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Drive to Survive review: F1 fans will be gripped by a series way ahead of the pack

“Stay calm – we will get the f***ers.”

Barely a minute into season four of Drive to Survive and we’re all in. A compilation of crashes, expletives, explosions and wry smiles from some of the most recognisable faces on the planet, grimaces and sharp-tongued utterances from some of the richest people. The retelling of one of the most remarkable campaigns in all of sport has not even begun, and yet already the compulsion is to tell it to shut up and take our money.

On Friday, 11 March, Netflix will throw open the doors of Formula One’s 2021 season with the expectation that it will break the records set by the previous three. To have bared real-time witness to the rollercoaster that culminated in Max Verstappen’s maiden title in remarkable fashion was to have watched something very special. And throughout a year where the narrative turned just as sharply as the cars on the track, the anticipation of the newest offering of Drive to Survive was almost too great to comprehend.

There was enough edge to merely replay all 23 races and still leave people satisfied. In fact some within F1 were wary that exaggerating the tension in post-production might give the show a level of conceit it has done well to avoid. But don’t worry. Having been granted preview access to the first four episodes, The Independent can confirm the makers have allowed the main storyline to flourish of its own accord while adding much-needed colour to everything else around it.

The hits are played loud and proud, of course. You can’t really get away from them, which is no bad thing for first-timers or established viewers.

Christian Horner’s main character syndrome is dialled up to 11. Of the collection of staged clips, the podium of Hornerisms features by a cinematic run down a country path surrounded by abandoned fields, “candid” moments on horseback and even a scene showing off his marksmanship with a shotgun. Alas, there is no showdown with Clubber Lang, no ascension into a tyrannical despot. As nauseating as some may find those moments, the symbiotic relationship between the show and the Red Bull Team principal is a key part of this caper. And it is in gloriously rude health.

The more trivial elements that we should be used to by now still pack the same punch. There’s something about the “f***s” and “bull****s” thrown about during the more pressurised moments that really yanks on the childish chords within, transporting you back to school when you’d hear a teacher swear and realise the gravity of a situation.

That serves as a constant reminder of how willing the access is, and how far ahead of the pack Drive to Survive remains. Of course, we do not see all the warts and the way in which “no comment” responses are kept in to puncture the air, accompanied by the familiar trope of atmospheric background music coming to an abrupt halt, maintains an air of salaciousness. The lack of one-on-one time with newly crowned champion Verstappen, who objects to what he perceives as an economy with the truth from producers, is a glaring absence that is filled somewhat by snippets from the cockpit and other media engagements. But the colour elsewhere is more than enough to satisfy and have you wondering about others further behind even as you watch Lewis Hamilton shunt Verstappen off the track at Silverstone.

Netflix reveal teaser trailer for Drive to Survive season four

The plight of Daniel Ricciardo is especially fertile ground here following his move to McLaren. F1’s crown prince, the man many expect to be king, continued to struggle, eventually finishing eighth in the driver’s standings – two spots below enigmatic teammate Lando Norris.

Rivalries between drivers in the same car is a tale as old as time. Yet there are elements to the passive aggression between Riccardo and Norris that belies their chilled exteriors. Enough for the McLaren media team to stage an awkward sit-down with the pair after Norris said he had no sympathy for the Australian’s earlier travails, having himself outlined his intentions to camera to make Riccardo’s stay as awkward as possible. Factor in Norris’s previously strong bromance with Carlos Sainz, who moved to Ferrari, it’s hard not to see the dollop of Real Housewives laid on this storyline, not least as Norris makes no attempt to hide the affection that remains for Sainz.

Arguably the most dramatic strand belongs to Haas and the situation around young upstart Nikita Mazepin. The documentary does more than allude to the fact Mazepin’s presence in the paddock has a lot to do with his father, Dmitry, a Russian oligarch (currently under the microscope for his ties to Vladimir Putin) who is essentially funding the operation. Both father and son converse openly – albeit in their mother tongue – of the paranoia that Nikita’s car is that little bit worse than teammate Mick Schumacher. A series of recorded hissy fits is followed by a very real threat from Dmitry that he will pull the floor out from under Haas if they do not pander to his son. Nikita is given a new chassis for his home Grand Prix in Sochi and finishes 18th. Following the invasion of Ukraine, how both driver and benefactor feature in 2022 remains up in the air. The Russian Grand Prix has already been wiped from 2022’s schedule.

Indeed the new season has not even started and yet themes such as this already feel integral to season five of Drive to Survive. Even as a sports entertainment product, the producers have made sure to reflect the world around it, and current geopolitical issues will not be sugarcoated. Just as Season Three saw them address the uncomfortable issues brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement, the spectre of Covid hangs in Four. One of the more striking nuggets is the first sight of Hamilton’s Covid-anxiety at Silverstone – the first race to welcome back a full attendance. “Why are they so close?” he whispers to his minder on his way to an open-air fan meet-and-greet, despite them being far enough away that he had to address them through a microphone. Having been struck down by the virus in December 2020, he makes no secret of his fear of contracting it again derailing his push for title number eight.

Title number eight does not come, of course. And we’ve only just stopped talking about the how and why that was. Yet there is no doubt the final episode of season four will eclipse the 39 episodes before it for intrigue, drama and anticipation. The first glimpse of race director Michael Masi in episode three felt like the early introduction of the killer in a murder mystery.

Only, there is no mystery. We all saw it unfold because we were all too aware that the most dramatic campaign of Formula One racing was taking place right in front of us and were all floored by its conclusion. But that is the hold Drive to Survive has us in. We all know what happens – we’re just here for the story.

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