‘They’re not purists, but it doesn’t matter’: How Drive to Survive is bringing F1 to new audiences

Following her appearance in the third season of Netflix’s Drive to Survive, motorsport presenter and journalist Jennie Gow discusses the impact the behind-the-scenes documentary has had on Formula One and the future of the show.

Netflix released the third season of its Formula One ‘Drive to Survive’ series on 19th March 2021. The show has been hailed as a marketing “silver bullet” by Adam Crothers, Formula One’s head of digital media rights, and there is no doubt that it has already had a major impact for the series.

Drive to Survive is a documentary-style show that follows Formula One and its teams over the course of a season. The nature of the series allows fans to get a never-before-seen glimpse into the paddock and the inner workings of the championship. Rivalries, friendships and characters emerge that viewers might not see on track from following the traditional broadcast format. Speaking at the SportsPro Fan Conference in 2019, Box2Box Film Productions, the creators of the series, explained that they strived for honesty and openness, wanting to show the human side of a sport that can at times appear robotic and mechanical from the outside.

The creation and success of Drive to Survive is symptomatic of series owner Liberty Media’s implementation of a robust digital strategy as part of its attempts to engage with younger audiences. Sitting alongside other projects such as Formula One’s ‘We Race as One’ initiative and last year’s Virtual Grand Prix esports series, Drive to Survive has driven audience engagement and ushered in a whole new group of potential fans. In fact, a recent study published by Nielsen even cited the docuseries as a key reason for the sport’s increasing popularity among those aged between 16 and 35, who accounted for 77 per cent of Formula One’s audience growth in 2020.

As motorsport presenter and journalist Jennie Gow tells the BlackBook, it is essential to Formula One’s long-term future that it appeals to that younger audience.

“It’s perfect, [it] couldn’t have come at a better time,” she says.

 “You just look at what Liberty [Media] are trying to achieve – it's going to be a very slow process to turn around the format of Formula One from what it was, looking at big old cars going round in circles, which was spectacular, but it has very little [to do] with what kids growing up now understand the world of transportation to be.”

Outside of traditional racing fans, Gow notes that Drive to Survive has engaged a whole new set of people who might not have given Formula One a second thought in the past.

“It’s really exciting that it’s engaging with a whole new type of person, and yes, they’re not going to be motorsport purists, but it doesn’t matter,” says Gow, who currently presents and reports on Formula One for the BBC. “As long as people are engaging with the sport, that’s the be all and end all of it. It will survive because of it.”

The interest in the show also appears to be rubbing off on the racing itself. During the first event of the 2021 Formula One season in Bahrain, UK pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports recorded its highest-ever viewing figures for a Grand Prix aired on its channels, reaching a high of 2.23 million. In the US, meanwhile, the Bahrain Grand Prix delivered an average 879,000 viewers for ESPN 2, which was bigger than any audience that tuned in to the channel during the entire 2020 season. Whether or not a portion of those viewership increases can be attributed to Drive to Survive remains to be seen, but it is clear that Formula One is reaching more fans than ever before, something which is important for the growth of the series.

Television viewership isn’t the only way through which Drive to Survive seems to be drawing new fans to Formula One. Since the show’s inception in 2019, fans have attended the championship’s races and events seeking the same thrill and enjoyment they got watching the show. This is something Gow has noticed, too.

“Whenever I go to host an event, people now ask me about Drive to Survive,” she says. “It seems to me like it’s really engaged with a new audience, a young audience and an audience that wanted to know more about the people. They wanted to lift the visor on the sport and that’s what it’s done for Formula One and I think it’s hugely positive.”

Drive to Survive has introduced a whole new set of fans to Formula One

Drive to Survive also introduced new voices for season three, one of which was Gow herself. That brought a female perspective to the series that Gow says she “had pushed quite hard for”. During the 2020 season, Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams stepped down from her role, further reducing the number of female representatives in Formula One.

“The paddock isn’t the most diverse place in the world,” Gow notes, “but there are men, there are women, there are all sorts of people from different backgrounds, and we need to promote that, not move away from it.”

Looking beyond the series as a whole, Drive to Survive has also had a positive impact on Formula One’s teams. Sceptical about the show at first, Mercedes and Ferrari opted out of appearing in the debut season. However, other teams such as Haas saw the potential of the series to help it connect with new fans. Indeed, the raw, open and honest personality of team principal Guenther Steiner is something that resonated with the documentary’s audience.

“Haas got in there really early,” says Gow. “They backed it and they said, ‘we’re in for this, take us warts and all’, and Haas have seen a growth in popularity over the last two years – exponential to their success, their points, whatever it may be.”

Steiner's raw and open personality in the show has helped to increase Haas' popularity

After the first season of the show was released, it didn’t take Ferrari and Mercedes long to realise they wanted a part of the action. As Gow points out, Drive to Survive is a huge marketing opportunity for the teams, so it’s in their best interest to embrace the series with the same enthusiasm that Haas did.

“I think the last two seasons where Ferrari and Mercedes have got more involved shows where the future lies because these teams know this is huge publicity for them,” Gow adds. “It's huge marketing that they don’t have to worry about budgets for, they just turn up. If they are themselves or the version of themselves we want them to be, then they tick all the boxes.”

In order to capture the behind-the-scenes content fans of Formula One and Drive to Survive crave, film crews are embedded within the teams. The access that these crews are granted means that it is difficult for the teams to mask their true colours. As a result, Gow believes “you get these beautiful strings of narrative that I think all of the teams will buy into for quite some time.”

Looking to the future of Drive to Survive, it is clear that the series isn’t planning on hitting the brakes anytime soon. Shortly after the release of season three, Netflix announced that the show was trending number one worldwide, demonstrating that interest in the series remains strong. As with any television show, though, Drive to Survive will need to develop to stay relevant and attractive to its audience. Gow, though, is confident that the series will continue to meet expectations.

“As long as Formula One keeps delivering on track, you know it will deliver off track because you know that the people involved are fireworks. It’s a ringside seat into one of the greatest shows on earth,” she says. “It’s the people that make Drive to Survive such an enjoyable show for a wide range of audiences and it seems unlikely the characters we know and love will go anywhere.”

Gow sees a bright future for Drive to Survive

There is already evidence that camera crews are back documenting the 2021 Formula One campaign for the fourth season of the show, with executive producer James Gay-Rees recently confirming that filming is underway. Given that the pandemic still poses a threat to the running of Formula One, Box2Box Films could continue to struggle to get the best possible access. Formula One has strict protocol in place to minimise the threat of Covid-19, meaning that film crews aren’t always able to respond in the way they want to the action in the paddock and on track. George Russell’s near win with Mercedes and the team’s tyre mix-up in 2020, for example, wasn’t covered in large detail in season three as film crews weren’t embedded within the team.

Looking ahead, though, Gow is sure that the series will continue to improve, especially when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

“I can only see what Drive to Survive do getting better and better as their understanding of the sport increases, as their knowledge of what works and what doesn’t gets better and improves,” she says. “And if there comes a time when Covid restrictions are lifted, then who knows what access they can get.”


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