F1 Drive to Survive Season 4: Spoiler-free review


How faithfully does Netflix manage to portray 2021's F1 title battle?


Welcome to our spoiler-free review of Drive to Survive’s fourth season. If you want to read a slightly more detailed review with a few (small) spoilers in, click here.

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.

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.

As per previous series, the cameras follow various F1 protagonist’s symbolic activities away from the track as a representation of their struggles. One team boss partakes in a strenuous outdoors pursuit, one hotshot perfects the technique of his favourite sport whilst another struggles with some serious life admin.

Mick Schumacher with Jordan 191

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It’s strangely pleasing and satisfying that in the cut and thrust, do or die world of F1, a driver is so easily flummoxed by everyday life.

We all knew the subject in question was a character anyway, but they further endear themselves as he tries to adjust to the F1 world.

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Juvenile as it might seem, the look on their team boss and co’s faces at some of the one-liners they come out with is priceless when occurring in the corporate, straight-faced world of F1.

Reliable Netflix fodder Guenther Steiner and his Haas team deliver once more, this time the spotlight on more internal strife within the American squad.

Disappointingly, not addressed is driver Nikita 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 exploration of the difficult relationship between two new team-mates. Netflix does well to justify its place here – imagine if you’d had Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at loggerheads during their Woking days or, more banally, Jacques Villeneuve dumping Ricardo Zonta’s lunch in the bin at BAR.

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: alleged transgression not covered


The ’21 title fight is covered minus Verstappen, who said he was tired of the series’ “fake storylines”, and the new series appears to be much poorer for it. The Dutchman is never one to mince his words, but previously hasn’t had much to talk about. Now he does, and he’s not here to tell the tale.

Lewis Hamilton does give his view, but as ever is measured and careful with what he says. As a result, all the championship story 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.

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.

As well as that level of jeopardy, there just simply isn’t the level of backstairs intrigue which DtS has previously thrived on. The saga of Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo’s moves in and out of Renault has provided ripe material over the years, as has the sniping and outright aggression between the French marque and its engine customer Red Bull.

There is also no substitute for Ferrari’s or Valtteri Bottas’s respective angst from last season. All these events were DtS episode-generating machines. Series 4 has far less of this interest.

In addition, Netflix editorial decisions do sometimes leave you wondering. An equivalent to Pierre Gasly’s win at Monza in 2020, but the episode doesn’t bring the same satisfaction.

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

Despite a thrilling race, the characters involved 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 the grand prix in question, probably its most interesting aspect is afforded no screen time whatsoever. One of the most heroic drives of the year 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.

Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, 2021 Bahrain gp

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Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via 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.

The caveat must be stressed that Netflix has not given press access to the final two episodes of the season. So far, some classic races are left out. The Azerbaijan crashfest gets few mentions, and Saudi Arabia had more talking points than you could wave a Netflix subscription at. In addition to a Jeddah race which appeared to have more incident packed in than half an average F1 season many, including Hamilton, were outspoken about racing in a country which has an appalling human rights record – including only recently allowing women to drive.

Also not mentioned 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.

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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.

Abu Dhabi 2021 is not featured in the preview series given to the press – the bombshell of a season finale that was Abu Dhabi 2021 will surely be focused on in one of the remaining two episodes yet to be released, as it provided the highest drama imaginable right at the death. What’s partially fascinating is that many blamed the ‘Netflix effect’ on title fight’s eventual outcome. Will DtS examine itself and its influence on F1?

How much revealed of the controversy surrounding now-removed race director Michael Masi will be fascinating, but it could still be a glossy race highlights-plus-effing-and-jeffing affair.

It seems fanciful to think two episodes might turn around a series which feels like it is beginning to drag slightly, but don’t discount the masterful Box to Box from pulling it off. Drive to Survive is popular for a reason.