Ahead of the US Grand Prix at the beginning of the month in Austin, Texas World Championship leader Max Verstappen has drawn a lot of attention. He made headlines by claiming that he would not be participating in the upcoming fourth series of Netflix’s widely acclaimed Drive to Survive. This new documentary series provides a behind the scenes look at what really happens at Formula 1. Verstappen’s reasoning for this is that he feels the series is manufactured. His problem with the series is that according to him, Netflix have “faked a few rivalries which don’t really exist”.
Many of Verstappen’s fellow drivers leaped to the defence of the series, contending that it is responsible for the sport’s sudden boost in popularity. This is especially the case in America – which has hitherto been a market that Formula 1 has failed to gain real traction in. His title rival Lewis Hamilton asserted that “In this last couple of years it’s been the steepest rise and more and more people are talking about it, more and more people engaging.” Hamilton continued by saying that “The number of emails and messages I get from people I’ve known for years in the States and who never knew what I was doing and now are hooked and can’t wait to come. I think a lot of them are coming this weekend.”
It is likely to be true that Netflix dramatizes events, or even manufactures rivalries, in the Drive to Survive series – as many documentaries and reality shows do – but that does not mean that Verstappen should boycott the series. This is because, as Hamilton has alluded to, Formula 1 needs Drive to Survive,and similar series, to survive and grow as a sport.
Not even ten years ago Formula 1 was marred in upheaval with race promoters going out of business because they could not afford to organise races and there were empty stands at many tracks. Formula 1 was struggling to connect with a casual audience, many of whom found it to be boring or simply did not understand the sport. This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that from 2008 to 2012 Formula 1 was absent from the United States, with the disastrous 2005 Indianapolis Grand Prix being attributed for the marked decline in the sport. These trends were compounded by the Hamilton-Mercedes era of domination, with many becoming disinterested in a sport where the result seemed a foregone conclusion. There have also been questions in recent years of whether, in an era where being eco-friendly has become more important, Formula 1 is an outdated sport that should be slowly phased out.
However, Drive to Survive has, especially in America, helped to change many of these trends, and now Formula 1 seems to be a sport with real momentum, a sport that can claim to be relevant, appealing to the casual fans, and a global sport. The series has allowed Formula 1 to seem cool to a younger generation of fans, and with other platforms such as twitch has allowed Formula 1 divers to connect with fans. This change is most notable in America, where Formula 1 has seemingly finally been embraced by an audience that has long disregarded and is now the most popular it has ever been.
Ultimately, Verstappen should ask himself why does it matter if Drive to Survive is dramatized, or even faked, if it is bringing in a whole new audience to Formula 1? And Drive to Survive is indisputably bringing in a large new audience. However, the Netflix producers should not take this criticism personally. Christian Horner has said that Verstappen does not like the acclaim or interviews – so it may be inevitable that he was always going to dislike the series.