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Netflix’s docu-series “F1: Drive to Survive” is an adren­aline-charged piece of escapism. Courtesy | Wiki­media Commons

Released a week before the first race of the 2019 Formula 1 season in March, Netflix’s docu-series “F1: Drive to Survive” is an adren­aline-charged piece of escapism.

Formula 1, also known as F1, is the top tier of single-seater, open wheel car racing in the world. Ten teams, with budgets that soar from the tens to the hun­dreds of mil­lions, put two cars and two drivers on the grid each year for a schedule of 21 races on 10 con­ti­nents. While a few teams are pri­vately owned, and race under their owners names (Haas, Williams), the majority of F1 teams are owned by man­u­fac­turers, auto­motive and oth­erwise, including Ferrari, Red Bull, and Mer­cedes. Most races occur in Europe and in Asia, with the lone American-hosted race, the United States Grand Prix, held in Austin, Texas.

The series hits the astro­nomic highs and the crushing lows of the 2018 F1 season, from the first race at Aus­tralia to the finale in Abu Dhabi. With com­plete access to pit lanes, drivers, and team prin­cipals, Netflix gets full cov­erage of every team except Mer­cedes and Ferrari, cur­rently the top two dom­i­nating teams in F1. But given the con­sis­tency of Mer­cedes and Ferrari’s podium fin­ishes, the series gives more time to the less certain, more dra­matic mid-field fights.

“F1: Drive to Survive” is much less inves­tigative jour­nalism than it is a cel­e­bratory doc­u­mentary of every­thing that makes this sport mag­netic: the oodles of money, the handsome drivers, the con­stant lethal danger, the sun­glasses, the horse­power, the hun­dreds of miles per hour.

Take the rivalries and testos­terone of SEC football and add a zero to the team budgets to make it in the hun­dreds of mil­lions. You’re approaching the pol­itics, emotion, and money of the F1 pro­duction. It makes for good TV.  

F1 drivers are con­spic­u­ously respon­sible per­formers, getting all the credit for a win, but all the respon­si­bility for a crash, racing with mil­lions of dollars breathing down their neck. Lap times define each driver’s value, and the most vicious rivalries are often between team­mates, since the only true apples-to-apples com­parison is between drivers equipped with the same exact car, which only occurs within a team.

The extremes of racing also gen­erate mundane changes, and this trickle-down effect, along with the absurd amounts of pub­licity for brands and sponsors, is why F1’s glamour show can go on. Rear view mirrors, disc brakes, and all-wheel-drive first pre­miered in the F1 racing world.

The Netflix series fre­quently heightens this tension by using slow motion shots, and slathers the emo­tional high points with equally tense music. When telling the rags-to-riches story of F1 rookie Esteban Ocon, whose father worked through the night as a mechanic to get his son’s racing career off the ground, violins pitch in when Ocon wins sixth place, illus­trating how important it is to him to earn his parents’ approval. Camera footage from within the car is used exten­sively throughout the show, often paired with the radio from the driver’s cockpit, but the show also delves into the con­current drama from other drivers’ per­spec­tives.  

Wheels bounce; cars fly like frisbees over each other after what seems like the barest bump under a tire. Shock­ingly, most drivers walk away from an F1 accident. However, the series focuses so much on the crashes, usually first from the on-board cameras, con­di­tioning the audience to think the driver is going nose-over-tail every time they see an on-board camera angle.

One episode fea­tures Swiss-French driver Romain Grosjean, driving for the American team Haas, the newest team to the F1 grid.

“If a driver keeps crashing, the biggest thing is he loses his con­fi­dence,” Haas team prin­cipal Guenther Steiner says of Grosjean’s 2018 season. “On a good day, I think Romain is one of the best out there. But he makes mis­takes.”

Grosjean relates how he sought help from a psy­chol­ogist, unable to shake a string of mis­takes. One par­tic­u­larly humil­i­ating slip left the nose of his car stuck in a tire wall in France in qual­i­fying, before the race even began.

When that happens, “you keep your helmet on and your visor down,” Grosjean reflects. “You can be a hero and you can be a zero within five seconds.”

“Drive to Survive” gives cohesion to stories that the average viewer couldn’t piece together by trying to keep pace with a season through normal channels.

You don’t have to like, or to know, open-wheel racing to enjoy this show. You need healthy adren­aline levels, and a high tol­erance for shrieking engine noise, because F1 is already a rock-star sport, oper­ating at the extremes of mechanical and human per­for­mance.