Netflix Series Is a Hit, but Verstappen Has a Problem

Last year’s heated title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen drew the focus of Season 4 of “Drive to Survive,” the Netflix series about Formula 1, which was released last month.

The streaming series has been a hit for the sport, attracting droves of new fans by highlighting the personalities of the drivers inside the cockpit.

But those watching “Drive to Survive” to get the inside story on the championship battle noticed a significant absence. Verstappen has become the only driver to refuse to be interviewed for the series because he thought it faked rivalries and exaggerated incidents.

“I’m quite a down-to-earth guy, and I just want it to be facts, don’t hype it up,” Verstappen, of Red Bull, said.

“I understand of course it needs to be like that for Netflix. It’s just not my thing.”

While Verstappen still appeared in the series through use of Formula 1 footage, the story of his title fight was largely told through interviews with Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal. Hamilton, of Mercedes, took an active part in the series, engaging in interviews throughout his battle with Verstappen.

Driver rivalries are central to the narrative of the show. One example came in Season 3, when an episode featured the McLaren drivers Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr. While they are known to be good friends who worked well together in the team, the episode sought to depict tension in their relationship that Sainz felt was “pushed a bit too far.”

Zak Brown, McLaren Racing’s chief executive, at the Grand Prix of Austria in 2021. He said the Netflix series showed the relationship between two of his drivers “a little bit less friendly than it was.”Credit…Mark Thompson/Getty Images

“I think that rivalry was there, but it was in a friendly way, and they maybe portrayed it a little bit less friendly than it was,” Zak Brown, the chief executive of McLaren Racing, said in an interview. “Deep down, the rivalry was there, but outwardly they never showed it.”

Norris thought the editing of the show “can make you look like you said something in a time and place which is definitely not correct,” but was happy as long as the truth was not twisted completely.

“As long as they don’t overdo it and literally make someone look like they’ve done something which they definitely haven’t done, it’s good,” he said.

Verstappen was more direct about how Norris was portrayed, arguing it made it look like Norris was a bit of a jerk.

Formula 1 has spoken with the producers of the show and the teams after Verstappen’s complaints. Ian Holmes, the director of media rights at Formula 1, said that the producers “need to be mindful of his concerns” and that it was important for teams and drivers to feel comfortable participating in the series.

But he disagreed that the series had faked rivalries. “This notion that some things are made up, it’s just chatter,” Holmes said in an interview. “At the end of the day, it is authentic. The other thing to remember, as well, is the people that walk up and down the paddock, they’re a bit too close to the sport” to step back and see the bigger picture.

The balance between authenticity and dramatizing events to appeal to the audience is a challenge that documentary series often face. But Horner, whose rivalry with his Mercedes counterpart, Toto Wolff, featured heavily in Season 4 with insults and personality clashes, felt the purpose of “Drive to Survive” had to be kept in mind.

“At the end of the day, it is a television show,” Horner said. “They’re taking snippets from a season-long battle and turning that into a television program. One has to remember it is designed ultimately to entertain.”

Brown felt that the makers of “Drive to Survive” were “at the limit” of ensuring the show was entertaining while pleasing Formula 1’s hard-core fans. But he also said it was “a TV show, intended first and foremost to be entertaining.”

Toto Wolff, left, principal of the Mercedes team, and Christian Horner, principal of the Red Bull Racing Team, at a news conference before the Grand Prix of Russia in 2021. Their rivalry was a focus of Season 4 of “Drive to Survive.”Credit…Pool photo by XPB

“The numbers say people love it,” Brown said. “It’s drawing a tremendous amount of people in the sport, and I don’t think they’re presenting it as a pure documentary. They’re bringing Formula 1 to you in an entertaining way.

“A little bit of creative license, I don’t have an issue with it.”

The show has been turning new viewers into fans of the sport, with record crowds attending races in the United States and Australia in the past six months.

“We’re happy to report, and I think our Netflix friends would be happy to report, that it was the No. 1 show in 33 countries around the world already,” said Greg Maffei, the chief executive of the Liberty Media Corporation, which owns Formula 1.

“The Season 4 audience is already larger than the Season 3 audience. So it’s a huge success.”

Brown found firsthand just how the show has helped increase the popularity of Formula 1 when he stayed in the same hotel as the Los Angeles Lakers last year.

“Some fans were asking for autographs, and two players turned around and say, ‘Sorry, we’re not signing’. The fans went, ‘No, no, not you.’” They were asking Brown. “‘We’re Formula 1 fans.’” he recalled them saying.

“You saw the players look at them and go, ‘Who is this guy?’ I can’t go through an airport now without being recognized, and it’s all because of Netflix.”

Filming for Season 5 is already underway. With the exception of Verstappen, all drivers are continuing to participate, aware of the good it has done for Formula 1.

“People have been very vocal about it being dramatized a little bit, but at the end of the day, you always want to show the best light of your sport,” George Russell, of Mercedes, said.

“As long as it’s having a positive impact on Formula 1, I think there’s no real issue.”

Sainz, who now drives for Ferrari, said Netflix was good for the sport. “It is a good thing for myself, for the brand of F1, and I will still take part if they want me to be in it.”

But Verstappen said his mind would not be changed. “I’ll probably watch it and see how over the top it is, and just continue with my life.”

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