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Netflix and F1: The origin story

Drive to Survive has catapulted F1 into the homes of millions of new viewers. How did this happen?

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The success of Drive to Survive has led F1 to sign up for two additional seasons, meaning we will now have six years of the documentary. Liberty Media has acted where Bernie Ecclestone did not. 

Haas Guenther Steiner has become popular amongst fans watching Drive to Survive (Image Credit: Racer via Andy Hone/Motorsport Images)

Bernie Ecclestone is a legend of the sport. Love him or hate him, he is responsible for turning F1 into the powerhouse from the late 1970s to when CVC took over in 2017. But for all of Bernie’s successes, there have been some more questionable decisions. The decision to award double points in 2014 shocked the teams, fans and pundits alike. Dropped for the following season, the format received a sizeable backlash.

Then on the eve of the 2016 season, Bernie subjected F1 to elimination qualifying. The ill-thought-out format saw drivers eliminated every 90 seconds. Designed to whip up excitement, it led to the top five sitting out the final two minutes in the garage. It lasted two races. In previous years he has also suggested medals, and artificially soaking the track.

The one thing Bernie never did, was move with the times. The biggest example of Bernie’s failure to do this was with social media. Ecclestone’s view was that he wanted the advertising to reflect the sport’s image. Combined with the rocketing ticket prices, it was never going to be the case that viewers would rush to buy Rolex watches. It also took until 2014 for F1 to develop its first and highly bugged app. The idea of a TV show was laughable.

Realising this, Amazon approached McLaren in 2016 to follow the Woking marque for a year. When Liberty Media took control of F1, a much larger scale version of the documentary was immediately touted. Racing365 is reporting that the Head of F1 Media Rights Ian Holmes, reports Liberty wanted a more “inclusive” approach”:

Change of approach under Liberty

“Grand Prix Driver” has not aged well in comparison to Drive to Survive, showing the jump in programme quality under Netflix. Holmes says once Netflix was approached with the idea of a grid-wide documentary, the interest was immediate:

“Amazon were talking to McLaren about their All or Nothing series, which focuses on a particular team,” Holmes explained at the Blackbook Motorsport forum when asked about the origins of Drive to Survive.

“When Formula 1 teams do that, they need to come to us to acquire the rights to include on-track footage etc…

“We looked at it and thought it was quite interesting, and thought we could do what we may have done in the past, which is an arm’s length licence, predetermined by the footage, but Liberty wanted to take a slightly different approach to it, [one that was] more inclusive.

“We thought wouldn’t it be better to adopt a narrative that focused on the sport as a whole, all the teams and drivers?

“If we’re talking to Amazon, we know that their chosen programming strategy is All or Nothing, so we talked to Netflix, explained the concept and they immediately embraced it and did the deal pretty quickly.”

However, the strategy was entirely dependent on teams willing to have Netflix’s cameras follow them around for a year, intruding on engineering debriefs, intimate team conversations and interviewing Team Principals.

The show’s legacy has shed a light on the struggles of the smaller teams. Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner became an unexpected breakout star for his honest interviews and his unfiltered management style.  A tense debrief with Nikita Mazepin after the Russian had a challenging race or the now infamous call with team owner Gene Haas after two calamitous pit stops have seen the Austrian become a firm fan favourite.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari did not play ball in the first season, with the lower teams providing the intrigue. As the series exploded, the top teams all signed up. Max Verstappen says he will return to the series, having sat out the latest season due to concerns conversations were being hyped up. The Dutchman said the reason for his return was that he has received assurances that this will be addressed.


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