‘Drive to Survive’ made Americans fall in love with Formula 1

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What he has is team principal Günther Steiner, whom “Drive to Survive” has turned into one of Formula 1’s most popular personalities. An Italian from the German-speaking region of South Tyrol, Steiner worked in racing for three decades, including briefly as technical director of Red Bull. During all this time, almost no one outside of the sport was aware of its existence. “I had been following Formula 1 for years and had attended races as a spectator,” Rogers says. “And I had no idea who he was.” When I first met Steiner in 2017 at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, we walked together undisturbed in the paddock, the pedestrian route used to access the garages and temporary offices made available to the teams for the week. In Miami, he was recognized at all times. Box to Box had discovered Steiner’s propensity for candor with a German accent and salty language and used him as a recurring character. It made him a cult figure after the first season, and eventually a star. He insists he has never watched the show. “For the simple reason that you look at yourself, and maybe behave differently,” he says. “And I don’t want to behave differently.”

It’s probably best not to see the second episode of season 2, titled “Boiling Point”. In it, William Storey, an energy drink entrepreneur with a beard flowing down to his chest, is shown on a helicopter ride. He explains that he has invested £35m in Haas. “They’re a bit rock ‘n’ roll,” he says, “and they’re Davids taking on the Goliaths of motorsport.” The rest of the episode chronicles the series of disasters the team suffers at the start of the season. There’s a spin in a wall in Canada, a collision involving his two cars in England, engines that mysteriously fail. “It’s the worst experience I’ve ever had in a race car,” Kevin Magnussen, one of two Haas drivers at the time, said on two-way radio at one point. Cameras capture Steiner describing his two pilots as “[expletive] idiots” and Steiner’s teenage daughter asking him on a family walk if he likes his job. Soon, Storey withdraws his investment, leaving the team in financial turmoil. At the end, Steiner seems on the verge of tears. If Haas ends up failing, he says, “I would have no idea what to do next.” It was something moving. No one watching only the races would have known all this was happening.

As Steiner grew wildly popular while his Haas team remained virtually irrelevant, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner took notice. From the start, Horner has been one of the show’s most compelling characters, a charming but Machiavellian aristocrat shown feuding with Wolff, his counterpart at Mercedes, as their two teams battled for the championship last season, but also skillfully riding a galloping horse on his country estate with his wife, Geri Halliwell, the Spice Girl. According to Bratches, Horner called Netflix at the start of the series to say that if they sent a team to Red Bull’s headquarters in the south of England, it was worth it. “These guys are ridiculously competitive, and not just with cars,” Bratches says. “We took advantage of that.”

Just as Steiner’s character might not have emerged had Ferrari and Mercedes been involved in Season 1, and Horner might not have opened Red Bull’s doors so widely had Steiner not attracted the Mind you, “Drive to Survive” wouldn’t have had the widespread access it does now if not for the pandemic. Season 2 was released on February 28, 2020, just as the world was closing down. Fans had all day and night to watch sports, but no live events. Audience metrics for “Drive to Survive” have taken off, reports Riegg. “All of a sudden it was like this hockey stick,” he says.

In July, Formula 1 resumed competition by building a virus-free bubble that included only essential racing team members. Somehow, Netflix managed to make the case that “Drive to Survive” deserved access. Its crews were given regulatory team uniforms to make it clear to local officials that they were part of the bubble. Indeed, they integrate with drivers and engineers. “The material we got as a result was amazing,” says Rogers. “The access you get when you’re part of the team gives you those moments with a real sense of intimacy.” More than two years later, the presence of Box to Box film crews disguised as team employees has become part of the sport’s landscape.

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