‘Utterly harrowing’ – When ‘Drive to Survive’ meant something completely different in F1

Alex Spink
An Ayrton Senna flag hangs at the Imola circuit.

F1 returns to Imola: 2024 marks 30th anniversary of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger's tragic deaths

Simon Lazenby is gazing in horror at newly unearthed footage from a time when ‘drive to survive’ meant something different in Formula 1.

“Some of this has never been seen before,” the lead presenter of Sky Sports F1 coverage told PlanetF1.com. “Some of it is utterly harrowing.

The tape is of Imola and the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, that catastrophic race weekend which changed the sport forever.

On successive days Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed, sparking fears, expressed by then FIA president Max Mosley, that F1 itself would not survive.

Thirty years later not only is it still going it is back at the Italian track, a sport transformed both in driver safety and mass audience appeal.

“It has grown exponentially,” Lazenby continues. “To witness it at first hand has been nothing short of remarkable.”

He thinks of the video tape which has come his way in the course of making a film about Damon Hill, Senna’s then team mate, and Hill’s dad, Graham.

“You really get the sense of that thunderous weekend,” he says. “It was absolutely awful. From Rubens Barrichello’s crash and JJ Lehto stalling to what happened to Roland and Ayrton.

“People are talking about the cars being too powerful for some of the tracks; Senna, seen an hour before he walked away to get into the car for the last time, is clearly already rattled by what has happened.

“How different are things now? The short answer is very.”

Lazenby tells a story about a conversation with Sean Bratches, managing director of commercial operations when Liberty Media took control of the sport in 2016, which first opened his eyes to what was coming.

“He mentioned their plan to introduce an F1 range of five luxury scents,” recalls the broadcaster. “I thought, ‘Okay, well that’s an interesting path to go down’! Then he mentioned a show they planned to do with Netflix.

“That piqued my interest, working for the main broadcaster, and I wondered exactly how Netflix were going to come in and make that work.

“We didn’t have to wait long to find out. From the moment Drive to Survive dropped it totally and utterly changed the sport, almost overnight. And we have all been beneficiaries. It’s pushed our viewing figures miles northwards.”

The global audience for a show now in its sixth season has reached as high as seven million, of whom around a third are under 30. Since the docu-series started in 2019 the average age of F1 fans has come down from 44 to 32.

Those on the outside aware of little more than Max Verstappen wins almost all the races and Red Bull have had some off-track issues to work through, might question the appeal.

To which Lazenby explains: “The fascination of this sport is that it’s more than just sport. It has properly found the intersection between automotive, sponsors’ business, political intrigue and the sporting side itself.

“It’s more than just what happens on the track. You’ve got the bones of a very good soap opera that’s played out within the reality realms there and that gives people a lovely introduction into the live stuff.

“I think that’s why it can generate such big viewing figures, even when the racing has been more predictable than in previous times.”

Whether Lando Norris’ win for McLaren in Miami last time out makes the sport any less predictable going forward time will tell. Lazenby is optimistic.

He says: “F1 absolutely needed something like that to happen this year and I think it’s given the whole sport a tonic.

“Yes, we had a safety car which played into Lando’s hands but when he got into the clean air at the end the McLaren, certainly on a track like that which has a reasonable mix of corners, looked as though it was a match for Red Bull.

“That has made people excited. If we can now see McLaren do this on a variety of tracks then we’ve got a championship. The fact it was a British driver in a McLaren only adds to the excitement.”

More on McLaren’s resurgence

👉 Uncovered: The mighty McLaren MCL38 upgrades threatening to dethrone Red Bull’s RB20

👉 Revealed: Why McLaren’s ‘ginormous’ upgrade could work even better at Imola

Norris, 24, had to wait 110 races for his first win but believes the next is just around the the corner and that McLaren will seriously challenge for the Constructors’ Championship next year.

“Miami was a big moment in Lando’s career,” agrees Lazenby. “We are very lucky as British motor sport fans to have him and George Russell following in the footsteps of Lewis [Hamilton].

“They’ve grown up watching Lewis. They aspire to be as good as he is and they have seen from him what it takes, what level of dedication, to get there.

“Lando has been utterly obsessed with racing since he was knee high to a grasshopper and is now at that elite level. If you’re judging everyone versus Max, I think he is very close in behind.

“What I particularly love is that he’s such a grounded guy.

“Sometimes they come through, these drivers, and they morph before your eyes from wanting to be on TV and give as much as they can, to then having their first big contract and their interest in doing media falling away a little bit. And then they become Lewis or Max and they don’t have to do it.

“As you saw from the lie detector test Lando did on Sky Sports F1 – when he predicted he would win a grand prix BEFORE Miami – he is one of those guys still as down to earth now as he was when he started. For that reason he is very popular.”

So to Imola where Lazenby admits the events of 1994 inevitably still cast a shadow over the modern day.

“What happened back then is never far from anyone’s minds in F1,” he says. “It’s a shame because it’s a great circuit where we’ve had some fantastic racing, but I think it will always be associated with that weekend.

“Ayrton is a legend who will never be forgotten.”

Read next: In his own words: Adrian Newey recounts memories of Ayrton Senna’s Imola accident