The Years-Long Marketing Push That Finally Led To Formula One: Drive To Survive

DTS was only part of a carefully curated experience designed to draw in new fans that worked better than anticipated
Photo: MAZEN MAHDI/AFP (Getty Images)
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When Liberty Media purchased Formula One, the sport was in a decline. Fan engagement had long taken a backseat to the money-making urges of former leadership under Bernie Ecclestone — and if Liberty’s investment was going to pay off, it needed to quickly attract fans. Enter the years-long marketing push that finally led to the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive.

I recently had a chance to look at some documents from WARC, a marketing company that commissioned several reports on F1 after the Liberty Media buyout and the subsequent changes made to the sport. When read together, each paints a fascinating picture of the strategic marketing plans that have seen F1 ascend to a renewed global interest.

In these documents lie proof that Liberty Media knew something was missing from F1 of the early 2010s, with the company hiring agencies to advise them on media, social media, and fan interaction strategy.

“F1 is full of stories and a database crying out for content,” claimed one article, “Formula 1: A Season of Stories at Speed.” “The relentless technical innovation, the drivers, the teams, back-room politics and the unique character of each circuit were fertile ground. The goal was to hook the audience into multiple narratives, treating each race as the latest episode in a great, unfolding drama.”

There was just one problem: Fans didn’t realize that.

Another article, “Formula 1: Unleashing the Greatest Racing Spectacle” noted that fans time and again claimed that “speed” was the thing that drew them to F1, but that real-world evidence consistently proved that as untrue. After all, this modern era of F1 machinery is one of immense, record-breaking speed. But it turned out that what fans actually wanted was competition.

Competition is inherently different than speed in that competition brings in a decidedly human element to racing. Speed is cold and clinical, a thing that can be achieved solo. Competition, on the other hand, pits drivers and teams against one another on every level and involves a significant emphasis on the key players in the sport. After all, it’s rivalries that bring out passions, raise talking points, and create the storylines so integral to fan engagement.

The big issue with F1 in the mid- to late-2010s was that it was an era of Mercedes domination, not cross-team competition. As a result, the on-track action couldn’t simply speak for itself. It needed a helping hand on the marketing end of things.

That’s what these WARC reports focus on. As early as 2017, Liberty Media began multiple different pushes to rewrite the popular narratives surrounding F1. Longtime fans might remember the “Engineered Insanity” marketing campaign, which was designed to not just create a massive amount of hype — both local and international — around each race but to also engage fans with carefully curated storytelling and activations with other brands. Remember the NBA crossover with F1 during the 2021 United States Grand Prix? That was part of that cross-brand activation.

Making sure local audiences knew there was an F1 race in town, even if they didn’t know what F1 was, was a relatively easy feat. Re-engaging longtime fans and interesting new fans in the drama of F1, though, was a little more difficult. Liberty media saw success in social media and email campaigns, “Formula 1: A Season of Stories at Speed” reported, but it wasn’t exactly reaching out to new audiences. After all, you had to already have an interest in F1 to see the series’ tweets or emails.

Enter Netflix.

As Sam Peña-Taylor wrote in “How Formula 1 finds new audiences through Netflix,” Netflix guaranteed international distribution to all kinds of different people. Yes, longtime F1 fans would watch the show, but it would also populate into the algorithms of people who may not watch F1 but are interested in other sports, reality TV, or documentaries. And, with widespread release-day success, it would also be likely to pop up on the application’s list of trending shows.

The article in question was published in September 2019, which meant that Drive to Survive was still relatively new. Netflix is cagey with stats and details, but it did note that the series was within the top 10 percent of the binge metric, which means that people who watched the show tended to watch the whole thing very quickly.

The strategy paid off on F1's side, though. COVID-19 lockdowns saw a spike in Netflix usage that meant more people had more time on their hands to watch something like Drive to Survive.

When they did, though, F1's efforts to develop a more comprehensive experience for fans paid off. F1 fans in America had easy access to live race coverage via ESPN or F1TV, and F1's social media presence was accommodating to anyone looking to get the latest news or race data. F1 reengineered the experience of watching a race to draw in viewers as part of the action, not a consumer of a product.

Perhaps most importantly for the series, though, fans of the sport became more valuable because they had become more engaged and, as a result, more loyal.

“Formula 1: Putting fans at the heart of Formula 1,” published at the end of 2020, gives the data: After F1 kicked off its marketing push in 2017, the sport saw a 209 percent increase in sales against the control group of fans who had been watching the sport prior to that social media push. Those fans were worth 6 million pounds more than the control group as well — or about $7.5 million in America — because those fans were more likely to spend more time engaging with and purchasing F1 content. That meant that F1 and Liberty Media not only met its goals but surpassed them and proceeded to double them.

What’s especially fascinating is that this data didn’t even take into the 2021 season, which also saw record growth, especially in coveted markets like America.

Liberty Media’s goal — to create more storyline-heavy content to draw in fans — would have naturally led to a show like Drive to Survive, but the ongoing success of both the docuseries and of F1 came as a result of Liberty Media’s comprehensive efforts to create engaging storytelling everywhere, from social media to in-person advertisements.

Without DTS, it’s hard to imagine that F1 would have reached the level of popularity it’s currently seeing. But without all the other effort F1 invested in the rest of its advertising, it’s unlikely that DTS would have been such a smash hit — and that is a large reason why other attempts to recreate a DTS-type show in order to see a massive spike in fanbase growth has failed for other race series like Formula E. The secret was never just Drive to Survive; rather, Drive to Survive was the apex of a solidly built pyramid ready to welcome any fans that found it.