For a long time I was cold to Formula One. So why am I writing a review about a documentary series on the event? That’s because the said series has been crafted superbly and walks a thin line, which in retrospect I find, explains why I was unmoved by the sport and why I believe, I have begun to understand it.
If there is one word I would use to describe the 2019 Netflix series Formula One: Drive to Survive, it is: pressure. That attribute fills every ounce of the sport. For me, it worked as key unlocking a puzzle. My tryst with Formula One was as visits to the home of a gainfully employed friend, who, aside from time spent with family and friends, breathed the corporate life. Every time I was at his house watching a TV screen showing cars going round and round on a circuit, I would wonder: what’s so great about this?
A freelance journalist with feet in wider reality (and not owning a car to boot), I found the sport to be a rich man’s game; one that cost big money to host and wherein, the equivalent of a backpack damaged while hiking or a shoe worn out by running, was a smashed up car. When that happened, they just threw away the broken parts, found new ones and continued driving or, they wrote off cars and rolled in new ones. It appeared sheer materialistic excess. Perhaps I was being needlessly judgemental; committing that classic human error of looking for meaning where there is none. Anyways, something wasn’t connecting. All the while, my friend’s eyes stayed glued to the telecast.
Watching the Netflix series and stumbling upon pressure as the missing link eluding me, I felt the puzzle explained. The whole paradigm of high performance cars, quick driver reflexes, million dollar investments and large companies for players is accompanied by both prospects of tremendous possibility and, accountability. The result is a pressure cooker environment in sport that isn’t any different from the regular corporate ambiance. There is a hill (a points table) to climb every season and the urge, clearly, is to reach the top. The racing team may have the driver for poster boy and popular star. But given there are two drivers in each team and they must prove their mettle to stay indispensable, the mutual competition and insecurity can eat their innards. The real power is the team principal and the power behind the power is brand and financier; none of this – rules and variables influencing rules – lost on those accepting corporate logic. Very often, the fate of otherwise talented drivers is decided by this brew. I think I now understand why Formula One attracted my friend and others like him. Besides being intense sport, it probably endorses the professional space they inhabit.
I also understood the specific visceral pulls working within that larger attraction, the biggest of which is the raw act of driving at very high speed. At such speeds the stimuli we normally process for making decisions, appear and disappear like a flash. Given there are 20 drivers in all at the teams, there are 19 others (call them projectiles) besides you, processing stuff at manic pace on a given circuit. Things can go wrong in seconds. It is intense. The kinetic presence of other drivers around you, their capacity for individual madness, the challenges of each course and the fact that your skilled driving notwithstanding, your car is only as good as its support by other team members – all this, authors a dynamic environment, one that is pretty much like a car engine; a symphony of several components, a sum total of parts. It is innovation, coordination and discipline. It parallels corporate in attributes and instinct. It is said of some sports that it is meant for adrenaline junkies. I would say this one is for the pressure junkies. Being in a Formula One cockpit – be it driver’s seat (where the action is) or that of the team principal (where strategy is) – is a test of how much pressure you can take.
The beauty of this Netflix documentary series about the 2018 and 2019 Formula One seasons is how it has captured and delivered the thin line defining the sport, accurately. It has little flab in narration this side or that of the line it is treading. It stays taut; drives home that pressure. This is an eminently watchable series. However expect no great investigation of the sport or effort to contextualize it beyond racing circuit. This is a collaboration between Netflix and Formula One. It makes you feel that it hits hard but actually plays by the rules; which the way the series has turned out, isn’t bad at all.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)