Formula 1: The ‘Drive to Survive’ effect

Is F1 more than just cars going around in a circle? 

Who would enjoy watching cars going round and round in a circle for hours on end? Well, apparently, it seems that quite a few people do. At a glance, Formula 1 is a sport where ten teams with two drivers each go to different track circuits on the weekend and race cars for a certain number of laps. First driver across the finish line wins. Sounds simple, right? Well F1 is so much more complex than this. Certainly, F1 is not a new sport, with the first F1 event dating all the way back to May 1950. Nowadays, F1 looks vastly different with technology and safety developing for the better. With drivers enduring up to 5gs at braking points in 235 mph top speed cars, Formula 1 is a much more dangerous sport than you would initially imagine. The drivers risk their lives every time they get into a race car; leading to the development of car design features like the halo saving many drivers’ lives such as Romain Grosjean’s. These measures are necessary when drivers are pushing themselves and their car to the limit. Ultimately as a spectator, watching the sport provides us with entertainment but driver safety must remain the biggest priority.

In the past few years, the sport has increased massively in popularity. With Sky Sport owning all the TV rights to F1 in the UK and Europe, watching it can cause a dent in the wallet. Despite this, by the halfway stage of the 2021 season, F1’s UK audience figures had risen to their highest level in at least four years. At the time of writing, the US grand prix is the largest event F1 has ever had, despite the US notoriously being a place where the likes of NASCAR and Indy car dominate over F1. This year in particular, fans have shown they will endure anything in the hopes of watching a race in person again (just look at Spa GP 2021). With F1 races seemingly occurring in every corner of the globe and the number of races increasing to almost back to back weekends every weekend of the 2021 season, F1 has become more accessible and popular than ever before. 

Romain Grosjean’s accident at the Bahrain Grand Prix was the subject of an episode of Drive to Survive

Why has the sport gained so much popularity recently? A lot of this rise can be credited to Netflix’s documentary series on F1 Drive to Survive. This docu series, now in its fourth season of filming, follows individual drivers and teams throughout the championship. It shows never seen before behind the scenes action and the extent of the high pressures the drivers and team principals face. Most importantly though, the series brings the sport to life by sharing stories. Yes, some episodes may be creating rivalries that perhaps are not as dramatic as the show makes out. Nevertheless, the show is so accessible and enjoyable to even those who know nothing more about the sport than the name Lewis Hamilton and that he likes to drive fast cars. For those who are die hard F1 fans, the new series release date is always in that lull between seasons where fans have been so starved of F1 content that being able to relive the entire previous championship is such a joy. Particularly as the sport is so complexly balanced between mechanical technology and drivers skill, it can be difficult for most people to imagine what it is like to actually drive an F1 car. It is even more mind numbing to imagine the kind of money you would have to spend to begin thinking about becoming an F1 driver. This is what makes the series so successful, letting fans really see and understand the drivers and the inner workings of what it is like to be involved in such a unique sport. Over the course of the years, Drive to Survive has followed more drivers and teams in each season after only starting out with a select few like Ricciardo, Sainz and fan favourite Guenther Steiner. As teams have realised the popularity and impact on fan numbers that the Netflix show can have, the show now follows enough of the 10 teams to give a true sense of the drama that happens throughout a championship. In many ways, I look forward to seeing how Netflix will fit all the drama from the 2021 season into just 10 episodes.

The effects in popularity of the sport from Drive to Survive are easy to see, particularly for me on a personal level. Growing up, F1 Sundays were a regular tradition in my household, with my dad consistently insisting that he watch the race only to fall asleep halfway through and waking up at the final few laps. Because of this, I grew up being a fan of Jenson Button and then gradually watching the sport every now and then, but not really properly understanding the sport for what it is. Once Drive to Survive was released, my interest was renewed and I found it helpful to hear more about the drivers’ stories, particularly Daniel Ricciardo’s (we all love an underdog don’t we). Another positive effect is that I would say I meet more and more Formula 1 fans in passing than I have ever before, even if part of me dies inside every time someone tells me their favourite driver is Lewis Hamilton. 

Perhaps not all of this is credited to Netflix, with this season’s close championship title. We as fans live for the drama and entertainment of ‘Crashstappen’ and Hamilton whining about his dead tyres that aren’t really as dead as he makes out to be. Certainly as this year is arguably the closest and strongest competition Hamilton has faced in the entirety of the hybrid era, the sport undeniably has its dramas which has its appeal to fans. Despite Lewis Hamilton not being my favourite driver in the sport, it is undeniable that his anti-racism and anti-homophobia work off the track is necessary and the sports larger fan base will only help raise awareness to a larger number of people. This in itself is slightly controversial in the way that F1 holds races in countries like Saudi Arabia and China which are not the best for human rights but that’s a conversation for another time. 

British driver Lewis Hamilton has been praised for using his F1 platform to tackle social injustice worldwide

So, is Formula 1 more than just cars going round in a circle? Well I guess you can ask this question about all sports: is tennis more than just hitting a ball back and forth? Is football more than just kicking a ball about? Is golf more than hitting a ball quite far? The answer to this is up to you to decide. I would say that a large part of sports is seeing the incredible things that humans are capable of doing. Another part is the stories of the drivers, managers and teams that have all come together to make the ten teams that participate in Formula 1, and Drive to Survive has certainly shared their stories to a wider audience. Indeed it is also true that watching the series is not a necessity in being an F1 fan either. 

Now that we are approaching the end of the 2021 season, attention turns to 2022. The big questions are what will the overhaul in regulations mean for drivers and teams, and whether it will actually create closer racing. Certainly it seems that some teams are already taking different strategies towards the new regulations, with Haas focusing more on 2022 which has had an obvious impact on team performance this year.  Whether this strategy will bear any fruit is something that we will have to see next year. 

At the end of the day, for most ‘sit at home TV’ spectors of F1, the sport is about entertainment and in a sport so controlled by money, last year’s season without fans at the stands for a majority of grand prixs shows that the fans are the ones who make the sport what it is. Whether you are interested in the mechanics of cars, the astute strategies and calculations that go alongside it or just enjoy watching cars go fast around a track, there is something in F1 for everyone and certainly more and more people seem to think so too.

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