How Netflix’s docuseries 'Drive to Survive' made Formula 1 an American cultural phenomenon

The popularity of the show, which just premiered its sixth season, has led to a big rise in U.S. F1 interest and motorsports-related fashion, movies and celebrities.

Dan Istitene/Formula 1 via Getty Images
Max Verstappen after winning the 2023 U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. (Dan Istitene/Formula 1 via Getty Images)
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For many observers, Formula 1's U.S. fandom seemed to come out of nowhere. Just a few years ago, most Americans didn’t know the difference between an F1 car and a NASCAR stock car — and maybe didn’t even realize they were separate entities.

Now it feels like everybody has suddenly started obsessing over the Europe-based motorsports series.

Formula 1’s skyrocketing appeal in America isn’t an accident — and much of that traction is due to a single TV program: Formula 1: Drive to Survive, colloquially known as DTS, which premiered on Netflix in 2019.

Since then, Netflix has produced five seasons, with DTS’s sixth premiering on Feb. 23. So how did a single docuseries reignite interest in a 70-year-old sport and set off a major cultural moment in the U.S.?

What is Formula 1: Drive to Survive?

From the outset, Drive to Survive had basic appeal, offering an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at Formula 1 racing, long considered the most exclusive motorsport in the world.

While sports docuseries were popular before DTS, the show’s humanizing look at the grid’s 20 drivers and their 10 respective teams — plus the competition, drama and expletive-filled antics of the paddock — garnered immediate attention. The early pandemic lockdowns further fueled the interest. Before long the series turned many racers and even their team principals into bona fide celebrities.

In Netflix’s first-ever transparency report cataloging viewership numbers for all of its movies and TV shows in the first half of 2023, the show’s fifth season was the most-watched sports series on the streaming platform, more than 90 million hours watched. It fell just outside of the top 100 programs on Netflix overall out of over 18,000 titles. By early 2022, 30% of F1 fans listed DTS as a “major reason” they started following the sport in the past 18 months, according to Morning Consult.

Why did it become so popular in the U.S.?

While DTS gained a global audience, much attention has been focused on the sizable interest coming from the U.S., a sports-obsessed country that had evaded Formula 1’s marketing efforts for decades. Over the course of only a few years after DTS premiered, F1 viewership exploded in America, with the series helping make the case for expanding the number of U.S. races from a single one in Austin, Texas, to three, with races in Miami and Las Vegas.

The show wouldn’t have been possible without Liberty Media, the American-based corporation that bought the Formula 1 brand in 2017 and sought out new ways to connect with fans. That included a number of different initiatives, including assembling a film crew to create a docuseries for the 2018 season.

“One of the reasons that DTS sustains [itself] over time is that the sport naturally generates new stories every year,” Tom Rogers, an executive producer on Drive to Survive and the director of postproduction at Box to Box Films, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “You never really know what's going to happen.”

The first episode of Season 1, for instance, showed the wheels coming off — literally and figuratively — of both cars at Haas, one of the newer teams on the grid, as team principal Guenther Steiner descended into a series of incoherent rants. It was reality TV gold with instant appeal for American audiences.

Another development that also benefited the series: DTS producers weren’t as concerned, especially in their early seasons, with what was happening at the top of the leaderboard. Mercedes and Ferrari, the two teams leading the championship in 2018, declined to take part in the show’s first season, forcing the film crew to seek out other stories.

“We met amazing characters like Guenther Steiner, who had been in the sport for ages, but nobody had seemed to realize that this guy was interesting,” Rogers explains.

How else has it affected American culture?

While the sizable uptick in American Formula 1 fans has been well-documented in recent years, less attention has been paid to the other ways in which Drive to Survive’s dramatic take on Formula 1 — and motorsports culture at large — has seeped into American life.

In November 2022, as America’s interest in Drive to Survive went into overdrive, writer India Roby coined the term “motorcore” to describe how motorsports had infiltrated the fashion zeitgeist. Suddenly, people across the U.S., from celebrities to folks who hadn’t ever watched Formula 1, were tracking down vintage Ferrari jackets. Fashion houses like Chanel were also incorporating motorcore into its runway shows.

“F1 hype feels ‘newish’ to a lot of folks,” Roby tells Yahoo Entertainment. “They want to rep their newfound hobby. Motorcore fashion does just that, and it gives off an ‘if you know, you know’ vibe.”

There’s also an accessibility to motorcore fashion that means people who don’t even follow the sport or watch DTS can partake as well.

The sartorial shift has been a boon for people in the sport.

“F1 drivers are becoming fashion stars and celebrities in their own rights,” she says. “We haven't seen that in F1 or motorsports in the past.”

F1 driver Lewis Hamilton, a longtime style icon, has gotten increased attention in recent years for his elaborate weekend outfits; driver Zhou Guanyu has partnerships with brands like Dior; and Daniel Ricciardo, whom many consider the breakout star and early season “narrator” of DTS, attended his first-ever Met Gala in 2023 with designer Thom Browne.

Daniel Ricciardo
Daniel Ricciardo attends the 2023 Met Gala. (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Hollywood races to Formula 1

Interest in DTS not only led production company Box to Box to create new docuseries for more than half a dozen sports, it also created an uptick in motorsports-inspired TV shows and movies. Most notably, Brad Pitt has been working on a new F1-inspired movie.

This also includes the drivers themselves. Ricciardo is plucking away at a scripted series for Hulu based on his experiences in the sport, while former Haas team principal Steiner is developing a workplace comedy for CBS.

“There's plenty of drama and excitement to pull from,” talent agent Daniela Trejo tells Yahoo Entertainment. While many projects may fall to the wayside due to the nature of the industry, she’s particularly intrigued to see what Ricciardo’s show looks like. “His approach to life and racing are just so fun, and as cliché as it is to say, his authenticity is magnetic,” she says.

Formula 1's celebrity culture

Drive to Survive and its way of framing Formula 1 is also part of the massive resurgence in a “wives and girlfriends” (WAGs) culture seen across different sports. Formula 1’s WAGs were in the spotlight long before Taylor Swift stepped onto a football field to support boyfriend Travis Kelce.

“I'm sure there's an element of F1 fans being hungry for more behind-the-scenes content after watching Drive To Survive and turning to the WAGs' social media accounts for that very thing,” pop culture and F1 reporter Emily Selleck explains to Yahoo Entertainment.

Because of that interest, Drive to Survive has continued to feature drivers’ and team principals’ significant others more frequently. “There's an element of aspiration when it comes to Formula 1 WAGs,” Selleck says. “For the most part, none of them are major celebrities, so it's fun to follow these genetically blessed women with relatively normal lives and careers living out the fantasy so many people dream of.”

Many of them have even become part of their partners’ public personas. Stake driver Valtteri Bottas works on several businesses with girlfriend Tiffany Cromwell, an Australian Olympic cyclist, and even took up competitive cycling himself. Mercedes racer George Russell and longtime girlfriend Carmen Montero Mundt are now official Tommy Hilfiger ambassadors.

DTS executive producer Tom Rogers is aware that some fans believe that the series has negatively affected Formula 1, but he chooses to see the positives around its success and its influence on the sport, like people developing a new interest and finding a sense of community that they might not have otherwise.

He thinks of his 8-year-old son and his peers. “His friends talk about Formula 1. When you're at the school gates, you see people wearing Formula 1 merch and people talk about the sport in a much more general zeitgeist way,” he says. “That's just how Formula 1's permeating culture now. That’s a testament to the Drive to Survive strategy.”

Plus, sports need to find new audiences to keep growing and thriving.

While Rogers hopes people watch the actual races and even attend a Grand Prix weekend in person if they’re able to, “it doesn't really matter how you get into a sport,” he says. “If you get into it by Drive to Survive, then great.”

Formula 1: Drive to Survive Season 6 is streaming on Netflix Feb. 23.

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