Formula One: Drive to Survive Season 3: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Illustration for article titled Formula One: Drive to Survive Season 3: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Screenshot: Netflix

It’s that time of year again: the Formula One season is imminent, which means the third season of Drive to Survive has dropped on Netflix. This year, things are a little different: COVID-19 postponed and shortened the season and introduced a whole host of regulations that made filming a little more difficult than usual. But all those changes also resulted in some incredible races that DTS’s producers have refined into a series of 10 episodes, each one following a different team.

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This season is an improvement over seasons one and two, which each contained some critical flaws that detracted from DTS’s credibility. Things aren’t perfect now, but they’re much tighter—and we’ll run you through the good, the bad, and the ugly of Drive to Survive season three.

The Good

Despite all the COVID-19 chaos that took place during the 2020 Formula One season, Netflix did a solid job putting together the third season with what I can only imagine were an added set of difficulties. The series has really come into its stride, with crisper and more refined storylines than seasons one and two. Each of season three’s 10 episodes features a story of a single driver or a single team. The first episode, for example, is a bit of an introduction but kicks off the ‘pink Mercedes’ Racing Point saga. Episode three touches on Valtteri Bottas and his position as, basically, Lewis Hamilton’s wingman. The sixth episode highlights the Red Bull Racing/AlphaTauri chaos between Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly.

Because of that—and because of the fact that Netflix doesn’t show up to every race—there are some big events missing, with the Turkish Grand Prix being one of the more pronounced gaps.

But I really enjoyed what Netflix did this time around. Sebastian Vettel comes across as a particular highlight, with the German driver giving absolutely zero fucks about sassing Ferrari because he knows he won’t be there the next season. In a particularly memorable moment, a fan asks Charles Leclerc what’s happening with the clothing line he had talked about creating. Leclerc gives a fairly straightforward, PR-answer, claiming that the project was on the backburner for the moment.

Vettel, though, pulls up the Puma logo on Leclerc’s team shirt and says the driver got told off for even proposing a clothing line because they already have one as a sponsor.

“I’m not supposed to say that, but I’m leaving at the end of the year, so I can say what I want,” the four-time World Champion says, laughing. Later, you get the sense that Vettel very specifically chose to announce he was leaving Ferrari for Aston Martin during Ferrari’s 1000th race weekend just to mess with them. And it’s that kind of petty behavior that comes across really well in the series, rounding out Vettel’s personality in ways that previous seasons failed to do.

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It’s a similar situation with Valtteri Bottas. The Mercedes duality is represented really well—definitely dramatized, but it feels like more of an accurate reflection of what the atmosphere is like in the team than the one they present. Mercedes definitely attempts to project a feeling of union in the team, but DTS highlights the serious divisions that crop up when you have a multi-time Championship-winning driver and a dude who mostly just comes in second place on a good day.

And there was a much better distribution of team content than there has been previously. In past seasons, there were gaping omissions. Ferrari and Mercedes opted out of the first season, but all teams took part in season two, and we still got very little on, say, Alfa Romeo. But for this third season, every team got their episode.

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The Bad

One of the most frustrating things about the production of the series is the fact that the producers pick and choose which radio messages to paste over the clips they’re showing. Yes, cherry-picking one message from one race and placing it over an event that happens in another makes more narrative sense, but it’s still really disorienting if you’re a fan of F1. It’d be like someone telling you Kimi Raikkonen’s iconic “leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” moment had happened in 2017. If you watch the series, you know. It makes for a good show, but not necessarily an accurate one—and I think those priorities are honestly what the series is going for.

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There were also some incredibly corny setups, especially when it came to getting the series on track after the COVID-19 hiatus. I’m glad the series didn’t spend a ton of time on the extended off-season, but it all ends with a phone call from F1 CEO Chase Carey to Zak Brown of McLaren where the latter says, “Europe, Middle East? Global? Sounds like everything’s under control.” And that’s that. That’s how the F1 season is shown to get back under way.

That kind of one-sided phone call is a common trope of the series, though. That, paired with the ultra-dramatic punditry from Will Buxton and new addition Jennie Gow can feel a little over-the-top for an F1 fan. But coming at it from a perspective of a new fan, those kinds of obvious links need to be made to keep things flowing.

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And there’s one other thing missing: Max Verstappen. The RBR driver has criticized his the veracity of the series in the past, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t be a feature. It sucks, because Verstappen is like this unspoken presence around which everything in Red Bull circles, and you miss out on that important team dynamic that tends to prize Verstappen over everyone else and thus makes Red Bull the cutthroat atmosphere it is.

There was also almost no discussion of the drivers that contracted COVID-19 during the season, nor was there a significant discussion of George Russell’s triumphant—and heartbreaking—moment where he replaced Lewis Hamilton for a weekend, on track to score his first race win and then losing out as a result of Mercedes’ monumental fuckup. Russell’s replacement was briefly noted, but the focus of the episode was Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean, so there were a few little mentions and nothing more. You unfortunately won’t see Russell’s take on the situation.

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There was very little about Williams at all, with the exception of a few appearances by Claire Williams that disappear with no context before the halfway point of the series, likely a result of the team being sold to Dorilton Capital. But no one even talks about that.

The Ugly

As the 2020 season kicked, off, there were two major talking points: COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. F1 responded to the latter with t-shirts reading #EndRacism and pre-race displays that involved some drivers choosing to kneel in solidarity with the BIPOC community. The series introduced the We Race As One campaign, and Hamilton was penalized for wearing a Breonna Taylor t-shirt.

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And Drive to Survive almost wholly ignores that.

Hamilton gets a few minutes at the end of the series to speak up about racism, but it feels like a trite wrap-up compared to the drama that took place throughout the year. And it even seems like Netflix went out of its way to avoid including any of the race concerns. Most all shots of pre-race ceremonies avoid showing the drivers, and one of the few drivers shown during the series wearing his #EndRacism shirt is Alex Albon. Romain Grosjean is shown in one later—but if I can remember those moments off the top of my head after watching the series, that means there aren’t many.

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DTS generally condenses storylines into a single episode, so I wasn’t expecting the question of race to take up a massive portion of the series. But it seemed a little tone deaf to almost intentionally exclude something that featured as an integral part of the series until the very end.

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And my main other concern was Christian Horner. Early on, Toto Wolff notes that Horner “likes to have these little war games between us,” which kind of sets the tone for Horner’s behavior in the rest of the series—and in all the previous seasons. The Red Bull Racing boss seems to delight in playing the villain, and it would be comical how much of an ass he tends to be if drivers’ careers weren’t at stake.

While most team bosses offer commentary on their own teams’ episodes, Horner tends to dip a toe into everyone’s stories, and the Netflix producers seem to enjoy his commentary. You can almost find him charming until you reach the sixth episode about the RBR junior program and can watch any driver who isn’t Max Verstappen fall by the wayside. Albon doesn’t get a ton of speaking time, but he just looks genuinely crushed, and Horner essentially says Albon needs to get his shit together.

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“The situation is very clear,” Horner says. “We need to see Alex really grab that seat and make it his own. The problem is, if he doesn’t, then, you know, we need to look outside.” But you get the sense that Horner has already made his decision, ostracizing Albon before offering the driver a hand in adjusting to the team.

Gasly, on the other hand, sums up his feelings quite concisely. He reads the news that Horner has no plans to promote him to Red Bull in 2021 in the car, then says, “How they treat this is a joke.” Little war games, indeed. It only continues to draw attention to the demoralizing disaster that is Red Bull’s young driver program.

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I’m also going to include Romain Grosjean’s crash in this section, in large part because I’m unsure how I feel about it. On one hand, I feel like it was respectfully done: you can’t avoid the crash, and F1 did show a lot of the driver and team reactions that showed a wide concern for Grosjean after the accident. But it was also used as dramatic leverage at the start of the ninth episode, a way to shock and maintain interest before positing Grosjean in a really depressing and sympathetic way due to his exit from the Haas F1 team. But at the same time, that’s the same kind of dramatic leverage DTS uses with everything, not just with accidents.

I don’t know if it was the DTS crew specifically, or if it was just a camera placed there that DTS used, but just after Grosjean’s crash, this camera pans to follow the cars that pass by, then turns to capture Grosjean’s broken car almost directly across the track. You can actually see Grosjean moving in the flaming cockpit and, later, pulling himself out. There are views of the crash that have never been seen before here, so if you’re squeamish—maybe skip ahead. But I will say that it’s just incredible to see this footage of what Grosjean went through. It gives you a deeper appreciation for how horrifying that crash was. (And some of you will be more annoyed at various drivers and team members referring to the outcome of the crash as a “miracle” or an “act of God.”)

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Basically: I’m torn on the Bahrain crash representation. But I did like the inclusion of Grosjean’s family to discuss this very difficult and very real aspect of racing. I liked the inclusion of the F1 medical director, who let us know that it was Grosjean’s decision to walk to the ambulance to let his wife and family know he was okay. I liked Grosjean’s lengthy take on his own experience of what it was like to find himself in a ball of flame. But it’s still a very shocking episode.

The Final Verdict

Drive to Survive’s season three is a damn good one. It has its flaws, but it’s really coming into its own, and it hints that the series can keep evolving from its very successful base in the future. And it’s all the better now that Netflix has established a rhythm and doesn’t need to reintroduce all the drivers and teams at this point. There are holes that belie the fact that its producers have openly said they aren’t racing fans—but there are certain compromises that have to be made for the narrative.

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Again, I don’t think anything included in the series is going to come as a massive surprise to F1 fans who tuned in for the races last season. But I still think it’s a great way to recap the previous season just before the new one starts; that point where pre-season testing has taken place and DTS has just been released is a sweet spot, where you can let yourself get a little hyped up anticipating what’s coming next.

And it continues to be a great way to draw in new fans. I know there’s a fair bit of gatekeeping that goes on in the F1 world, with longtime fans giving the newer fans shit for having found the sport through a Netflix show. But that’s exactly the purpose of the series, and it does an incredible job turning the natural drama of a racing season into a narrative that can encourage a fan to tune into the real thing. And I hope it keeps on finding a way to make racing exciting to the non-fan and to get more folks interested.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

somberlaine
somberlaine

I am enjoying this season (two episodes short of finishing) there seems to be a lot of drama as a high number of teams announced driver changes very early on in the season.