If you’ve not come across Drive to Survive, Formula 1’s fly-on-the-wall Netflix documentary series, now might be a good time to start.
The third series of the show, as ever, helps whet the appetite for the coming season, which gets underway this weekend in Bahrain.
The series turns one of the most high-pressure, high-octane sports in the world into a rollercoaster docudrama by following various personalities from the grid over the course of the previous season.
Drive to Survive takes the viewer inside the bubble, riding the wave of coronavirus cancellations and back-room drama, right through to drivers sobbing after getting their maiden F1 win in one of TV’s most watchable sporting documentaries.
The opening scene of the series shows Daniel Ricciardo talking with his mum Grace ahead of testing in Barcelona.
It’s February. Coronavirus is just starting to sweep the globe.
Ms Ricciardo asks Daniel whether he has been wearing his face mask when travelling.
“Mum, it’s cool,” he says.
“Apparently if you drink Corona, it builds your immune. It was never my favourite beer but I’ll drink it if I have to.”
Of course, the pandemic proved to be nothing to joke about, and coronavirus’s ominous threat looms as the key factor in the dramatic opening episode — although by the end, it’s relegated to a footnote — even Lewis Hamilton’s positive test is given just one sentence.
In Melbourne though, it’s front and centre.
From Ricciardo’s jocular opening comments in Barcelona through to the nervous snippets of conversation we garner from drivers in Melbourne, with the small, almost clandestine gatherings of fearful personnel in the paddock, the shift perfectly encapsulates the sweep of emotions that built into the apprehension many felt in March 2020.
Once the decision to abandon was made, even the carefully produced edits of film barely disguised the rushed and chaotic nature of the postponement.
Claire Williams said they should not be racing. Red Bull’s Christian Horner said they should.
The footage of a silent, empty, padlocked Albert Park course, overlaying nervous soundbites from concerned team bosses, is haunting — particularly given what Melbourne would go on to experience during its extended lockdown.
Of course, racing did get underway, but as with previous seasons, the on-track action exists only to provide a framework through which to portray the genuine human drama in Drive to Survive.
The end of the affair
Daniel Ricciardo always features heavily in Drive to Survive, and season three is no different, in which episode five deals with his stunning split from Renault.
“I’ve done my best in not being hurt, in not making it personal, Daniel leaving me,” now former Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul says, sounding every inch the jilted lover.
Abiteboul’s body language and statement, which comes right at the start of an episode titled “The End of the Affair” which deals with Ricciardo’s exit from the French team, underlines the hurt that the Frenchman felt in the Australian leaving the team.
Ricciardo admits that, although leaving was his decision, there were “a few sleepless nights … trying to figure out what was best”.
He said that after a shocker of a season in 2019 — where he finished ninth in the standings, failing to finish three races — his signing guarantee of being able to compete for podiums in his second season was not possible.
“Deep down, I knew that I had to go,” he says.
He added that, at 31, he “can’t afford to chance any more seasons” and that McLaren “was in a better place than Renault was.”
Ricciardo’s awkward exchanges with Abiteboul in episode five highlights the difficult atmosphere in the garage — one which Horner says would be akin to one where you’d been dumped by a girlfriend, who hasn’t moved out of your house yet.
Abiteboul himself describes Ricciardo’s decision as a “breakup” and admitted that there was a “period of time” where they hadn’t spoken.
Abiteboul outlines that his disappointment stems from the fact that there was still much Ricciardo could have achieved with the team, including after the breakout performance at Silverstone where Ricciardo finished fourth and his teammate, Esteban Ocon, finished sixth.
Footage shows the pair awkwardly exchanging pleasantries — like exes meeting in the bar — where Abiteboul thanks Ricciardo for his race.
“Frankly, I think he is making a mistake,” Abiteboul says later.
Ricciardo too, appears to show some doubts by the end of the episode.
“Sitting here today [after Silverstone] I don’t know if it’s the best call I’ve ever made or not,” he says, for once, his confident, happy-go-lucky facade slipping slightly.
Man on fire
The most dramatic sporting incident in 2020 was undoubtedly Romain Grosjean’s crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The episode that chronicled it is the most dramatic TV you’ll watch in 2021.
Underpinned by a soundtrack worthy of a Christopher Nolan epic, episode nine begins with a bang.
We are shown the opening seconds of the Bahrain Grand Prix from a variety of in-car cameras.
Incredibly, we are also given Grosjean’s reaction to realising he’s about to hit the barrier.
“F***,” is all Grosjean had time to say before hitting the barrier at 192kph.
Even knowing the positive outcome from the crash, the footage of the pit crew and drivers is incredibly moving.
Screams can be heard over the footage of the car burning, while an unnamed mechanic says “get him out of there,” as everyone looks on at the inferno in horror.
Stunned communications from the drivers are played as they circle back around to the pits, all the while Grosjean’s stricken Haas continues to burn.
Grosjean was trapped in the cockpit for 27 seconds, but we’re teased for over four minutes before we see the Frenchman emerge surreally from the flames.
“How the f*** did he get out of that?” Carlos Oñoro Sainz, Carlos Sainz’s manager, says as we see Grosjean walk to an ambulance and disappear off to hospital.
Then, within seconds, we’re back racing — and Lance Stroll is upside down after being flipped — the insanity of Formula 1 laid bare.
Grosjean’s emotional reunion with Haas the following week is in direct contrast to his matter-of-fact description of his escape, where he vividly details his thought process as he wondered what part of him would start burning first.
Watching the reaction of drivers to Grosjean’s crash relates strongly to the poignancy of episode six’s moving sequence at Spa-Francorchamps, where Pierre Gasly laid flowers at Raidillon corner where his friend, Anthonie Hubert died in 2019.
Gasly had, just that week, been sacked from Red Bull and demoted to the junior team, Toro Rosso.
“After I got moved from Red Bull, Anthonie sent me a message, ‘prove everybody wrong and show them your skills and talent,'” Gasly says.
In 2020, Gasly would win his first F1 race — one of the most heartening moments in the entire series — at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.
In Belgium, walking away from the makeshift shrine, Gasly looked back over his shoulder, flanked by members of his team and perfectly describes the sport as a whole with three short words.
“F****** crazy, huh?”