or even the Alonso-Hamilton-Button fights of the late 2000s, Red Bull’s dominance, followed by Mercedes’ ruthless rule, turned the F1 into the real franchise of Real steel. There is seldom room for human error and even less room for iconic rivalries. As perhaps conceived by the Netflix-F1 collaboration, this series of documents once renewed interest in the new era of Formula 1 – not only as a means of nostalgia, but also as an update to it. The results can be predictable, Drive to survive admits, but the process is not. Domination may be boring, but it is not an act of superiority. He reveals that even in an area of high-performance car racing, working-class aspirations for workplace safety, “adequate” productivity and averages can afford to exist: The Haas episode, in particular, points to a couple drivers who are simply content to be part of an outsider family with one parent, far from the crushing pressure of the big team’s expectations.
This says something that when the blockades happened last March, my first thought about stopping the sport indefinitely was: Does that mean there will be no Drive to survive season next year? It could be argued that maybe Netflix has done such a good job that some of us even divert the action live to improve our visual experience of the documents. I barely followed the 2020 World Cup, as a result of which Season 3 felt like a glorious blind date. Everything felt like an unexpected turn. I also resisted Google. Sebastian Vettel goes to Racing Point, Ricciardo moves to McLaren, Perez takes the ghostly second place on Red Bull, and a certain Mick Schumacher is planned to be the most mesmerized rookie in modern history – Season 4 of Formula 1: Make it survive is bound to be a Humdinger. The 2021 World Cup is a coincidence.