The Transformative Power of Netflix's Drive to Survive

On a show that takes the important plunge into the psyche of a sport

There is something fragile about a Formula One race starting under grey, wet skies. Like a layer of jeopardy added to an already volatile situation. There is tension in the air, accentuated by twenty engines droning in concert. On the radio, engineers ask drivers to be careful with the formation lap. Their tone is tentative. Years of experience but it never gets any easier. Drivers reply in single syllables. Tyres are checked, one last time, for suitability. The brief silence before the five red lights go up is deafening.

Last month, at Imola, the formation lap looked like a James Bond chase sequence. Twisting, turning cars following each other through trails of spray. Fernando Alonso and Charles Leclerc spun; Lance Stroll sprung his brake. Even in a lap where drivers maintain distance, a crash seemed likely.

That crash came in the first lap. Nicholas Latifi's car spun, stabilised, and spun, again, into a wall. After examining the accident through multiple replays, the commentators concluded with “It wasn't Mazepin's fault.”

A couple of years back, my attention would have moved from this incidence onto the shoulder barge at the top of the grid. Mazepin would have been an afterthought, an also-ran in a race I would have followed only for Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. But now, thanks to Netflix, he has my attention.

Last month, Netflix released the third season of Drive To Survive, their fly-on-the-wall series following Formula One teams. In episode 7, Haas Racing's principal Guenther Steiner speaks about the role of Mazepin in his team. He speaks with a straight face, without a glint in his eyes or change of vocal timbre. It is the clearest sign that Mazepin will play a distant second fiddle to Mick Schumacher in 2021. He is the beneficiary of a sponsorship deal, a compromise Haas had no option against.

In December last year, Mazepin put a video on Instagram in which he was inappropriately touching a woman. Haas called it abhorrent, and he promptly apologised for “not holding himself to the standards of an F1 driver.” 

This year, it took him three races to finish a lap. This weekend, at the fourth race of the season, he spun out in practice.

Nikita Mazepin's journey will be fascinating to watch because he will be racing against a lot more than faster cars and better drivers. Those are the easier challenges. He will be racing against his personal and professional reputation. He will have to show skill and respect, and learn that neither can exist in a silo.

Sport is best experienced raw, beyond the banality of scorecards, through people and their stories. Stories make the difference between Michael Phelps winning five golds at Rio Olympics versus a champion who gave up his sport, touched the depths of mental sanity, contemplated killing himself, got caught for drunk driving, somehow found a way to the Olympics, turned up with suboptimal practice, and bowed out with five gold medals. Observing athletes like Phelps and Serena Williams through their Wikipedia page is a disservice to the idea of sport.

When I was younger, and substantially more enamoured by fast cars and motor racing than I am now, I wanted F1 to be part of my weekend routines. But the race-day experience felt inadequate. Every other Sunday, commentators drew our focus to the edge of a sport that walks a tightrope between fatally dangerous and thrilling. They spoke in shrill voices about grid positions and pit-stops. I kept waiting for a trip to the paddock, to meet the people driving those cars, but it never came. David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher were merely red silhouettes with little to distinguish between them. At some point, Formula One became a real-life version of Need For Speed.

In a world of distractions, where cricket, football, and tennis had already taken up significant acreage in my head, I lost touch with Formula One. There was the odd race I followed through Twitter, but nothing more. Hamilton and Mercedes were winning most times anyway. Boring.

Drive To Survive takes access, and hence, context storytelling to a whole new level. Cameras follow Formula One teams across the paddock throughout a racing weekend, capturing so much that you could draw an entire emotional graph. Drivers and engineers are shown as extensions of their psyche.

Thanks to this series, I know what Pierre Gasly went through in 2019. He lost his best friend and treasured F1 seat within months. Netflix cameras brought me close to his grief when he turned up at the Belgian Grand Prix - scene of Anthoine Hubert's fatal crash - the following year. Seated in front of a grey background, facing multiple lights and a camera, Gasly spoke about personal change. The eighth-place finish at SPA felt like a premonition for better things. The investment and bond his story had built made his victory at the next race a personal triumph.

Over the three seasons, team principals get entire arcs of their own. For casual, ignorant fans like me, Formula One began and ended with the men behind the wheel. This year, as I watch Max Verstappen jostle Lewis Hamilton for the title, I have some idea of the role Christian Horner has played in grooming and polishing his talent. Horner has come a long way from watching Daniel Ricciardo leave for seemingly greener pastures. You have to feel for his ilk because they have little control once the race starts, but are judged largely on the outcome.

Gary Smith, the ace sportswriter, wrote about the connection of sport and psyche in the preface to his book Beyond The Game.

“Sport comes to us in boxes - the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to burst out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game - before it, after it, above it, under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche.”

Drive To Survive drops us in the middle of Formula One's psychological battles. And it has inadvertently turned up at a poignant time in our lives. More than ever, we need the excuse to inhabit different worlds and meet new people.

Covid has pushed us inwards. An entire year after the virus started spreading globally, the air outside is still not safe enough for a carefree stroll. We are shuffling between the tedium of everyday routine and the frenzy of a raging pandemic. Here in India, the second wave is claiming lives at a rate that has left crematoriums grasping for space. It is now common to wake up to the sound of ambulance sirens.

At such a time, the privilege of drudgery is unmistakable. But, even an ivory tower can get lonely. The physically unaffected are struggling mentally, taking blows to their sanity every day. Someone in the family is infected; a co-worker you shared coffee with is screaming for a hospital bed for her mother. Twitter feels like the street outside a morgue. Death has become a statistic. Four thousand yesterday; four more the day before.

The physical threat, itself, is lurking in the shadows. That sniffle in the morning, was it the first sign of covid? The cocoon shrinks further everyday. Netflix is not fun anymore; the prose of Wodehouse reads like a science journal; food tastes bland. Powers of concentration have dwindled. Psychologists call this languishing. In a recent article in The New York Times, writer and psychology professor Adam Grant described languishing as the void between depression and flourishing.

In these circumstances, F1 provides an escape latch. For a while every fortnight, the world moves at 200 miles per hour. Breaks are short, strategised to push the next one as far as possible. Racing is an exercise in maximising the mundane; of finding fulfilment in running around loops. Drivers put their body through astronomical stress -- roughly three times the earth’s gravitational force -- for two hours, twice every month. Their heart-rate touches 190 beats per minute. When fragility is all around you, within you even, it helps to see the outer boundaries of physical and mental ability.

If nothing else, there is always a perspective that no other kind of sport can offer. At the Bahrain Grand Prix last year, Romain Grosjean’s car split in half and caught fire. The sight was unbelievable, almost as if physics was mocking us for pushing its boundaries for too long. The race was halted until Grosjean walked out safely. The moment he was inside the ambulance, drivers began zipping their jackets back on. Sergio Perez, who had a surreal race himself, summed it up well: “We are different. We are crazy people.” It is, by some distance, my favourite moment across the three seasons. That Perez, going through so much turmoil himself, gets to draw the underscore on the most unbelievable of evenings, is the kind of magic great stories can bring. You just need to look.

Race weekend broadcasts are, as most produced events go, curated well. Numbers flash incessantly on your screen, conveying everything between gear switches and car temperature. Radio conversations are beamed through. You are even shown the kind of tyre every driver is using.

The gap in context and narrative is filled by shows which dare to go beneath the surface. I might end up falling in love with Formula One with completely new vigour thanks to this backstage pass Netflix has dished out. The F1 travelling party moves to Spain this weekend. The actual race will be an ancillary detail in the elaborate mesh of ever-evolving narrative. As the show tells us in every episode, Formula One is far more about surviving than driving.