A look at how Drive to Survive and American observer bias shape the narrative of the Formula One competition. Yes - That picture will make sense soon.
I discovered F1, like everyone else, by watching Drive to Survive on Netflix. My experience came in early 2020, just before the second season (and impending quarantine) would be released. I knew formula one existed. At the time I was living in Austin, home of Circuit of the Americas, and F1 was a big deal on race weekend. Unfortunately, in ATX, COTA is far from the center of the city, and it just became another major festival among the many that visited Austin every year - SxSW, Austin Film Festival, Austin City Limits, Fun Fun Fun Fest, to name a few - so it never really got on my radar as the owners probably hoped. DTS opened up my world. I was immediately fascinated by the individual stories, the fantastic editing, and the behind-the-scenes narratives that were highlighted beyond the actual races. Who knew that a sport could be so complicated? OR cutthroat, for that matter? The thing that hooked me, and that DTS did so well, was knowing every driver had a journey, and with only 20 seats currently available on the grid, it was easy to get to know each and every individual driver.
Of course, the series had its favorites. Daniel Ricciardo, if not already a talented driver, is a personality made for DTS. His rockstar nature is easily admirable and shows he can be around even when his driving career has ended. Early episodes also give us empathetic characters like Esteban Ocon, Niko Hülkenberg, Alex Albon, and Romain Grosjean (whose major episode in season 3 kept me on the edge of my seat); none of which have been in true contention for the championship thus far, but that doesn't make them, nor any driver on the grid, any less deserving of it. In fact, that's what DTS does so well, in getting us to focus on drivers that are not normally part of the conversation, and realizing that the story of an F1 Driver is never about one season, but is often told throughout the course of many seasons during a driver's career. One could argue that making it into Formula One is already the ultimate goal, and anything afterward is considered extra. We're just...along for the ride...so to speak.
As mentioned previously, I was very new to F1, but I LOVED the Netflix series, and as quarantine hit, I couldn't stop telling everyone to watch it. That year, when given the opportunity, I even wrote & directed a parody for my friend's youtube channel; which I am very proud of. It wasn't until after Season 3, in 2021, that I finally jumped from DTS to watching full races on Sunday (which quickly became the entire weekend). Now it's required viewing in my house. Formula One is the BEST international sport, in my opinion. It's about speed. It's about fine margins. It's about individual characters. It's also about teams; which have more to do with an actual outcome of a season than say– a football manager or owner, when you consider how each car has different engineers. This is why formula one also has something called The Constructors Champion, on top of the normal driver's championship. Being in a good car is half the battle for most drivers, and they can only do so much if the engineers are not able to meet the needs of their athletes.
This brings me to what I want to chat about today, as we near the start of a new era, the 2022 season, in less than a week's time.
Mercedes has been the dominant force in F1 for a hot minute, having won eight consecutive constructor's championships as of 2021, in what they call "The Turbo-Hybrid Era". That just means these cars have an electrical power unit, along with the normal engine, that recharges itself and helps limit actual fuel (something like that.) It's clear that Mercedes got it right, and every other engineering team on the grid has been struggling to catch up. Of course, this has drawn its fair share of critics, especially when you consider that winning comes with a monetary reward, which helps keep them near the top, and the bottom teams at the bottom. That's why this year they are introducing a cost cap, to hopefully close the gap between the higher/lower teams by limiting spending by any particular manufacturer. We don't know yet how this will play out, but as of now, Mercedes might still be the team to beat.
You may have already heard of Mercedes if you have any passing knowledge of F1. Their star driver, Lewis Hamilton, has broken every F1 record in the book and is still competitive - arguably at the height of his abilities - to this day. Well - every record except one - "most driver's championships"; which he is currently tied for with F1s last famous name: Michael Schumacher.
I hadn't heard of Hamilton, Schumacher, or any driver before Drive to Survive. What I find so interesting about how DTS handles Hamilton, however, is that the first two seasons - he's barely featured. I don't know if this was out of choice, or the fact that the producers saw no narrative there, but while episodes focus on drivers for other teams - McLaren, Ferrari, Racing Point, Haas, and Williams - sometimes the most you hear about Lewis Hamilton is the commentator mentioning the winner of whatever Grand Prix they are focusing on that episode. Mercedes and Lewis, it seemed, were so untouchable, that their wins were always playing in the background of the real stories; sometimes to emphasize the failure these individual drivers were experiencing at that moment. This is especially true anytime they highlight Red Bull - Mercedes' number one competitor. This started at first with Daniel Ricciardo, who was a driver for Red Bull when DTS first started, but continued with the team principal, Christian Horner, whose story was just as compelling as his drivers. His rivalry with Mercedes Team Principal, Toto Wolff, is strong; considering it was Red Bull who was on top for several years before Mercedes started dominating. Even though their star driver, Max Verstappen, refuses to do interviews for DTS, it's clear they have enough of a protagonist in Horner to shape the narrative. When I say protagonist, I don't mean that lightly. Horner has been very vocal about his distaste for Mercedes winning, and speaks often about someone needing to "take them down a peg". The basic tenants of a story structure are already there: You have the goal (world championship), the conflict (Mercedes), the antagonist (Hamilton/Wolff), and the person trying to achieve that goal - the protagonist. With this basic structure, DTS had their main story, and one that would create the most drama for the audience, so it's not hard to see why so much focus was put on Horner and Red Bull during those earlier seasons.
I was a big fan of Horner and Red Bull during the first three seasons of DTS; especially not knowing any of their histories with the sport. They seemed like a scrappy team. Horner was relatable, down-to-earth, and very likable. Some people base their support of main characters on whether or not they can "see themselves getting a beer with them", and in the case of Horner, I would have provided a keg. It seemed like the man embodied the spirit of fair competition, and was the only one capable of taking Mercedes to task when it came to the track. It's often said that America likes a good underdog story, and here we were presented with the ultimate of underdogs. Centering the story on Red Bull early on, and keeping Lewis Hamilton more on the periphery, they ensured a constant threat in the background. The giant waiting to be conquered. The monster destined to be vanquished. Mercedes was the foe to our endearing main characters, and we couldn't wait for Red Bull to take them on.
This wasn't helped by the way movies and TV shows shaped our biases; helping us to always notice the difference between good & evil just by how they presented themselves.
Take Mercedes, with their silver + black color schemes. Their clean, white uniforms. Their pristine garage. The narrative that this was all the result of loads of money and power. Every time DTS cut to the Mercedes side of the paddock, it was like cutting back to a Star Destroyer, and we were getting a glimpse of the full might of the galaxy.
Then take a look at Red Bull, with their matted cars of reds and blues. Their garages full of young men in overalls. The struggles they would have with their cars, and seemingly not enough resources to provide the drivers for what they needed. Then there's Max Verstappen, the young prodigy with limitless talent, who is destined to be the savior to deliver Red Bull away from their Mercedes overlords.
Red Bull was the rebel alliance to the empire that was Mercedes, and each Grand Prix was another trench run towards the destruction of the ultimate weapon: Lewis Hamilton.
Not to mix metaphors, but it doesn't help the American audience that Toto Wolff sometimes acted like a bond villain. Considering the scales were already tipping into this direction, his foreign accent only managed to solidify the narrative in our minds, having been trained by multiple media sources that ALL bad guys are foreigners with strange accents (the disclaimer of 'strange' being important in that we're willing to accept 'English' accents when American is not available.)
With all these elements in mind, it's easy to see why Red Bull might be seen as the hero of the story, with Mercedes acting as the ultimate villain. After all, no one watches a racing movie in America and roots for the ones who have everything. It's just not our style. In fact, the aforementioned short film I wrote had similar world-building and characters, in that we wanted to craft a story that focused on the underdog. The earnest rebel. The dangerous maverick. For the first two seasons of Drive to Survive, I was also very much into that narrative, and I was spurred on by the addition of Albon and Checo, two amazing characters that helped endear us to Red Bull, and both of which I still root for today.
But then came Season Three, Lewis Hamilton's 7th World Championship, and I think the first time the producers were able to really focus on his story. He talked about coming up in the sport. The support of his parents. The inherent racism he had to face.
It's easy to cast a villain when you don't often see his face nor hear his story. Hamilton, I was beginning to realize, was actually a rare and extraordinary talent, and not someone who simply existed to be beaten. Winning, with the best team, was one thing, but his attempts to break down barriers, whether you believe him or not, was an entirely other conversation. Here I found a man that was not undeserving of his continued success, and I began to rethink the narrative I had been telling myself the past year and a half.
When I watched the 2021 F1 season live, it was without the narrative constructs that I had grown accustomed to with Drive to Survive, and now I was finally able to participate in the sport in as raw a form as possible; albeit with a heaping dose of social media to help me along the way. Seeing the characters unfold in their element, watching their reactions in real-time, or after a race, certainly helped me to see them in a different light. Sure, I still had my favorites, which is a testament to the power of the Netflix series itself, but now I was able to form my own conclusions with each new predicament. As the drama unfolded each week, I began to put my own previous biases aside, and form a new narrative that was more true to what I was witnessing.
Max Verstappen was right, to a certain extent, when he decided to boycott interviewing for DTS.
Unfortunately, I wish this message had become more clear to the Max Verstappen fans; especially online.
The hate for Lewis Hamilton - online - is magnanimous. I wouldn't say it's baffling by any means, as evident from my above statements, but I will say that I am extremely shocked.
There was another documentary series that came out in 2020, the same year that I discovered Drive to Survive, and it touched on another champion team who seemed unbeatable in their time. I'm talking about The Last Dance, which revolves around Michael Jordon, the Chicago Bulls, and their last season together after an extraordinary run of championship wins in the early 90s. I remember when it came out, a LOT of people would say versions of the same thing, "What I wouldn't give to go back and watch it happen in real-time."
In my opinion, this was the easiest metaphor to make when it came to talking about Hamilton, seven-time world champion, still at the top of his game, and gunning for his eight and record-breaking championship, was a LOT like if we were watching the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan, at the height of their game. What could be better? How could you not be excited about this?
2021 proved to be one of the most exciting seasons of formula in the history of the sport. Even though it was my first as a fan, and according to the headlines, it was the first for a LOT of people, it never escaped my knowledge that I was experiencing something wholly unprecedented. If I wasn't already a fan of Lewis Hamilton before, just knowing his story and everything he had to overcome, it was this season that cemented him as my favorite driver of all time. I just couldn't understand how others were seeing something different. The vitriol he received online, for anything he did on or off the track, was palpable, and it was clear throughout the season that Red Bull loved to stir up that pot of controversy. I was in awe - in the very definition of the word - at the audacity of some of their claims. At first, it seemed like we had a good old-fashioned competition on our hands. Max and Lewis were at the top of their games. Bottas and Checo were proving themselves as well. Then came Silverstone. Then came Monza. Then Brazil. Jeddah. Abu Dhabi. Throughout the season, as tremendous as it was, I went from being full-fledged fans of Red Bull to seeing a whole new side of them that I didn't agree with. They were still doing the same old things, but they were no longer the scrappy, underdog rebels, that I had painted them out to be when I first got to know them.
To clarify, I don't think Max NOR Red Bull is at fault for what happened at Abu Dhabi. Max had a fantastic season and was just as deserving of the championship as any champion who had come before him. However, the road to that championship, and the way Red Bull conducted themselves throughout the season, changed my mind forever on how I view the teams, the way I watch Drive to Survive, and challenged my preconceived biases in ways I never really expected.
I watched season four this past weekend. I had been worried that watching a full season of races live, before Drive to Survive was able to recap the season months later, would taint my relationship with the Netflix series. Those worries had come true - in some ways. I still appreciate the series for what it does well: bringing us individual stories of drivers we tend to overlook throughout the season. Getting an intimate look into their headspace is always fascinating. However, I'm no longer completely enamored by the editing techniques or their ability to shape a story. It's still just as good and powerful as ever, but now the artifice is on display. The manipulation of existing biases is fully apparent. At the end of the season, I found myself angry again, but this time it was directed wholly at Horner and the Red Bull fanbase. The Netflix series wasn't ruined because I already knew how each story would end. In fact, it was fun seeing the highlights of some of our favorite drivers, as well as gain insights into the inner workings at play during some of the most dramatic moments of the season. Instead, the series was ruined in that I could no longer root for their protagonist, nor support the narrative that had been created up until this point.
DTS got what they wanted in the story they set out to tell in Season One. Max Verstappen was victorious, deservedly, and the fact that it came down to the final race of the season made the story all the more dramatic. However, it all left quite the sour taste in my mouth, and overall I'm glad to take the series with a heaping pile of salt from now on.
This week is the first race week of the 2022 season. If I'm completely honest, my hopes are that Hamilton and Sainz are in contention for the championship by the end of the year, but I would be remiss to note that I'm particularly hopeful for Hamilton to get his much deserved 8th World Championship. Either way, I know which drivers I'm rooting for, which teams I want to succeed, and what stories I'm hoping will play out this season. When I set out to write this post, it was for me to explore my own observation bias - in terms of how I view stories from an American lens perpetuated by movies, television shows, video games, and fantasy books - and hopefully, find a way to challenge others and their own biases. While I'm grateful for what Drive to Survive, and Netflix, has done for the sport, I think we, as viewers, need to take a few steps back in order to see the bigger picture of what's being shown to us on our televisions screens. I LOVE a good underdog story, that's never going to change, but grafting those elements onto real-life sport is not always as simple as it may seem. Real-life is complicated. Nuanced. Competition - even more complicated. As mentioned previously, I don't believe there's a driver on the grid, especially in 2022, that's undeserving of a world championship - now, someday, or in the future. Not everyone is going to get it, unfortunately, but that's just the nature of the game itself. If you still view Lewis Hamilton as Anakin Skywalker, and Mercedes as the Empire, then that's fine. I don't not see where you're coming from. It's easy to draw those comparisons. What I would hope that you understand now, is WHY you possibly view things the way you do and realize that sometimes the stories we tell aren't going to align with reality. In fact, they rarely do.
For me - Lewis Hamilton is the GOAT. If he continues to win, then so be it. If he ever chooses to hang up the helmet, I support anyone who fills his void. We should recognize Hamilton and Mercedes for what they are, not for who we want to cast them as in our story, and that goes for any driver or team on the grid. That means how they conduct themselves on and off track, and where the values they represent, the causes they choose to support, all should be a part of that narrative. It's not about good vs evil. It's not about who deserves it more, or who should step aside to give others a chance. It's about drivers doing what they love, and that every season they give us someone to root for; which is honestly more than we could ask for. At the end of the day, these are not characters in a movie, they're humans. Sport will never conform to the narrative that you want most to play out, and I think some fans need to recognize this fact sooner than later.
Mattias is an actor, writer, filmmaker, and editor currently living in Los Angeles, CA. He often writes about his observations about life, the human condition, spirituality, and relationships. He also enjoys writing about movies, pop culture, formula one, and current events. Often these writings are 'initial thoughts' and un-edited, as authentic as possible, and should be considered opinions. If you're interested in commenting on his work, or continuing the conversation, you should consider following him on Twitter or share an article on social media, where he would love to engage even further. Consider subscribing via RSS for more.