Eyes burning and blood boiling, a rattled Toto Wolff inconceivably loses his cool. Sat in a team principals meeting in Montreal, the German hits the ceiling, in a similar vein to his porpoising Mercedes car that is the only topic of conversation. “If a car ends up in the wall because it’s too stiff or it’s bottoming out…” he barks. “You’re in the s*** and I’m going to come after you.”
Evoking memories of 2021’s title duel, Christian Horner hits back – and hard. “You’ve got a problem, change your f****** car,” the Red Bull boss retorts. Cue bedlam from all angles. It is, unquestionably, absorbing television.
It doesn’t take long for Formula 1: Drive to Survive, edition five, to whet the appetite. Halfway through episode two, in fact. Call it what you like: off the rails. Uncut. Box-office. Wolff’s incredible rant is the content every producer craves. Tick, gold dust.
On the flip side however, that moment is as good as it gets.
Out on Friday, the fifth instalment of this behind-the-scenes behemoth – for both Netflix as a money-making streaming service and Formula 1’s snowballing popularity – peaks a tad early. Sure, the peak is thrilling, though we should be mindful of the cameras in the room, a point a hand-waving Horner makes before the back-and-forth unfolds.
The genuine veracity is not unlost on Guenther Steiner, who questions whether the tirade had an “element of showmanship” about it. This is now the tightrope Formula 1 is wrestling with. For all the extra eyeballs tuning in, criticism has been laid at Drive to Survive for faking rivalries and constructing storylines. Steiner is one personality whose image has grown ferociously since his Haas team was the focus of the first ever episode back in 2019.
You remember? “Now we’re a bunch of f****** w*****s” and the rest of it. This year, the whole 10-episode series opens with the much-loved team boss accompanying Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto in the Italian Dolomites, comically squeezed into a Mini and drinking wine in local vineyards. A cute scene-setter, no doubt.
Appropriate too, with the first episode predominantly dedicated to Ferrari’s return to the top in Bahrain last year and Kevin Magnussen’s fifth-place finish. Both teams get their own dedicated episode too, honing in on Scuderia mishaps and Charles Leclerc’s anger in Miami and Silverstone as well as Mick Schumacher’s topsy-turvy campaign. Bizarrely, the latter’s end-of-season axing is not clearly explained, merely a snippet right at the end of the series.
As for Max Verstappen’s exciting return to the Netflix chair? Quite unexciting.
In keeping with his somewhat hard-nosed demeanour in front of the cameras, the double world champion appears fleetingly, while the episode devoted to Red Bull focuses on Sergio Perez and his “battle” to keep the second seat. A supposed battle wrapped up by Monaco, round seven, after which he signed a new contract.
It is not the only episode which feels like a missed opportunity. A mid-season chapter concentrated on AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda – a breakthrough star in season four – is unessential. And, of course, for every slice of material aired comes an assessment of what wasn’t included.
Has Nicholas Latifi, for example, even lost his seat? Did Alex Albon return to F1? There is no mention of Williams, to the extent that the team themselves have launched their own access-all-areas show, poignantly named Untold Story.
Valtteri Bottas’ debut year at Alfa Romeo receives no treatment too, while rookie Zhou Guanyu’s horrific upside-down crash at Silverstone – undoubtedly one of the most memorable moments of the season – is only touched upon briefly, crammed into a Mercedes-based second episode at Silverstone.
More suspicious, though, is the complete omission of any FIA calamities, of which there were plenty. Fascinatingly, FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem – a man who coveted the spotlight last year – fails to feature in the interview chair, even when we receive a brief peek into a meeting with Horner. Pierre Gasly’s close shave with a crane in the rain of Japan is quite blatantly avoided in one instance too, as is Lewis Hamilton’s jewellery row amid early-season retirement speculation.
Two episodes are devoted to the driver market soap-opera of last summer and, while understandably devoid of genuine negotiations, they do an adequate job in telling arguably the story of the season in a manner befitting for the audience. McLaren boss Zak Brown exclaiming that Alpine’s Otmar Szafnauer has been “caught with his pants down” is a particular highlight.
Fernando Alonso plays his role as the villain quite superbly. And compliantly. Daniel Ricciardo, by contrast, sees his Netfilx-induced love story come to an emotional end. With his future hanging in the balance after McLaren announce their decision to drop him, the Australian is not his usual buoyant self. That episode, titled ‘Nice Guys Come Last’, hits the nail on the head, as Gasly beats him to the Alpine seat after the Oscar Piastri saga closes out.
Come the penultimate episode, where only the metaphorical courtroom is missing as the impermeable Horner repeatedly defends his Red Bull team amid the 2021 cost-cap row, it feels as though the series is heading towards a paltry conclusion. By episode 10, solely based on an Abu Dhabi conclusion lacking in candid drama, Ricciardo’s potential final race in F1 overshadows Sebastian Vettel’s actual final race in F1. Aston Martin are another team largely overlooked.
It makes for a sentimental taste in the mouth; an overriding sense of a defining closing chapter in the Drive to Survive carnival. Yet a scene in episode nine perhaps sums up best why DtoS will continue to attract and sustain fans way beyond the current contract to make a sixth season.
Contrary to Wolff’s rant in Canada, when Binotto was on Horner’s side of the argument, amidst Red Bull’s budget cap breach the Ferrari boss is recorded speaking to the Mercedes CEO, as Horner beautifully rolls into view. “You making something up?” he quips. Wolff replies: “No, we’re just plotting” and Binotto says: “Just discussing about you Christian!”
The revolving door of paddock relationships, dependent purely on circumstance and performance, means F1 is now well and truly writing its own scripts, season-by-season.
Netflix need not worry. There’s plenty more to come.
Formula 1: Drive to Survive S5 is released on Friday 24 February on Netflix