Drive to Survive Season 4 review: F1 doc can't match real-life drama

Drive to Survive

Season 4 of Netflix's hugely anticipated Drive to Survive F1 documentary still has all the HD gloss and glamour, but struggles to dramatise an already epic season

VERSTAPPEN Max (ned), Red Bull Racing Honda RB16B, HAMILTON Lewis (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 GP W12 E Performance, action during the Formula 1 stc Saudi Arabian Grand Prix 2021, 21th round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship from December 3 to 5, 2021 on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - Photo DPPI

Could a docu-series ever live up to the hype of one of F1's most exciting seasons in history?


This review doesn’t give too much of the series’ narrative away, but you can also read our fully spoiler-free F1 Drive to Survive Season 4 review.

It might sound odd to say for a world championship which is entering its 73rd year, but 2021 arguably really was the season in which F1 finally broke out.

After grand prix racing spent the last few years getting to grips with its own social media identity, then combined this with a self-commissioned Netflix series in Drive to Survive, the hot water in the world’s most-high stakes sport was starting to bubble and beginning to rise.

Then last year, it all boiled over. Covid-19 meant many stayed in watching Season 3 of the F1 docu-series, resulting in newly converted fans being primed and ready for the same drama happening live before them in 2021 – few were disappointed. Record and sell-out crowds were seen at tracks as restrictions reduced, whilst TV ratings soared as those at home witnessed Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen fighting hammer and tongs all year in one of F1’s greatest ever battles, which couldn’t have ended more controversially or generated more headlines if it tried.

Though the Netflixification of F1 has divided some fans, the reality is that it’s been a smash hit, the fastest-watched series in the streaming platform’s history. Viewers could barely contain themselves waiting for Season 4.

“It’s strangely pleasing that Tsunoda struggles to put on a medium spin wash”

However, 2021 might just be the championship year that was so good in real time, an attempt to portray it any other way feels like a let-down in terms of excitement and interest. DtS’s new season might just fall foul of this.

Firstly though, let’s start off with the new series’ merits. It is still incredibly watchable. The highest echelon of grand prix racing portrayed in a series of cinematic slow-motion shots, complete with sci-fi type sound effects in glamorous locations around the world – no wonder it’s left other sports docs in its dust.

Meaningful metaphors still fly left, right and centre as a representation of various F1 protagonist’s struggles. Guenther Steiner climbs a mountain, Lando Norris hits a few stray shots on the fairway and Yuki Tsunoda, err, tries to get his washing machine in gear.

Yuki Tsunoda, Scuderia AlphaTauri, portrait during the Formula 1 Winter Tests at Circuit de Barcelona - Catalunya on February 24, 2022 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Tsunoda: serious set-up issues in the laundry department

Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s strangely pleasing and satisfying that in the cut and thrust, do or die world of F1, the young Japanese driver struggles to put on a medium spin at his disastrously untidy flat in “the most boring place in the world” AKA Milton Keynes – his words, not ours. And that this is used to signify his difficulties in driving one of the fastest cars on the planet.

“In the particular I find the universal,” said a well-known author. In this case the “particular” is Yuki’s dirty washing basket.

We all knew the Japanese pocket rocket was a character anyway, but the AlphaTauri youngster appears the only driver in history not that interested in being in F1 – and you love him for it.

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“When I have workouts, it just ruins my whole day,” he moans. Finally, an F1 driver we can relate to! No ‘I’m so focused on reaching my ultimate goal etc, etc’ here.

Juvenile as it might seem, the look on team boss Franz Tost and co’s faces when Yuki pulls stunts like describing the precise nature of his toilet trips is priceless when occurring in the corporate, straight-faced world of F1.

Reliable Netflix fodder Guenther Steiner and his Haas team deliver once more, but this time the spotlight is on the team’s controversial driver Nikita Mazepin.

We won’t give too much away, but friction between driver and team come to such a head earlier on that Steiner is left to exclaim “F*****g hell! That’s why people hate you!” on the pit wall.

Disappointingly, not addressed is Mazepin’s alleged sexual harassment incident which the Russian driver filmed live himself on Instagram at the end of 2020. Rather similar to Hamilton’s Black Lives Matter stance being largely swept under the carpet in the previous season, but even more so.

Also fascinating is the clear lack of love between Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo early on at McLaren. One does impressions of the other in private, whilst their team-mate makes barbed comments dripping with sarcasm towards their counterpart in media briefings.

However, the interest seems to run dry elsewhere.

More access is given to Mercedes and Ferrari, particularly the former, but it appears this may have diluted the drama, not boosted it.

Haas' Russian driver Nikita Mazepin arrives at the track ahead of the practice session of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit in the Emirati city of Abu Dhabi on December 9, 2021. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP) (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Mazepin: not fast, nor making fast friends


The ’21 title fight is covered – minus Verstappen, who said he was tired of the series’ “fake storylines” – but all it seems to amount to is treading over ground we’ve already seen, plus a few more swear words.

When Netflix was focused on just one episode per series for Merc and Ferrari, it honed in on a particular aspect of their respective seasons, whereas now the drama feels spread a bit thin.

For the Silver Arrows, Series 2’s yield was the disastrous 2019 German GP which left Wolff almost crying into his Mercedes 125th year anniversary commemorative flat cap, and 2020 saw Valtteri Bottas admitting just how hard it was accepting he’d met his match and then some in Hamilton – that he might as well just give up and go home.

In terms of increased insight, finding out what Toto Wolff and Christian Horner have for breakfast before a race is only going to pique your intrigue for so long.

We end up with repeated race scenes from episode to episode and extended onboard shots which you feel add nothing to the entertainment.

You could argue that the 2021 championship has fallen in just a way which lent itself brilliantly to real-time drama, but not so much a glossy documentary series. 2020 was the opposite.

DtS’s production company Box to Box has been given a number of gifts in the past, including Romain Grosjean’s huge near fatal crash in Bahrain and Pierre Gasly taking an emotional debut win after being put through the wringer at Red Bull and then demoted to its junior team.

Last season, thankfully, no-one on the F1 grid almost died, no-one lost their best friend in a junior category race and no-one had their life’s dreams shattered by a seemingly uncompassionate management team. As a result this year’s series just isn’t quite as emotional, and therefore interesting. Matters of life and death work much better for TV, unfortunately.

In addition, Netflix editorial decisions do sometimes leave you wondering. The equivalent to Pierre Gasly’s win at Monza in 2020 is Esteban Ocon’s assured drive to a debut victory for Alpine at Hungary ’21.

“One of the year’s most heroic drives, and barely a word mentioned”

However, despite a thrilling Budapest race, the characters involved — Ocon and the Alpine team — just aren’t quite as emotive as the bullying Red Bull boss Christian Horner and the team’s junior driver guru Helmut Marko against the psychologically wounded but still fiercely competitive Gasly.

Even in instances like this Hungarian race, probably its most interesting aspect – Fernando Alonso defending valiantly from Hamilton, losing the latter the precious seconds he needed to catch Ocon – is afforded no screen time whatsoever.

One of the most heroic drives of the year – which directly contributed to Ocon’s win – and barely a word mentioned. Netflix somewhat missed out on the racing action here ­– apparently why it’s supposed to be there in the first place.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 26: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and McLaren F1 and Lando Norris of Great Britain and McLaren F1 ta during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 26, 2021 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ricciardo and Norris struggle to see eye-to-eye

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Again, there’s a dearth in talking heads – Will Buxton and Jennie Gow are the only featured speakers who aren’t affiliated with a team – and action scenes still manage to seem contrived i.e. cars changing down gears on mid-straight etc plus pointless radio messages inserted into absurd moments. There’s still serious room for improvement in these quite elementary areas.

There’s less coverage of Azerbaijan crashfest than you might have hopped for. Not mentioned at all is the farcical Belgium GP, a three-lap procession which guaranteed F1 its fee from the promoter, despite no green flag running occurring due to the torrential conditions. Fans who had endured the sodden day out were later informed they would be given no financial compensation, instead offered a variety of paltry competition offers and retail discounts. We get to see Russell’s Spa qualifying lap to illustrate his triumph over Bottas for the second Merc seat, but that’s it.

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You wonder if Netflix and Box to Box are just too close to F1 to mention such matters. Or perhaps after four seasons grand prix personnel have just got much more canny in what they do and don’t reveal to Netflix.

There was no escaping the end-of-season controversy though, and the final two episodes concentrate fully on the title duel as the season comes to a close. If there was ever a time for behind-the-scenes cameras in F1 then it was here.

At the Qatar GP, we see the pressure on Wolff and Horner: the former calling for “minimal press”, so that the Red Bull boss takes the limelight. “He loves that,” snipes Wolff.

“Do you think I should go for a roasting or go gentle?” a loudmouthed Horner asks his team before a press conference where he would be sat next to Wolff. “I could have him in a fight”. The conflict between the pair were laid open at that event, when Horner said that they had “no relationship” as a barely-disguised feud played out in front of the cameras.

When it’s all over, Wolff is shown to have fallen victim to the mind games. “The whole press conference is stupid — the things he [Horner] says,” rants the Mercedes man.

It’s Horner’s turn to be rattled at the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, where a Hamilton win puts him level on points with Verstappen with one race — and one DtS episode to go.

The tension mounts in the build-up to the final race, even though you know the ending. Perhaps because you know the ending. But what you see play out on screen is less dramatic than than December’s live coverage.

It’s partly down to the editing: several of the messages from teams lobbying now-removed race director Michael Masi are missing and there’s not a mention of the fraught post-race appeals that saw Mercedes try to overturn Verstappen’s championship, minutes after he crossed the finish line.

But the behind-the-scenes cameras don’t deliver anything significantly new on this bombshell of a season final. We get to see Wolff’s empassioned pleas to Masi from a new angle inside the Mercedes pit and a tearful Horner after the race. We even get to see Masi during the late safety car period as he responds to Horner. But only as the mask-clad race director is simply looking at a screen and talking into his mic.

We don’t see Masi discussing his decision to shortcut safety car regulations and hand the advantage to Verstappen; we don’t see Mercedes furiously assembling its challenge to the result; and we don’t see its QC storming into race control, having been flown in on standby for such a situation. If the film crew was thrown out, that footage would have been telling enough.

Just as fascinating would have been to explore why many blamed the ‘Netflix effect’ on title fight’s eventual outcome, and have DtS examine itself and its influence on F1.

But this is the realm of a documentary made by outsiders, who would never get a sniff of the inner paddock at a grand prix.

Even though the series feels like it is beginning to drag, the masterful Box to Box still succeeds in pulling off another season of glossy footage and enough new material to interest the avid fan, as well as new viewers. Drive to Survive is popular for a reason.

Drive to Survive, Season 4 is available to watch now on Netflix


F1 Drive to Survive: previous seasons

Netflix’s docudrama phenomenon has been credited for a surge in young Formula 1 fans, particularly in America and — for better or worse — officials taking a more entertainment-minded view of races. It has also spawned a range of imitators, with MotoGP, Grand Slam tennis tournaments and golf’s PGA tour all looking to bask in the ‘Netflix effect’.

It all began when cameras appeared in the paddock during the 2018 Formula 1 season, with whispers of a new access-all-areas documentary: a revelation in the secretive world of grand prix racing. Not all were convinced, with Mercedes and Ferrari refusing to take part.

That soon changed when the first series was broadcast: its glossy, slow-motion images, candid interviews, plus behind-the-scenes footage of disputes, drivers and team workings were a hit — with race viewers and non-F1 fans alike.

Series 2 brought full co-operation from teams and the the hype continues to grow annually, as fans anticipate new insights into key races and personalities, even if the novelty has worn off and the dramatic licence, such as splicing radio messages with footage from a completely different race, has begun to grate.

Drive to Survive reviews