Five reasons why F1’s Drive to Survive success hasn’t been replicated

Elizabeth Blackstock
Drive to Survive has brought huge success for Netflix.

Drive to Survive has been credited as a massive reason behind Formula 1's growth in the United States.

Everywhere you turn, it seems as if a new motorsport discipline is releasing its own version of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive. NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula E, and MotoGP have all released their own takes on the docuseries format – but they’ve all fallen flat when compared to the original.

But why has no other motorsport discipline succeeded in the creation of its own DTS-style docuseries, despite the fact that so many have come to the fore in the past four years?

From IndyCar’s 100 Days to Indy to NASCAR’s two attempts at the docuseries – Race for the Championship and the upcoming NASCAR: Full Speed – all the way to Formula E’s Unplugged, it is time to look at what has caused these once-coveted shows to blend into the background of a current sport documentary overload.

Production Value

Drive to Survive is a Netflix docuseries created by award-winning production company Box To Box Films. The show is compelling not just because of the storylines being told, but because the high-quality production value lends a sense of legitimacy and gravitas to the company’s resulting films.

When the docuseries was first released, audiences familiar with the long history of fairly mediocre motorsport films were impressed by DTS‘s grandiosity. It looked important, so it felt important.

Box To Box’s excellent quality, however, has set a difficult precedent for other motorsport docuseries to emulate. American open-wheel’s 100 Days to Indy and NASCAR’s Race for the Championship were both designed to air on American television channels like The CW and USA, respectively.

As a result, they certainly feel like American made-for-TV specials, with reduced production value and a lack of innovative storytelling. The shows are mostly fine, but they immediately suffered thanks to their own comparisons to the bigger-budget Drive to Survive.

The result? A product that is instantly compared to Drive to Survive and that almost instantly falls flat for viewers who have come to expect a more bombastic presentation.

Fewer Compelling Storylines

While Drive to Survive has struggled as of late to develop intriguing storylines based on the content provided by the goings on of the series, Formula 1 primarily benefits from one guarantee: money and history will serve as the basis for most narratives.

Whether that means interrogating Williams’ lack of performance given its past successes or highlighting questionable sponsors that plague newer teams, DTS can easily create something fascinating from those two elements alone.

Every other form of motorsport does have its own concerns with money and with history, but in the case of things like MotoGP, IndyCar, or NASCAR, the stakes are much lower — whether that’s because of lower budgets, less history, or a combination of both.

American open-wheel racing, for example, has existed for generations, but IndyCar’s history of infighting has offered a huge barrier in historical continuity; as a result, teams have less money, and the sport overall is not the same lucrative prospect of F1, a sport that benefits from its long history.

This isn’t to say that IndyCar, NASCAR, MotoGP, or any other sport isn’t interesting; in fact, many fans would easily argue that the on-track action in those three series easily surpasses anything that F1 could provide.

However, “good racing” doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of overall spectacle of wealth and deep history provided by F1 — and that presents a massive challenge to anyone tasked with creating fascinating stories based on the footage.

The Conditions Are All Wrong

Here in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the mildly successful Drive to Survive series into a full-on sensation. As lengthy lockdowns confined us to our homes, we grew more and more interested in exploring the depths of our streaming services for a spectacle.

What started as a thirst for the complex tales and frankly unbelievable fascination with Tiger King became an interest in exploration: If the silly and strange universe of Tiger King could provide an escape, so could Drive to Survive introduce new fans to something they’d never heard of before: Formula 1.

Many Americans binge-watched the show, captivated by the extremely European world of international open-wheel racing.

As restrictions lifted and the world slowly returned to normal, Formula 1 had the benefit of being one of the first sports to host events in late 2020.

Even though fans were barred from attending events, competition-hungry sports fans of all sorts found themselves grateful for something to watch and engage in with others via social media.

For many people with small “bubbles,” the communal experience of watching an F1 race with strangers online provided a very enjoyable way to engage in something that wasn’t heavy sociopolitical discourse.

Following that came the fantastically competitive 2021 season, with a championship that went down to the final laps of the final race.

That created a perfect storm of interest to engage new fans, and it would be frankly impossible to replicate that scenario again.

There is currently no global reason for millions of people to explore new content from the uninterrupted comfort of their couches; even if, say, MotoGP released the most fascinating documentary ever, it would still fail to engage audiences in the same way as Drive to Survive because the environmental conditions are so distinct.

Sport Documentary Burnout

Everywhere you look, a different sport has announced a new documentary series. Golf, tennis, soccer, cycling, surfing, bull riding, wrestling, baseball, American football: all of these varying forms of sport have released their own take on Drive to Survive in the past four years — and that’s not taking into account motorsport specific shows, like Formula E Unplugged, NASCAR: Full Speed, NASCAR’s Race for the Championship, IndyCar’s 100 Days to Indy, or MotoGP Unlimited.

Many of these documentaries attempt to emulate a DTS-style format that purports to reveal never-before-seen details about each sport as its season unfolds, weaving in no-holds-barred interviews and glamorous establishing shots to create something seemingly unique.

The problem is that so many diverse sports are using this same format that it has become a challenge to separate one documentary from the next.

This isn’t the fault of the sports so much as it comes down to the way the modern film industry does business; superhero movies were once guaranteed blockbuster hits, but after years of releases and hundreds of films, audiences are no longer showing up to the theater.

We’ve grown tired of being sold a similar premise, albeit repackaged with new characters.

We’re seeing a similar sense of burnout with the sport documentary. Few new documentaries are reinventing the docuseries format, which results in shows that all feel the same, even if the content is different.

We’ve already seen Drive to Survive; why should we want to watch it again, but with different drivers from different series that don’t quite ooze the same charm as the original inspiration?

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It’s Getting Derivative

The moment I hear someone describe a new show as “the Drive to Survive” of its respective sporting discipline my eyes almost immediately glaze over. I’ve already watched Drive to Survive; why should I want to watch countless different versions of the same format?

While that particular issue stems in part from sport documentary burnout, I’ve also found that it also involves a frustration at the lack of nuance offered to developing a new concept. Not every form of motorsport is equipped for a DTS-style docuseries that highlights high-level, multi-million dollar battles to be the best racing team in the world.

IndyCar, for example, is a much smaller affair; attempting to present the sport as having the same cut-throat atmosphere as Formula 1 doesn’t adequately reflect what the series is. Further, it also does a disservice to the very things that make IndyCar unique.

American open-wheel tried to replicate the docuseries format with its 100 Days to Indy series, which aired weekly on The CW in America. To say that the show was a flop would perhaps be an understatement; on most days, more people watched the reruns that aired on The CW immediately before and after 100 Days to Indy than the actual docuseries itself. I grew disinterested almost immediately courtesy of the series’ attempt to replicate a DTS vibe.

While the Indianapolis 500 may be the biggest race in the world, the overall IndyCar Championship still doesn’t hold a candle to Formula 1.

The cars are out of date, the financial stakes during a race weekend are much lower, and there are far fewer rivalries that can be milked for their dramatic content. A DTS format doesn’t work for a series of that nature; instead, I’d argue that the YouTube series Bus Bros was a more compelling and accurate representation of the IndyCar field.

Hosted by Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, the series followed the drivers as they traveled from track to track, interviewing fans and fellow drivers along the way — all with a fantastic sense of humor. It felt truer to the spirit of the sport, and it proved to be the better selling feature for the F1 fans who asked me how to begin learning about the personalities and sport of IndyCar.

Sadly, because a DTS-style format has worked for one sport, it becomes the easiest format to replicate for all sports, whether or not those sports would be best represented by that structure.

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