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Netflix’s ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive’ is a perfect introduction to the best soap opera in sports

The second season of the acclaimed Neflix show sets the stage for F1 racing’s future.

Charles Leclerc in his Ferrari track suit and cap before a race.

The second season of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive dropped on Feb. 28, and it’s just as good as the extremely well-received first season. Like any good Millennial, I watched the entire series in a couple of days, even though the new Formula 1 season doesn’t start until March 15. The ten half-hour episodes are extremely bingeable.

Eight teams get significant air time over the show’s 10 episodes. The big teams sat out last year’s show, but after seeing how successful it was, they decided they wanted in on the action. Ferrari and Mercedes feature, but just like Season 1, the really good stuff comes from struggling teams like Williams and Haas.

Notably absent from the show are Racing Point and Alfa Romeo, who almost exactly met expectations last season, and return the same drivers for 2020. The producers opted not to force any drama for those teams. Fans of teenage shitposter/Twitch streamer/McLaren driver Lando Norris will also be disappointed to see that he’s barely mentioned.

What’s missing is much less important than what’s in the show, however. Drive to Survive is still amazing, and a perfect introduction to the best soap opera in sports. Minor spoilers below.

Is it a reality show? Is it a documentary? I don’t know, it’s just really good

I’m not really sure how you would classify Drive to Survive. It’s definitely more documentary than reality television, though the interviews feel very reality TV-influenced.

No matter what you call it, the show is made by the level of access that the producers are granted. Because the teams are promised that the show won’t air until the season ends and the driver lineup for the following season is set, they’re free to be themselves. It doesn’t feel like any of the teams’ drivers or principals are guarded in any way. The result is a show that does a brilliant job promoting what makes F1: Off-the-track drama.

Formula 1 is basically WWE for rich Europeans. The races are hit or miss, but the politics and promos are the really engrossing stuff. If you watch an F1 race without any knowledge of its inner workings, it might not seem that interesting. But when you understand the behind-the-scenes ramifications of a result, a pass for 10th place can feel as important as a pass for first.

The show’s format lets viewers into this world by focusing on the narrative arcs of individual characters and teams, rather than telling a chronological story. And though the show jumps around the calendar, it isn’t misleading or confusing. I imagine this was a difficult choice for the producers, but they got it right.

Most importantly for the show’s purposes, F1 is also involved in the production, so it also works as an advertisement. Viewers are left with an understanding of multiple storylines and who to root for in 2020. I think it would be hard to come away from the show without wanting to follow a team or driver in the upcoming season.

It’s so painful when you know what’s coming

If you did not follow the 2019 F1 season, you will have a different experience watching this show than I did. But if you did follow along last season, you’ll find yourself saying “oh noooo” at the screen several times just before the big reveals.

The results of storylines involving drivers like Pierre Gasly and Niko Hulkeberg, and teams like Haas and Williams, are foreshadowed well in advance. The portions covering the deaths of Niki Lauda and Anthoine Hubert are probably more serious tearjerkers when you see them coming.

If you didn’t follow F1 last year and watch the show, let me know if the foreshadowing was obvious to you. I’m very curious.

Guenther Steiner is once again the best character

The breakout star of the first season of Drive to Survive was Haas team principal Guenther Steiner, a hilarious character who curses at his drivers and staff in ways that American football coaches would envy. English is not his first language, but he’s an artist with the f-word.

Steiner’s home life is presented in stark contrast to the way he acts on the track. He’s very calm and kind with his wife and daughter, and is presented as a loving husband and father.

But then he has to go to work and deal with the mistake-riddled work of his engineers and drivers.

“This is not a fucking kindergarten here,” Steiner says to his staff at one point. Following a collision between Haas drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, Steiner delivers the best line of the series.

“Gene spends 100 fucking million dollars a year of his own fucking money,” Steiner says to his drivers, referring to team owner Gene Haas, “and wants to pull the plug and let everybody down because of two fucking idiots.”

Haas never really got better after that, but Steiner still has his job, as do Grosjean and Magnussen. Their owner has not pulled the plug, though he was unable to recruit a title sponsor to replace the ill-fated Rich Energy.

I have no idea how Haas will do in 2020, but I do know that Steiner will likely be the best character in Season 3 of the show, too.

I empathize so much with Claire Williams

Williams Formula One has won seven drivers’ world championships and nine constructors’ championships under the leadership of legendary founder Frank Williams. But their last honors came in 1997, and Frank’s daughter Claire has been tasked with turning the team around. Thus far, she has failed — Williams was by far the worst team on the grid in 2019 — and it’s impossible to tell if it’s because she can’t hack it, or because of circumstances beyond her control.

In the trailer for Season 1, Claire Williams said something that has stuck with me ever since I heard it: “Every day I break out in a cold sweat thinking, ‘do I have the skillset to do this?’”

This is something that I think a lot of women have felt at work. Plenty of men too, but this is disproportionately a female experience.

In Williams’ case specifically, she has reached the highest position of any woman in F1, an organization that has historically been outrageously chauvinistic. Her detractors will argue that she only has her job because of her father, and her supporters will argue that the most qualified and experienced team principal in the world couldn’t turn around Williams on F1’s lowest budget.

The show follows the Williams team as it fails to finish its car in time for preseason testing. Claire’s rage at director of engineering Paddy Lowe can be felt through the screen, even if she never raises her voice.

I’m not sure if she holds back because that’s not her personality, or because she feels like it would be deemed unacceptable for a woman to do so. When Steiner blows up and calls his subordinates “fucking idiots,” we all have a good laugh. I feel like the reaction would be a bit different if Claire Williams did the same.

“I don’t want to disgrace the Williams name,” Claire says in an interview. “I don’t want Williams to fall apart under my watch.” I wonder how often she feels powerless to prevent that from happening, even though she’s ostensibly in charge?

Leclerc vs. Vettel is the story in F1

In 2020, all eyes are going to be on Ferrari.

Last season, youngster Charles Leclerc signed on to represent F1’s most iconic brand. He knew he’d be a clear No. 2 driver behind four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. But as the season wore on, the pecking order got a lot less clear. As it turns out, Leclerc might be the better driver.

Vettel’s last world championship was in 2013, with Red Bull. He left for Ferrari when he felt like his old team was falling miles behind Mercedes, but he hasn’t been able to recapture his championship form in the famous red car. Following a couple of second-place finishes and preseason hype that he could challenge Lewis Hamilton, Vettel disappointed in 2019, finishing fifth.

Leclerc, meanwhile, exceeded expectations in his first year with Ferrari. Despite Vettel being given preferential strategy in multiple races — a huge point of contention that’s explored on the show — Leclerc outperformed his teammate. His win in Ferrari’s home race at the Italian Grand Prix was arguably the feel-good moment of the year, and he out-qualified Vettel on a regular basis. His fourth-place finish in the drivers’ championship, ahead of Vettel, suggests he should not have to defer to the veteran anymore.

But F1 is not just about who is better at driving. It is a competition that is equal parts skill, engineering and politics. And though Leclerc may be a better driver than Vettel, he’s no politician. Whenever he complains about fairness on the show, Vettel finds a way to take advantage of Leclerc’s naiveté.

However, that’s the only thing Vettel did better than Leclerc in 2019. If all things are equal, Ferrari is going to start siding with the younger driver sooner rather than later.

Drive to Survive sets up 2020 perfectly as the end of an era

This upcoming season is the last with unlimited spending, and most of the drivers will be out of a contract at the end of the campaign. There will be new car requirements for 2021 as well. For this reason, a lot of teams are treading water this season, putting their money into new facilities and preparing for when they are finally able to compete with Mercedes, the runaway leaders, in 2021.

It feels likely that this season will be a ceremonial victory lap for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes before things get tough in 2021. If the two championships are the only things that interest you, I regret to inform you that this F1 campaign is unlikely to be compelling. But in terms of long-term storylines and interpersonal drama, this is going to be one of the wildest seasons in the sport’s history.

Everyone is fighting for their livelihoods. No one’s job is secure. A great midfield performance could position a driver for world championship contention next season. George Russell will struggle to score a single point for Williams, but he’s still trying to prove he’s ready to follow in Hamilton’s footsteps at Mercedes.

The drivers’ and constructors’ championships might not be up for grabs in 2020, but the future of the sport is.