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Drive to thrive: Netflix's docuseries a boost for Formula 1

Racing in the U.S. has generally been dominated by NASCAR, but ESPN's Formula 1 ratings are up and some people in and around the industry say the streaming giant has made a difference.
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Canadian Formula One driver Lance Stroll during the qualifying session at the Intecity Park circuit in Istanbul on Nov. 14, 2020.Murad Sezer / Pool via Getty Images

There's a growing refrain from people who have started following Formula One racing in the past few years: I saw it on Netflix.

The Formula One World Championship, already extremely popular outside the U.S., is setting TV ratings records and drawing in new fans thanks in large part to "Drive to Survive," a docuseries on Netflix that goes behind the scenes to chronicle the on- and off-track drama surrounding what is globally considered the premiere autosport. 

Six races into the 23-event season, ESPN ratings are averaging 911,000 viewers, up 50 percent from the 2020 season and 36 percent from 2019, according to data from the sports channel. Viewership for the French Grand Prix on June 20 hit 1.1 million viewers, the biggest audience in the U.S. since the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix that was broadcast on ABC. By comparison, first-round games for the NBA Playoffs averaged 3 million viewers

The anecdotal evidence of the Netflix effect — its reputation as the most powerful single platform in modern media — is ample. Netflix is stingy with its viewership data, but its ability to turn box-office bombs into at-home hits is well chronicled. A spokesperson for the company said the most recent season, its third, attracted the largest audience yet.

"What other shows are as good at converting to sports fandom as Netflix’s 'Drive to Survive'?" tweeted Kayvon Beykpour, the head of product at Twitter. "I went from not knowing anything about @F1 to being hardcore obsessed and waking up in the wee hours to watch race day."

It's a phenomenon that's clear to people inside the sport.

“It’s got to be the single most important impact in North America,” Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing, which competes in Formula 1, said in a recent media briefing. “Almost every comment you get out of someone out of the U.S., they reference ‘Drive to Survive.’”

Ian Holmes, director of media rights and content creation for Formula 1, said the Netflix series — when combined with ESPN's broadcasts — have changed perceptions of the sport in the U.S.

"Netflix has enabled us to showcase the sport in a whole different light, making the drivers and team principals overnight celebrities to a new audience," he said in an email. "The series has also made it easier for fans in the US to understand our sport, which is one of the key barriers we face when engaging non and casual fans."

Holmes said the league is currently in talks with Netflix about a fourth season.

Some outside data points highlight how U.S. interest in Formula 1, also known as F1, has risen since 2019, when the first season of "Drive to Survive" debuted. Data from Google Trends shows search interest has peaked in recent weeks, hitting levels almost double the top search interest in 2017.

Dan Singer, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company in the media and entertainment practice, said that sports documentaries aren't a particularly new form of entertainment but can take on a new power when paired with Netflix's total audience — now about 74 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada.

And while he was hesitant to attribute all of Formula 1's recent success to Netflix, he did say other leagues have taken notice.

"I can say that other leagues are building groups to pursue nonfiction program development because they see that effect that it’s had in Formula One and also the effect that it's had in basketball and football," Singer said.

ESPN is also hesitant to directly link Formula One and Netflix.

"There is not a way to quantify if the Netflix series has contributed to the audience increases, but it certainly hasn’t hurt," John Suchenski, ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions, said in an email. "Having additional F1 content out there that reaches a wide and different audience helps increase awareness and interest, and hopefully incentivizes them to tune into the races. A rising tide lifts all boats."

Formula One driver Romain Grosjean survived a crash at the Bahrain GP in November 2020. Drive To Survive / Netflix

Racing in the U.S. has generally been dominated by NASCAR, which was also resilient during the pandemic when most sports TV ratings declined. In Europe and Asia, Formula 1 dominates. The league says an average of 87.4 million people watched each race in 2020, a slight decline from previous years. 

But the U.S. and North America as a whole have been tough to crack. For various stretches of time in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the U.S. hosted no Formula 1 races. Austin, Texas, has hosted the U.S. Grand Prix since 2012, and Miami added a race in 2022.

That began to change in 2017 when the U.S. company Liberty Media bought Formula 1 for $4.4 billion. Less than three years later, the first episode of "Drive to Survive" debuted on Netflix. And while the series is reportedly not much of a moneymaker for the racing league, its angle on the sport turns it into the kind of promotional coverage that's hard to buy.

"Drive to Survive" offers a behind-the-scenes look at the outsized egos, rivalries and destinations — races take place around the world, including Monaco and Shanghai — that provide the kind of drama even racing neophytes can appreciate. Formula 1 races are usually shorter than NASCAR races, the cars a little faster (around 230 mph to speed compared to about 200 mph), and the tracks come in a variety of shapes and sizes

"The F1 thing is sneaky AF. I previously had no s---s to give," tweeted tech investor Chris Sacca. "Then that Netflix series happens and now I have multiple fantasy teams and set my alarm to watch it all live with the kids."

The growing popularity of Formula 1 probably won't threaten NASCAR or any of the major sports leagues, but people in and around the sport are enjoying its upswing. Tim Hauraney, a former professional driver who is now a Formula 1 commentator and analyst for Canada’s The Sports Network, said the difference is palpable.

"I've never seen it like this, and I've been involved in the sport, in racing, since I was 9 years old," he said.

Hauraney said the Netflix show has successfully captured what he loves about Formula 1.

"I wanted people to see what I saw, see the sport for how I see it, which is the personalities, the stories," he said. "When I watched Season 1 I said, 'Yep there it is.'"