I wanted to love the second season of Drive to Survive, the Netflix docuseries tracking Formula One’s 2019 season. I really wanted to—especially after rewatching it in a desperate bid to relive some on-track action during the stir crazy purgatory that is self-isolation. I just can’t bring myself to do it. And, with the news that DTS will be coming back for a third season, I can’t help but hope the producers will figure things out next time around.
I don’t want it to sound like I hated the second season, because I didn’t. I just wasn’t blown away. It was mostly fine. It was okay, I guess. It’s been one of the racing related things that eased me through the extended offseason, taking a backseat to esports and binge watching Tiger King and yet another Forensic Files marathon. But it was also a serious regression from the excitement of the series’ first season.
One of the biggest things that bothered me from the first season got even worse the second time around: the kinda-sorta-but-not-really chronological nature of the narrative. The season starts off at the beginning of 2019 and introduces some of the key players. Ferrari and Mercedes, who didn’t take part in the first season, are introduced. Drivers offer vague impressions and good soundbites. Daniel Ricciardo suffers disaster with his new team at his home race, the Australian Grand Prix. To be totally honest, that episode feels more like an extended cut of the trailer than anything else.
It’s the second episode where the pacing gets really strange. Here we introduce the Rich Energy vs. Haas saga that served as such a prominent thread throughout 2019. This was the stuff I was most interested in; hell yeah I want the nitty gritty details, the no-bullshit Guenther Steiner quotes that I was never able to secure during my own time covering the story in real-time.
And we kind of get all that… but only in this episode.
Drive to Survive suffers a chronic condensing problem. Here, the series jumps back to the previous 2018 season and the introduction of Rich Energy as a title sponsor. It jumps all the way out to the Austrian Grand Prix in the midpoint of the season. It ends at Silverstone. And then… that’s it.
That had to be one of the biggest disappointments for me. By cramming all of the Haas story in one season, I felt like I’d conned out of the natural progression of the narrative. I kept waiting for Rich Energy to pop back up during the rest of season two, but it never did. It boiled down all of the complications and strangeness of the saga to its most basic essence—a shoddy sponsor left an F1 team high and dry—and parceled it off neatly into its own episode.
And that’s not the only time Drive to Survive operates this way. The series focuses more on one team or driver at a time than it does on one event at a time, which creates an odd effect. Episode four, for example, focuses on Mercedes’s disastrous German Grand Prix. Episode five centers on the Red Bull Racing story, as told through three race weekends. Episode nine centers on Williams.
I doubt it would matter for someone unfamiliar with the F1 schedule, but it was really strange to make lunch during Austria and then settle down to eat it in Australia. I understand that structuring episodes by team rather than by event makes rhetorical sense. It was just too disorienting for a documentary-style series where the important threads organically grow over the course of a season. I’d rather have been introduced to the whole grid in the first episode and keep checking back up on their evolving stories as the season unfolds, similar to how it’s done in reality.
As a writer, I can understand why that’s not always the best option. If the goal is to attract new fans, it’s a lot easier to introduce those people to just a few drivers and team personnel at a time. It also benefits the series’s production team; it’s a hell of a lot easier to juggle a few drivers in an episode than it is to piece together an interesting episode based on twenty different storylines, all while making sure the episode feels cohesive instead of choppy.
That decision, though, also had the added effect that whole drivers were written out of the series. McLaren driver Lando Norris is arguably one of the most fascinating drivers of this era in the sense that he has a hell of a lot of personality, a lot of talent, and a wider appeal based on the fact that he spends his time outside of race weekends streaming video games on Twitch. He had no air time. None. Not even during the episode that showed his teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr., scoring his first podium.
Kimi Raikkonen had a single incredibly well-timed line at the end of the series, but his give-no-fucks attitude is one of the most unique things on the grid. You have a driver competing in F1, not because he feels compelled to, not because it’s a dream of his, but because he likes it slightly better than he likes doing other things. We hardly saw a wink of Antonio Giovinazzi, Sergio Perez, Daniil Kvyat, or Lance Stroll. Robert Kubica’s return to F1 was touched on, but the Williams story highlighted George Russel. That’s a whopping seven drivers who barely played a role. That’s almost half the grid.
I’ll be honest—it was frustrating. The most incredible part of the first season of DTS was the fact that the big teams didn’t participate, forcing the Netflix team to work with the storylines of drivers you don’t normally hear from. And I do think there was significantly less of that included this time around. As someone with a soft spot for the backmarkers that no one else cares about, it was incredibly sad to see those drivers once again written off.
Because Ferrari and Mercedes didn’t take part in season one, there was a chance that season two could totally have focused on those two teams. As the front-runners and drama-producers of 2019, it would make sense. But they didn’t totally dominate the narrative—in fact, I was kind of stoked by their additions. You really get a sense of how these two teams function and, when comparing them with the competition, you start to appreciate all the things they do right (or wrong). But it seemed to come at the cost of other storylines.
That’s not to say it was all bad. The Belgian Grand Prix episode that served as a tribute to Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert after his fatal accident was beautifully done. The cinematography was yet again entirely on-point. Drive to Survive was still nice to watch from an aesthetic point of view, and it’s a good way to get your F1 fix if you’re totally desperate.
But I’ll be honest: it felt like, this time around, it got too Formula One. It felt like teams had a bigger hand in deciding what got talked about and what didn’t, like they got to watch the series before it came out and chopped out a few lines here and there. It felt more formulaic and a lot less passionate. After season one, I was amped. I couldn’t wait for the F1 season to kick off, couldn’t wait for the next season of DTS. After season two, I just didn’t care. And, I’ll be honest—I barely even paid attention on my first watch-through; getting a head start on a research thesis actually seemed like a much more fascinating prospect.
If you still haven’t seen Drive to Survive and you’re absolutely desperate for racing content, it’ll tide you over for a few hours while you wait for Lando to stream his next race. But if you want to actually watch something good, you’d be better off buying yourself a membership to F1 TV and streaming some of the great documentaries and races that have been put together there (my personal favorite is the Formula 2 documentary Chasing the Dream) or hunting down any number of the great films that are available online. I’d recommend Uppity, A Life of Speed, McLaren, Williams, The 24 Hour War, or Shelby American. Drive to Survive’s second season can’t come anywhere close to comparing with some of the great work that’s been coming out lately. Here’s hoping round three will be better.