Lessons in Fandom from Drive to Survive
Which sport features a training regimen that is a “combination of wrestling and Fifty Shades of Gray”? A sport that can start off like Olympic boxing, [go] to pro boxing and [end up] like MMA”? A sport where there is “no such thing as peace”?
Would you be surprised if we told you it’s Formula 1?
These quotes are all from different Formula 1 racing drivers and their coaches in Netflix’s original docuseries Drive to Survive. The show is an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look into F1 racing whose popularity boomed during the pandemic and continues to grow. It features the controversies, successes and disasters that make up the sport, along with team politics and glimpses into racers’ lives.
It sounds like any other docuseries - until it doesn’t. The show has had huge impact on the sport’s fandom in the past three years:
53% higher viewing from 2020 to 2021 season average, and race day ticket sales rose 15% for the US Grand Prix
77% of the growth was driven by the 16-35 year old age group, a coveted demographic industry wide (according to Nielsen Sports Research)
The July 3rd British Grand Prix at Silverstone sold out 142,000 tickets in the fastest time in the race’s history - and it’s been around since 1950!
73 Million fans added last year in large global markets like Brazil, China, and France
Dener dos Santos, an Account Manager of Premium Sales & Service at F1 Miami Grand Prix, attributes a good chunk of the uptick in sales to the show itself, saying “The demand in the US has exponentially expanded because of Drive to Survive. The show exposed the sport in a way that made it attractive to the American population. We had a waitlist of 200,000 people just for tickets. I’ve never seen anything like it in sports.”
So why is this docuseries such a big hit? How is the show picking up fans so quickly?
It grew hugely during the pandemic when people were looking for an escape to provide some much needed fun, intensity, and excitement. Through Hedonism, Achievement, Stimulation, and Self-Direction, the show balanced visceral excitement with emotional peaks and troughs, all while allowing for connection with others given its viral nature. It’s a refreshing and impactful fandom story, so let us uncover how it happened…
For a taste, hear from the self-proclaimed “least sporty person ever,” Krisna about how she got invested, quick...
The Values of F1 x Drive to Survive
A Heady Cocktail of Power and Hedonism
First and foremost, this show is pure aspirational luxury. Arguably one of the most alluring aspects is what F1 drivers and their team principals do with their multi-million dollar salaries. We are shown an intimate side of each character, which bears more resemblance to a luxury reality TV show: private jets, designer clothes, innovative fitness training, latest-model cars (think McLarens, Ferraris, Mercedes), yachts, helicopters - where no expense is spared. “On turns 6, 7, and 8 of the [Miami] Grand Prix, we placed 10 yachts and at turns 10 and 11, a live concert with Maluma, Chainsmokers, David Guetta and Anitta - all in the middle of a Formula 1 race.” says dos Santos.
For Iain Dobson, President of Automotive Events and former Editor at Motorsport News, this may have something to do with the popularity of the show, but for those with an interest in the sport itself, it makes for some criticism. Even before Drive to Survive, the sport gave off an air of being ‘... an environment of conspicuous consumption, a completely different world that’s unattainable and glamorous. It’s something you’re interested in looking in on but can’t imagine living in, so it’s not really about the car or the racing’. In a competitive landscape, this is F1’s niche.
“You’ve got a lot of motorsports fans, and they can spend their hours being involved in any number of motorsports, whether it’s rallying or Nascar. It’s a big marketplace vying for attention, and F1 has a type of racing that’s a world of stratospheric, conspicuous consumption, so if you’re in the market for a form of motorsport that comes with an aspirational edge - that’s the one you pick.”
- Iain Dobson, former Editor of Motorsport News
In terms of effective reality TV, the aspirational quality of Formula 1 delivers, but it’s also authentic to the sport itself, and is a huge draw for fans like Jon (below). While this level of indulgence can easily turn up noses, the power is balanced with hedonism that fans want to tag along to witness.
Stimulation off the Dashboard Dial
Drive to Survive isn’t just a feast for the eyes. There’s a mix of sensorial pleasures evoked through the show that add excitement and stimulation and keep viewers wanting ‘the real thing’.
In a 2012 interview with F1 superstar Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion was asked what he thought it would take to turn Americans into Formula 1 fans. He gave them a simple answer: “It’s really a matter of getting the car in front of people,” he said. “Once you hear it and see it, feel the noise—then maybe they’ll turn out for a race”.
He turned out to be right. Drive to Survive has managed to do just that- taking people behind the scenes and up close to what it’s really like to by flying over 200MPH, tires squealing, while the shreds of a crashed car fly overhead amidst the cheers of fans. It even got them off their couches into crowded stadiums, and for many who attend races, it’s the sheer noise and the palpable danger in the air that keeps them there.
The show is a sensory cocktail of fast paced adrenaline-filled races, all with the possibility of sorrowful melodrama or elated celebration at the end. The quick editing, close-up shots of the lightning fast pit-stops, and shaky go-pro-like footage dispel the idea that racing cars is easy, and gives people some much needed mindless excitement. It’s almost as if viewers can feel the 6g of force experienced by drivers as they careen around corners even better than if they were watching from the stands. With a constant sense of danger and drama, it’s hard to look away even for a moment.
“When you go to a race and see a car coming around the corner at 190 mph, most people say ‘There’s no way I could do that.’ It’s clear who is going fast and who is not. Being a rich kid doesn’t let you go around that corner. The person who can go the fastest is the person who can keep their foot down the longest, and that’s where the courage and skill comes in. They’re genuine sporting heroes.”
-Joe Sulentic, former Formula 3 Driver
Keeping it Real with Self-Directed Achievement
And yet, not all drivers and coaches are on board with the intimate look that Netflix gives into the races. In fact, there's criticism of the way the producers have exaggerated situations for dramatic effect.
Partly as a way to combat this, Netflix has taken an increasingly self-reflective approach to the filming. In more recent seasons, it’s not just camera-people ducking out of frame from time to time, but driver interviews complaining about not being shown enough last season, or the occasional “Hi, Netflix!” called out to the crew in passing. It’s an engaging theatrical effect that breaks down the fourth wall of reality TV (if such a thing exists) and dares to turn the camera in on itself.
The effect lets viewers feel even closer to the drivers, seeing them as real people behind their glossy lives. The drivers’ humanity is highlighted in these intimate and personal moments, building human interest and inching fans closer to clicking ‘follow’ on Instagram or Twitter. Hear from new fan Dylan (below) about his take on this...
Throughout the show, we follow each driver and team through the ups and downs of fighting for a title, and this is where competition turns personal. It’s the piece we all relate to, of progressing and succeeding, and being forced to take steps back and summoning up the courage to just keep going. What makes it unique though, is that on the surface Formula 1 is pretty low drama since the same two or three teams win nearly every race. From an outsider POV, it could be difficult to stoke excitement without taking a more character-driven approach to narrative arcs.
The show keeps things interesting by not only focusing on the achievement of the “top drivers”, like Lewis Hamilton’s quest to break a world record, but on many journeys for achievement that exist within the F1 roster: an inter-team duel between McLaren teammates Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, Haas team principal Guenther Steiner’s quest for sponsorship dollars, and achievement within the context of nepotism, gender, and race. It’s universally applicable to relationships, careers, personal goals, hobbies, and allows fans to insert themselves into different characters and become invested in each episode and each team.
Lessons for Fandom
What makes Drive to Survive so successful isn’t just a case of great editing and behind the scenes footage. It responds to peoples’ need for emotional excitement, and visceral stimulation in a time of uncertainty and discomfort.
The same old narratives of achievement don’t hold water in regular day-to-day life, so why should they on TV? Whereas Formula 1’s lack of a meritocracy may have prevented some from becoming interested, Netflix’s now unabashed look at the sport’s social and political games makes the cynical feel exciting . The show doesn’t follow the Hallmark-movie style story of more work = more progress, but it's refreshingly honest while amplifying the characters’ humanity (and super-humanness). On the surface Formula 1 is fast cars going in circles, but a look under the hood shows the drivers as people with rich stories and lives.
In Drive to Survive, we see how a show with strong values leads to an even stronger fan base. It doesn’t just apply to motorsports either: this has implications for fan bases of all kinds: music, sports, gaming, fan franchises like Marvel, Disney, and more. If there are lessons for other sports and content driving fandom, it’s to look under your own hood and find what strong values are missing in current entertainment offerings. This means finding what’s authentic to the sport, and something viewers aren’t getting enough of, amplifying it and humanizing it.
Curious about which values your company, product or show communicates to its audiences and how to grow your fandom on a deeper level? Drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org