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Formula 1 drivers are the dullest stars that have ever bothered reality-television

Patrick Freyne: Why do Formula 1 drivers bother with expensive, uncomfortable cars? I have a cost-effective Nissan Micra that smells of Haribo Supermix

As someone who uses the Top 10 TV Programmes strip on the Netflix homepage to learn what you animals* watch on your days off, I have just encountered Drive to Survive. This is an ongoing reality show about a sport called Formula 1, which I can appreciate because it’s essentially a competition that’s all about punctuality. Synopsis: it’s about a bunch of men who are in a rush to get somewhere on time.

As someone who is extremely punctual, I am confident that I would win at Formula 1. I would largely achieve this by leaving a half-hour earlier. I’m aware that most of the drivers typically win by driving really, really fast. But this means they have to have expensive and uncomfortable cars while I have a cost-effective 16-year-old Nissan Micra that smells of Haribo Supermix and can fairly be called a jalopy. There’s a little chimney on it. Indeed, if it’s a sunny day when I’m competing I might even walk.

Furthermore, doing things my way would allow the commentators to use verbs they haven’t used in years. “Freyne tootles past the finish line!” they might say, or, “There he goes, chugging along, carefully checking his wing mirrors and waving at neighbours,” and, “Now he’s turning into a Circle K for some Haribo Supermix. I wasn’t aware we had those at the track.”

The existence of Drive to Survive can be explained by the fact that Netflix can’t (yet) do live sporting events so must drag in sports-obsessed eyeballs in a different way. The “success” of Drive to Survive, on the other hand, can possibly be explained by extended exposure to petrol fumes. These smiling young extreme motorists waft vaguely around places such as Monaco or Saudi Arabia happily oblivious to the smell of hoarded money or totalitarianism. They’re the dullest reality-television stars that have ever bothered the fabric of reality. Their media training has boiled any remaining personalities away until all that’s left are merchandising deals and jumpsuits.


Meanwhile, the outcomes of the races seem to be already known by the fans, so they are presented without context and are confusing and hard to follow. I can only represent them thus: Vrum-vrum, vroooom, putter-putter-putter, vroooom, beep beep, “why, I oughta!”, vroooom. (It’s possible, for all I know, that that’s what the best motor-racing journalism reads like and I might be about to win some big prize.)

“My dad and I have a pretty good relationship, I think. We go way back,” says Lance Stroll at one point, explaining his career with very little comic timing

The owners and managers are slightly more interesting than the drivers. In the first episode of the current series we meet manicured, sockless billionaire Lawrence Stroll, who I initially suspect has purchased a Formula 1 team in order to dramatically subvert the expectations set by his own name. The only way he could sound less like a Formula 1 mogul is if he was called Legs Walkytime. Nominative subversion was not his true intent, however. In reality, it seems, he has established this team so that his son can be one of its star racers.

Stroll jnr could well be a good driver. My mother repeatedly says I’m a good driver, too, but she doesn’t (yet) own the Aston Martin F1 team. The only way he could be more of a nepo baby is if he was an actual baby, and given that they probably allow that in Saudi Arabia (they allow much worse) they might as well do this next season. By the end of the first episode, thanks to a series of minor misfortunes, the main thing Stroll jnr has made quicker is the name “Lawrence”, which he cunningly spells and pronounces as “Lance”. (Also, I think “Lance Stroll” might be the name of a minor Martin Amis character.) This would all be the stuff of gleefully Freudian melodrama if Lance Stroll betrayed evidence of sentience. “My dad and I have a pretty good relationship, I think. We go way back,” he says at one point, explaining his career with very little comic timing. Anyway, when he has a biking accident and gets a temporary limp, I feel like he gained a personality trait.

All of the Formula 1-adjacent personalities spend their downtime doing rich-man things. Laurence Stroll hosts a party on his yacht. (A yacht is a two-star hotel that makes people nauseous.) Various luminaries golf and look at their horses. In the second episode a bunch of Red Bull personnel go clay-pigeon shooting. In a future episode, no doubt, their drivers will be sent to break up a union meeting in the 1920s.

The second episode pits the fortunes of two pleasantly bland Red Bull drivers against one another. Daniel Ricciardo’s career has stalled, and he must smile his way through promotional events. Nyck de Vries is failing to make his car go faster and, unlike me, he hasn’t thought of leaving the house earlier. This could be the stuff of great drama except it’s supplemented with slices from their almost sadistically dull lives – there’s literally a scene in which De Vries cleans his flat and shows us his Dyson, his fridge and where he puts his shirts – and it’s constantly bolstered by blissfully meaningless sports aphorisms. “At Red Bull the philosophy is all about winning,” says Christian Horner, the team principal, as opposed to, I suppose, Red Bull’s philosophy being “reality is an illusion” or “life is pain” or “the capitalist system will inevitably destroy itself”.

At the end of episode two, Ricciardo, the nice man who has been condemned to promotional duties, is asked to go to a track where he is asked to race against ... nobody. This feels like bullying. He drives off in a circle. “Everyone is going to be looking at that track today, saying, ‘Where is Daniel Ricciardo?’” says Horner, who isn’t terribly observant.

“He’s right there! Driving around the track! He’s the only one on it!” I shout.

It turns out he’s speaking figuratively. This is a sort of time trial, and it involves Ricciardo in a battle against the most terrible enemy of all – the self – thus allowing the team’s boffins to evaluate his motoring skills. Ricciardo makes the vrum-vrum vroom efficiently, so he replaces De Vries on the junior team. Dramatically speaking, I don’t care. I can’t tell many of the drivers on this show apart. And they could always just leave a bit earlier. Or not do deals with Saudi Arabia.

Over on BBC One, The Way, a drama created by the playwright James Graham, the actor Michael Sheen and the philosophical documentarian Adam Curtis, depicts a slightly deranged, occasionally hallucinogenic dystopia. It places a retro re-enactment of the miners’ strike of the 1980s into a world of mass surveillance, deepfakes, privatised police and detainment camps. Like Russell T Davies’s Years and Years, it puts a family at the heart of an unravelling Britain (this time in a Welsh town), but it has mashed all that up with Curtis’s jaunty electronic soundscapes, symbolic video montages and detached, sometimes vague politicising.

It’s not entirely clear if it’s trying to be a realistic apocalyptic tale or a hyper-real allegory. (Things don’t always happen plausibly; also, there’s a ghost, a soothsayer, a mythical sword and a “Welsh Catcher”.) I suspect it’s trying to be both of those things. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s very entertaining, and I enjoy the maximalism. Or, to paraphrase some excellent race-car journalism I recently read, “Vrum-vrum, vroom, beep beep, vroom.”

*Irish Times readers