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The stand outs from Drive to Survive

I have been hooked on Netflix’s F1 Drive to Survive and I don’t think I’m the only one. I might even go so far as saying that I’m more hooked to this series than I was to The Last Dance. Hear me out, I grew up on Michael Jordan, as a child I knew how great he was and now that I’m older that hasn’t changed. But when it came to F1 I was a little bit more oblivious to how great the sport was, granted Jordan was still a favourite in my house, albeit Eddie Jordan. A large portion of my childhood Sundays were spent watching F1, if I look around my home house I will find Jordan GP memorabilia and books on the two Eddie’s; Jordan and Irvine. I was brought to a Grand Prix long before I even got to an NBA game.

But now Drive to Survive has allowed me to get back in touch with the sport. I can truly appreciate the dedication, the skill and the mental requirement to be able to compete in F1. For many people who once considered F1 as merely driving in circles, I don’t think they can doubt there is much more to the sport than that.

So, here’s what I took from the series:

What stood out to me the most was how ruthless and cutthroat F1 is. The dealings and decision making within each team is ferocious. I think of Pierre Gasly’s demotion from Red Bull to Torro Rosso when I say this. There wasn't even the consolation that he was replaced by a superior driver either, his replacement Alex Albon was also dropped at the end of the season. There is a ferocious nature that you must perform well otherwise there are hoards of other drivers in F1, F2 and F3 willing, and able to take your place. I also get the sense that this ruthlessness is innate in F1, Pierre didn’t kick up a fuss when he got demoted (that could purely be the measure of Pierre and nothing more), Christian Horner didn’t throw the toys out of the pram when, much to their surprise, Daniel Ricciardo announced he was leaving RedBull. The only time I found the ruthless nature of F1 really affecting anyone was when Ricciardo left Renault and Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul refused to speak to him. That was subsequently discounted as Cyril being “emotional,” as that was his nature. But at the same time, the drivers and team principals are media savvy, they know when the cameras are there so they’re wise to their behaviours and comments being watched.

I felt a similar ferocity was seen during The Last Dance but hidden under the guise of “we won so what’s the problem?” While in contrast in Drive to Survive, it is much rawer and much more blatant, there is no win, let alone an immediate win. You’re either performing well or you’re gone, and that is elite sport, no hiding it. There is no dressing it up to be something it is not.

I am of the opinion that everyone involved with F1 are lunatics, but none more so than the drivers themselves. I say this with the upmost admiration and respect: how the fuck do they do it? F1 driving takes certain cojones that I do not have. I got the impression throughout the series that there are two levels to the lunacy. The baseline level is the bare minimum required, everyone in F1 appears to have this level, so it appears normal. Then the level above includes drivers like Grosjean who are considered lunatics by their peers, even their behaviour/driving is seen as a bit out there on occasion.

Overall, the focus in F1 isn’t always to win it all. In most sports the default reaction if you don’t win or get the top seed is disappointment. But, in F1 there is an awareness that there are three levels within the entirety of F1. Each team competes within their remit, against similar teams, with similar resources and budgets (unregulated budgets have since changed this from 2020) and similar cars. Williams aren’t competing with Mercedes but if they perform within the lower end of the table, then it has been a successful weekend. There is an understanding that the top teams are largely there to stay but competition still exists mid and lower table. I love this perspective, it takes into account other elements that hugely influence sport, like budget (although there are regulated budgets, as a driver to get to F1 you have to have significant money behind you), that sometimes we skim over. In an ideal world I’d love to see this perspective applied more to other sports, sometimes you’re not competing for no.1 but you’re still competing against those around you and that is just as important and something to be proud of.

You can be in the best form of your career, physically and psychologically, and something may go wrong that is entirely out of your hands and you have to retire from the race. I don’t doubt that this is probably the most frustrating, sickening and maddening element of F1. There is intensive preparation to be your best, but also a huge amount of trust in your car and your team to do the same. Although the driver is alone on the track there is so much input from the team into the actual performance. But that’s sport, you may have the perfect conditions for success and it just isn’t meant to be. Cruel.

Although on more than one occasion drivers spoke about why they engaged with a sport psychologist (Grosjean), or actually demonstrated their use of psychological skills (Ocon). It was how the drivers spoke about the mental requirement of the sport that struck me; it was often implicit and subtle in their interviews, suggesting that it is understood as such a pertinent element of their preparation. Particularly so when they mention the fear that they experience. In such an intense and fearless sport, I think it is so welcome for them to mention the psychological side of performance.

So, what do I take from Drive to Survive? It is a ferocious, demanding and unforgiving sport. You have to be on your game physically and psychological, and if this dwindles at all there can be grave consequences. The drivers show immense gratitude, that they hold 1 of 20 limited places in the pits, that they make it back safe every time they go out on track. Life or death hangs over these drivers and some appear to relish this threat/challenge, they largely appear to be quite respectful of it. There is no doubt I will be keeping a very close eye on the 2021 Formula 1 season from here on out.

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