Daniel Ricciardo the star of the Netflix-isation of the sport | Formula One
In modern sport, content is king. Whatever the discipline, the actual sporting action is more and more sidelined. Instead, it’s the drama, the narrative, the bite-sized highlights, player transfers – what was once surrounding noise has become the main event. Social media and money have created an ecosystem where likes and clicks are more important than results.
Football has been at the forefront of this trend. In a recent column, one insightful observer pointed out “the strange existence of the digital football fan who doesn’t care about football.” Retweeting the play, a British journalist critical the “real football phenomenon being just an audition for the real transfer business”. In recent weeks, Manchester United’s social media accounts have been a good example: content about Cristiano Ronaldo’s comeback has flooded the club’s accounts, with such frequency that actual games have been eclipsed.
But football is not the only sport to take this path. America’s sports leaders in the NFL, NBA and MLB are wondering how to attract and retain the next generation of supporters, with recent research showing that young fans prefer to watch highlights rather than full games. The author of the study described the âTikTok-ificationâ of the sport, the fans âwho want smaller tracks, shorter segments, strong beatsâ. An insightful case study of the possibilities and pitfalls of elite sport in the age of content can be found in F1.
When Drive to survive, a 10-part docusery chronicling the mixed fortunes of several teams in the previous F1 season, released on Netflix in 2019 and received relatively acclaim. At least it was successful enough to persuade the successful Ferrari and Mercedes teams to join in season two, after initially denying access to Netflix. But with seasons two and three scrapped early and mid-pandemic, the series went viral – joining the likes of King tiger and The Queen’s Gambit like lock binge favorites.
Drive to survive is exhilarating – a mix of personal stories, inter and intra-team feuds, and 300 km / h races. Australian Daniel Ricciardo has a starring role, with his Aussie humor and broad smile winning the affection of viewers as he takes on teammate Max Verstappen at Red Bull in season one, before jumping ship for Renault. .
The most recent season is particularly captivating, illustrating the impact of the pandemic on motorsport (with the debacle of the Australian Grand Prix canceled last March). The penultimate episode, “Man on Fire”, relives with emotion the fatal accident of Romain Grosjean during the Bahrain Grand Prix last November. The scene where Grosjean pulls himself out of a blazing inferno and climbs a racing wall is remarkable and agonizing television.
But the lack of content like Drive to survive, carried out in partnership with F1, is the absence of a critical objective. This is not a new concern – in Australia the rise of news gathering units within the AFL and NRL has led to accusations of bias – but it is particularly acute in the context of the F1. The sport faces two major threats to its viability, but neither gets even a single mention across Drive to surviveis three series.
The first and perhaps the most existential challenge is climate change. In 2018, F1 estimated its annual carbon dioxide emissions at around a quarter of a million tonnes, equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of nearly 200,000 households. Actual racing only produces a fraction of this, with F1 cars using hybrid engines. Instead, it’s the sport’s globetrotter – and the heavy freight that comes with it – that leaves such a heavy carbon footprint. While F1 says it will be net zero by 2030, that aspiration remains a pipe dream – and strangely absent from glossy docuseries.
The second frequent criticism of modern F1 is its complicity in sportswashing. The 2021 season takes drivers from Bahrain on opening day to Saudi Arabia in the penultimate race later this year, with pit stops in Azerbaijan and Russia. All are classified “not free” by Freedom House in its world ranking. Azerbaijan was accused last year of committing war crimes in a conflict with neighboring Armenia; the Saudi regime dismembered critic Jamal Khashoggi with a bone saw at his Turkish consulate in 2018.
All four nations have spent a lot of money on the sport to boost their global reputation – and F1 is more than happy to take the money. At one point on the show, Ricciardo is interviewed about his love of the downtown class in Baku, Azerbaijan. He forgets to mention his human rights record.
Despite the rose-tinted cover in what is actually an infomercial for F1, Drive to survive was an unqualified success. Netflix is âânotoriously suspicious of viewership numbers, but the show was a commercial success – as of March of this year, it was the seventh most-viewed show on the platform. Netflix even hinted recently that it might consider acquiring the rights to broadcast the race itself. The PGA Golf Tour, meanwhile, is hoping for its own version. If avoiding sensitive topics and not asking tough questions is the price to pay for unprecedented access to the fly, it seems viewers and Netflix are seeing this as a bargain.
While some die-hard F1 followers criticized the show for distorting incidents and using false racing noises, it captivated a wider audience. More importantly, from an F1 perspective, it has converted viewers into fans, especially in non-traditional markets. In the United States, audience figures for races are up 50%. A Vox the columnist recently said the show changed her life and made her an F1 addict.
It worked on me too. Despite being well aware of the ugly underbelly of sport, Drive to survive propelled me into the fandom. When I woke up to the news earlier this month that Ricciardo had won his first race in three years, I was ecstatic. Dissecting the race and reading the concurrent analysis of the latest incident between F1 heavyweights Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, I was already waiting for Netflix’s recount in the upcoming fourth season.
This weekend, for the first time, I will be watching a live broadcast of a Grand Prix – in Sochi, Russia. I won’t be the only one to switch from Netflix starter to F1 main course. This is, I guess, the hope for the sport in 2021: this content, highlights, clicks and likes is not a substitute for reality, but a gateway.