I’ve been a motorsports fan since I was a kid, but what series I follow and how religiously I follow it has shifted several times. I was a diehard NASCAR fan in the 90s and early 2000s, but my interest waned as I grew more interested in road courses and sports car racing. My first time driving a road course in my own sports car and the newfound ability to relate to how challenging it is to master so many different corners spurred this shift.
As any good racing fan, I usually made time to catch at least some of the Indy 500, drawn by the mystique, history, and frighteningly high speed. The same could be said for halo Formula 1 races like Spa and Monaco. But I never would have considered myself a serious fan of Indy or Formula 1. I became a much more involved fan of Formula 1 around 2011 after watching the epic documentary on one of the sport’s greatest names, Senna. Even now, I am only a casual fan of Indy Car racing, but I watch several races yearly and keep tabs on what is happening.
Seeing how skilled and driven he was as a person and how the series ran at the time was intriguing enough for me to start paying more attention to races. I always appreciated the technical superiority and seemingly physics-defying cornering ability of Formula 1 cars (not to mention the ferocious engine notes of pre-hybrid cars), but the series always seemed distant. Much of that is because it was physically distant from me. Few, if any, races occurred in my home country until the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) opened in 2012 (conveniently timed with my living in nearby San Antonio, TX).
I may have lived 35 minutes from the track but did not attend the inaugural race due to the astronomically priced tickets. I enjoyed watching the race on tv and, later on, driving my car on the circuit to appreciate what I saw during the broadcast. My interest in Formula 1 was renewed, even if it was challenging to catch race broadcasts live and even more so to watch the rebroadcast without first seeing who won.
The live broadcast was often at 2 or 3 am, depending on where the race was. ESPN would rebroadcast the race at a reasonable viewing hour but would show the final race results on the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen during the rebroadcast. I had to tape a piece of paper along the bottom of the tv so I wouldn’t see who won. I mean, seriously!!?
During this period, I began attending IMSA races and watching every minute of televised or internet broadcasts of races from IMSA and the Pirelli World Challenge (GT America Powered by AWS now). I grew familiar with drivers, car chiefs, sponsors etc, which gave depth to the events more than just point standings and race wins. With IMSA, it was easy; for one, the cars look a lot like the one in my driveway. A ticket to a race weekend is quite reasonable and offers a level of access that is unparalleled in racing. The drivers are approachable, and the teams make time for fans in the days leading to the race. You could not say the same for attending a Formula 1 race, but that would begin to change in 2019.
When the Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive aired, its success appeared limited to diehard race fans and people who were already automotive enthusiasts. But as more people discovered it on their suggested feeds, the series’ popularity grew, and Formula 1’s popularity grew with it. Toss in a global pandemic that made binge-watching shows an international pastime, and you have the recipe for unprecedented fandom and success.
The success of Drive to Survive has prompted every racing series to discuss creating their own series in hopes they can also capture lightning in a bottle. The attempts are probably futile, and nothing produced so far has matched the success or popularity of the original, but the results might still be positive.
First, the Drive to Survive series is well-written, produced, and shot. I wasn’t at all surprised to find out one of the executive producers, and co-creators also produced Senna. The budget and access provided to the production crew are first-rate, which allows them to do fantastic work. It’s no different than expecting a YouTube video produced in a few hours with a $500 budget to look like Top Gear, not happening. Thinking you can simply make your version of the show without first lining up a top-notch staff and ensuring they have the money they need to do it right while giving them access free of boundaries or censorship is fool-hearty and will be doomed to fail.
But, the key reason Drive to Survive works so well and continues to be successful (the fifth season drops Feb 24th) is that it makes the drivers and people on the teams real. For an international sport that was already one of the most popular forms of racing on the planet, the criticism was always the guarded, almost robotic, nature of the drivers and team principles. Pre and post-race interviews were often so canned and politically correct they made Bill Belichick’s press conferences seem lively by comparison. It’s not like the series lacked personalities; they were there, just hidden from the public.
Drive to Survive allowed and encouraged drivers and team chiefs to be real people, to show their frustration at their circumstances and competitors, and to be emotional like real, you know, people. Viewers (people) engage with and identify with people when they see their background, their struggles, and their genuine feelings during wins and losses, especially if those people are animated and speak from the heart before considering what the sponsors might say. Cue one of the breakout stars of the show, team principal of the Hass F1 Team, Guenther Steiner.
There is no version of reality before the Netflix show where fans would show up to an F1 race chanting the name of a team boss as if they were the superstar driver and then react like they just saw the Beatles when they wave to the crowd. Yet that is precisely what now happens at races because people saw Steiner respond to the intense pressure and stress of this incredibly high-stakes sport like they probably would, cursing and yelling and calling people out when they do something monumentally stupid.
It makes for delightful television because we can all relate. The series is full of colorful personalities viewers identify with and want to see win, or maybe lose so they can see what their reaction will be. Either way, they are not only watching the Netflix show; they are watching the races.
Formula 1’s popularity is on the rise worldwide. While it is easy to credit the Netflix show for this surge in popularity, the key credit goes to Liberty Media Inc, who purchased the series from CVC Capital and long-time impresario Bernie Ecclestone in 2017. A key metric is that much of the increased fandom comes from two key markets that have not traditionally been strong for F1, the United States and young people.
In a distinct departure from Ecclestone’s public eschewing of pursuing a younger fanbase, Liberty Media Inc. expertly laid the plans that led to two consecutive record-breaking years for TV viewers and race attendees. Over 440,000 people attended the US Grand Prix in Austin, TX, in 2022, and a combined 2.6 million tuned in or attended the inaugural F1 race in Miami, FL. Of those, 735,000 people were in the critical 18-49-year-old market segment.
ESPN’s Formula 1 race viewership per race was 547,422 in 2018; in 2022, that number was 1.4 million. ESPN previously paid roughly $5 million for broadcast rights; at the end of the 2022 race season, ESPN inked a new three-year deal to televise Formula 1 for somewhere between $75-90 million.
There will be three Grand Prix races in the US in 2023 with the now veteran Circuit of the Americas, a return to Miami, and the newest venue, a street race in Las Vegas that promises to be a staggering display. You can also expect to see more than a few Formula 1-inspired movies and TV shows in the coming years, with the Apple project starring Brad Pitt leading the way.
My trip to cover the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona showed the surge in popularity is not limited to Formula 1. IMSA saw a record-breaking number of fans and competitors for this historic 24-hour race. The field had to be limited to 61 cars because there was no more room on the pit road to accommodate more teams safely. Only three years ago, the field was a little more than half that size, and no one was talking about the series needing to turn away teams wanting to compete.
The blueprint other racing series should look at is not just Drive to Survive but that of Liberty Media Inc. They made conscious decisions to promote their personalities, the young drivers and not just the proven champs, and to engage with markets that hadn’t previously paid attention. And I am very grateful for it because the rising tide of F1 is lifting all boats, and racing is enjoying increased popularity across the board.
The new season of Drive to Survive will be entertaining, and I can’t wait to watch it, but I am even more excited for the actual racing to begin. While rule changes are helping Formula 1 improve the on-track product, it still has a ways to go. But at least we now know the personalities behind the helmets and headsets are entertaining enough to keep us returning for more.