Formula One is Having a Moment

‘Drive to Survive’ has created a mania for F1 in the U.S.A.

Do you remember the Sex and the City episode when Carrie meets a prototypically charming Englishman at a bar, and he gifts her a DVD entitled “Jox & Cocks 4”?

“Now would I be able to enjoy this if I missed Jox & Cocks 1, 2, and 3?” she asks.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

That’s what I wondered when I watched Season 3 of the Netflix franchise Formula 1: Drive to Survive. Did you know there had already been two seasons? Me neither. But if you’re wondering why everyone from your dad to your doctor is suddenly Formula 1-obsessed, it’s likely you missed Season three, when the show hit pay dirt, converting legions of laypeople into Formula 1 fans, even here in America.

This makes sense, because you don’t need to know anything about racing in order to binge-watch this 10-episode spectacle. All you really require is the universal appreciation for attractive men with charming accents and penchants for laconic malaprops. (That said, if you’re routinely offended by the F word–that’s “fuck,” not “Formula”–this might not be the show for you.) In fact, the racers have gained such a stateside following that the multi-billion dollar organization plans to add a Grand Prix in Miami in May, making the U.S. the only country to host two races in one season.

Formula One is “having a moment,” says Magnus Greaves, a Canadian who launched RACEWKND, a glossy mag for F1 fans, last year. The sport, which currently features no American drivers, is “about to explode” here, starting with the Austin Grand Prix on October 24.

Original fans may bristle at the legions of younger, shinier, Netflix subscribers expected to turn up at the races, but change is inevitable. Referring to a fashionable set of Park City, Utah-based college-age sisters we know, Greaves said, “those two will absolutely be in Miami, whether they have tickets or not.”

Of course, longtime fans know that Formula 1, with its strict regulations and need for speed, has been manufacturing its own drama since its inaugural 1950 season. But fast forward 70 years, take 20 drivers from 10 teams competing in 17 races, and you’ve got the recipe for a ready-made Netflix show with near universal appeal.

“Formula 1 racing is very much like war planning,” says Toto Wolff, CEO of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team, the benchmark to which all other teams aspire.

Racing against the pandemic

Unfortunately, against the backdrop of this manufactured drama is a real one: the COVID-19 pandemic. Episode 1 catches cheeky Australian Daniel Ricciardo, then a driver for Renault, on his phone in the back of a car heading for the Barcelona circuit for pre-season testing. “Mom, it’s cool,” he says. “Apparently if you drink Corona, it builds your immune.”

The show, which follows Formula One’s 2020 pandemic season, has the racers wearing masks, as well as racing suits, helmets and full-face visors, which, needless to say, leaves a lot to the imagination.

Alas, for a few episodes, it’s all Zoom conferences and elbow bumps. Hence, allow me to save approximately four hours of your time and advise you to skip ahead to episode seven or eight for the vicious rivalries, near-fatal fires, surprise upsets, and finally, champagne showers.

“It’s just this wild desire to drive the cars to the limit, and nothing’s going to change that,” Wolff says.

Everyone’s come to win.

The show follows the trials of Lawrence Stroll, billionaire team owner of the Racing Point F1 team. ‘I’ve always won in the businesses I was running,” he says in a Real Housewives-worthy voiceover. “I plan on winning here.” His son Lance, who has been go-karting since he was 6, is one of the team’s two drivers. But how far can a billion dollars and a go-kart get you?

Then there’s the acutely charming paddock bromance between McLaren drivers Lando Norris, a Brit, and Spaniard Carlos Sainz. However, Sainz has signed a contract to join Ferrari for the 2021 season, which means the pair must suffer an entire season knowing they’ll part ways. It was “a real bromance that’s very rare in Formula 1,” says Will Buxton, Formula One commentator, but “yeah, the gloves are off between those two.” From wayward tires to inexplicable mechanical failures, poor Sainz can’t seem to catch a break. “It’s a game where you want to make the most of other people’s misfortunes,” says Norris, “but also realize that at any point, things could happen to you.”

Episode 9 sees a brush with death in the Bahrain Grand Prix when Romain Grosjean, a driver for the Haas F1 team, plows into a barrier at approximately 137 mph. A silence descends over the paddock, as the car splits into two pieces and rejoins as one fireball.

In an odd miracle, Grosjean climbs out just as the machine explodes. Then he insists on walking to the ambulance to demonstrate that he was OK. Completely conscious, with only minor burns to his hands and feet, Grosjean is soon forgotten and the race restarts, the drivers lowering themselves into their cockpits as though nothing has happened.

“You have to compartmentalize it somehow,” Hamilton says.” You just make a decision, ‘I’m going to continue’ and you keep going.”

Later, Grosjean recounts his unerringly logical inner monologue: “Uh, why is it orange? It’s not sunset. Is it the light from the circuit? No. Oh, it’s fire.”

By the end of the episode, 34-year-old Grosjean decides to retire–“When you have a second chance at life, you just take it. I didn’t win a race, I didn’t win the championship, but I will forever have a legacy in Formula 1. I’m the man that walked out of fire.”–and Hamilton contracts COVID.

By episode 10, Lewis has recovered and is ready for the final race of the season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Nine teams are hoping for him to fail.

“If you’re going to take on a team like Mercedes, you’ve got to be firing on all cylinders,” says Christian Horner, principal of the Red Bull Racing team. I don’t want to give away the ending or anything, but Red Bull’s long-suffering Max Verstappen finally catches a break and wins.

Horner, who is married to Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice herself), is only too happy to knock Mercedes down a peg. “It’s achievable,” he says in a contented voiceover. “We’ve just got to do it over 23 races rather than over one race.”

Like Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder, Could there be another Netflix hit season on the horizon? And, as of today, there is.




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Jaclyn Trop

Jaclyn Trop is an award-winning journalist and automotive reporter, deciphering the world of sheet metal for the masses. She divides her time among Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York.She was awarded a Knight-Bagehot fellowship in business and economics reporting from Columbia University, where she also earned a master’s degree in journalism.

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