The new season of Netflix’s Formula 1 documentary, Drive to Survive, is out, and along with its narratives—first race winners, death–defying struggles, corporate intrigue—comes one particularly glaring omission.
Before the restart of the 2020 Formula 1 World Championship season, Formula 1 launched its #WeRaceAsOne initiative. The purpose of the campaign is to pivot off the beginning of a delayed season in order to “fight challenges of COVID–19 and global inequality”—the first step was the Austrian Grand Prix, where at the bequest of the grid’s only Black driver, Lewis Hamilton, and suggested by Grand Prix Drivers' Association leaders, the 20 drivers tried to show a unified front of support for Black Lives Matter, wearing ‘End Racism’ T–shirts. Fourteen drivers knelt before the anthem played. Six stood.
For the first few races, the pre–race display of anti–racism remained just as disjointed. Drivers were late. The anthem played and interrupted the ceremony. Reporter Ted Kravitz criticized the mess, saying it was in “shambles.” Hamilton expressed frustration with drivers who believed that the action only needed to be done once and no further. Later on, it went somewhat more smoothly. The Formula 1 organization created a black–and–white "End Racism" video that slotted in with the playing of the national anthem as a stab at activism.
In Drive to Survive, this is barely seen.
Drive to Survive is in a peculiar position. Documentaries like it, no matter how dramatic and over–the–top their narratives may seem, are not reality TV shows where what happens next is a mystery to the viewer—what is depicted in each episode has already happened. The creators have to balance two audiences: people who know nothing about Formula 1 and people who kept up with every detail of the Formula 1 season. For both groups, Drive to Survive thrives on a certain dramatic irony between the viewer and the actors—drivers, owners, team principals—placed in front of the camera.
The irony is highlighted in the first episode, taking place in March when the severity of COVID–19 has not yet sunk in. Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo jokes to his mom that drinking Corona beer helps to develop a resistance against the virus. In Australia, four days before the scheduled start of the Grand Prix, Formula 1 still intends to go on with the season. While the viewer knows that there is no possibility of a continued season, the people on screen do not.
Fans who watched the 2020 season as it happened can still have their own fun with Drive to Survive. Half of the joy comes from seeing which forced narratives don’t necessarily align with the perceived real life narratives. Some inclusions are amusing in retrospect. When Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner says that Mercedes can be beaten, there is some sentiment of "Oh, you poor, sick bastard," from fans who know that Mercedes will (spoiler alert) run away with the championship.
There is a different irony as well—that of omissions, rather than inclusions. Netflix is limited by time and space. There is not a camera crew following every one of the 20 drivers at any given moment, and some drama will eventually be lost. But the issue of racism and the pre–race ritual serves as a particularly glaring elephant in the room.
For the first nine out of ten episodes in the show, no mention is made of anti–racism 'activism,' but its traces can be found lurking in corners everywhere. In the sixth episode, Red Bull driver Alexander Albon is shown wearing the pre–race "End Racism" T–shirt. It goes unexplained, as though it's casual wear that Albon chooses to don over his racing suit before the race begins. In the eighth episode, "End Racism" is visible in the onboard video of McLaren driver Carlos Sainz, printed clearly on the back of the steering wheel. It creates a different irony for viewers: an omission of the intense discussion of racism and struggle needed to create even a facile anti–racism platform in Formula 1.
Finally, in the dying moments of the show, Lewis Hamilton speaks. He has just won the seventh championship of his Formula 1 career, tying Michael Schumacher for the holder of most–ever championships. Oddly enough, it’s the only screen time he really gets, past the third episode where he’s portrayed as a complaining antagonist who’s unaware of the rules.
His final speech serves as a curious microcosm of what Netflix, or perhaps Formula 1, is willing to platform. He talks about what it’s like to be Black in motorsports, about the police killing of George Floyd, with Netflix bizarrely including graphic footage of Floyd’s death. Netflix finally shows shots of the drivers kneeling, and of Hamilton wearing a shirt reading "Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor" onto the podium.
The acknowledgement of the anti–racism struggle and protest is meant to feel good, almost triumphant, in a moment when Hamilton has overcome racism to be a world champion, even if the documentary paints him as an antagonist. But Hamilton has been champion for the past three years in a row. What's changed?
Sports are compelling because they are escapist realities where miracles are permitted to happen. Romain Grosjean leaps from a fireball after his car splits in two when everyone thinks he might be dead. Pierre Gasly wins the 2020 Italian Grand Prix after being dropped unceremoniously from his previous team. Each of these stories are true and can be told in a single 40–minute–long episode.
The omissions that Netflix makes in regards to race serve to preserve the sports narrative as a realm where good things happen in an easily contained arc. When Lewis Hamilton becomes world champion and gets his moment to talk about racism, it is just that: a moment, relegating a long struggle to five minutes at the end of the show. For similar reasons, it's far easier to recount stories of breaking color barriers than the slow, steady fight that extends decades into today.
It is an uneasy experience to sit through the first nine episodes of Drive to Survive without seeing a single mention of the conversations and actions that had been taking place since the beginning of the season. But for the purposes of the show, the omission is necessary. Race is not an easily compartmentalized story. If it is mentioned, it cannot be ignored. Injustices seep into every single facet of life, including things consumed to escape it—sports, music, art, pop culture—and the intrusion is often an unpleasant one. To remark on the battles that Hamilton fought through is to call into question Drive to Survive itself—what does it mean that other main characters failed to support the only Black driver on the grid?
When Netflix shows Hamilton’s T–shirt saying that we need to say the name of Taylor, it does not say that Formula 1 began an investigation into Hamilton and later banned drivers from wearing non–team clothing on the podium. What does that mean when we watch a show about an organization that purports to be anti–racist but censors activism? You cannot think about the anti–racist fight in Formula 1 without thinking about the drivers who didn’t kneel or the ethics of the sport at large.
Activism, in this case, is an interruption to easily consumable narratives, becoming a story that’s best allotted for one singular moment at the end when it can’t hang over the rest of the show. For fans of Formula 1 who care, the postponement of the discussion is uncomfortable. For those who don't, or would perhaps just rather not think about it for the 400 minutes of Drive to Survive, the omission might be a relief.
Of course, not everyone who watches Drive to Survive watches Formula 1. And for those fans, all of it—the messy organization, the fight that Lewis Hamilton had to put up, the T–shirt, and the ensuing ban—seemingly never happened at all.