The success of Drive to Survive has led F1 to sign up for two more seasons, meaning we’ll now have six years of documentary. Liberty Media has acted where Bernie Ecclestone has failed.
Bernie Ecclestone is a sports legend. Love him or hate him, he was responsible for transforming F1 into a powerhouse from the late 1970s to the takeover of CVC in 2017. But despite all of Bernie’s successes, there have been decisions more debatable. The decision to award double points in 2014 shocked teams, fans and pundits. Dropped for the following season, the format received significant backlash.
Then on the eve of the 2016 season, Bernie put F1 through knockout qualifying. The poorly thought out format saw pilots eliminated every 90 seconds. Designed to stir up excitement, it drove the top five to spend the final two minutes in the garage. It lasted two races. In previous years, he also suggested medals and artificially soaked the track.
The one thing Bernie has never done is move with the times. The biggest example of Bernie’s failure to do so was with social media. Ecclestone’s view was that he wanted advertising to reflect the image of the sport. Combined with soaring ticket prices, it was never going to happen that viewers would rush to buy Rolex watches. It also took until 2014 for F1 to develop its first very buggy app. The idea of a TV show was laughable.
Realizing this, Amazon approached McLaren in 2016 to follow the Woking brand for a year. When Liberty Media took over F1, a much bigger version of the documentary was immediately touted. Racing365 reports that F1 media rights manager Ian Holmes reports that Liberty wanted a more “inclusive” approach:
Change of approach under Liberty
“Grand Prix Driver” hasn’t aged well compared to Drive to Survive, showing the jump in program quality under Netflix. Holmes says that once Netflix was approached with the idea of a grid-scale documentary, interest was immediate:
“Amazon was talking to McLaren about their All or nothing series, which focuses on a particular team,” Holmes explained to the Blackbook Motorsport forum when asked about the origins of Drive to Survive.
“When Formula 1 teams do this, they have to come to us to acquire the rights to include on-track footage etc.
“We looked at it and thought it was pretty interesting, and we thought we could do what we’ve been able to do in the past, which is an arm’s length license, predetermined by images, but Liberty wanted to take a slightly different approach, [one that was] more inclusive.
“We thought it was better to adopt a narrative focused on the sport as a whole, all the teams and all the drivers?
“If we talk to Amazon, we know their chosen programming strategy is All or Nothing, so we spoke to Netflix, explained the concept and they immediately embraced it and closed the deal pretty quickly.”
However, the strategy was entirely dependent on teams wanting Netflix cameras to follow them for a year, encroaching on technical debriefings, intimate team conversations and interviews with team leaders.
The show’s legacy has shone a light on the struggles of small teams. Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has become an unexpected star for his honest interviews and unfiltered management style. A tense debriefing with Nikita Mazepin after the Russian had a tough race or the now infamous call out with team owner Gene Haas after two disastrous pit stops saw the Austrian become a fan favourite.
Unsurprisingly, Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari didn’t play ball in the first season, with the lower teams providing the intrigue. As the series exploded, the top teams all signed up. Max Verstappen has said he will return to the show, after taking a break from last season due to concerns over conversations. The Dutchman said the reason for his return was that he received assurances that this issue would be resolved.