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From the 1970s to the 2010s, Formula 1 had been scratching at every possible angle to find a way to break into the U.S. market. It tried three races here at one point, including a temporary race in the parking lot of a casino. None of that worked, and the events it did hold here regularly fell apart in the span of a decade. Today's United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas is the ninth race at the same track. That has traditionally been the point where a USGP begins to fade out of relevance, but the race at COTA today is sold out. Next year, F1 is adding a second event in the U.S., not under the desperate hope to create interest on the ground but to fill additional inventory teams and fans have demanded. Finally, F1 has truly arrived in the U.S., and the reason why is no secret.
Before the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive debuted in 2019, it could have been written off as a crass attempt by F1's parent company, Liberty Media, to use the massive platform of the streaming giant to draw eyes to their series by any means necessary. This may or may not have been true, but the show itself rendered that point irrelevant immediately. The first season of the show, a season that did not feature key contenders at Mercedes and Ferrari, was a revelation, a docudrama that actually captured the humanity of a series that is so easily reduced down to machines and how they are expected to perform.
It was an immediate hit. The second season, launched into a world bracing for the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, was an even bigger hit. The third has been stratospheric.
Netflix, notoriously, keeps its internal performance data close to its chest. That makes it hard to judge just how big of a hit Drive to Survive actually is anywhere, but anecdotal evidence shows the shadows of its audience. F1's arcane directly-reported audience numbers for the races themselves did not change significantly in either 2019 or 2020, but social media impact grew massively in 2020. That number was most reflected in total social engagements, a number that nearly doubled in just that one year.
A large portion of that growth is coming in the U.S., where audiences have risen by 50% in the past year. While part of this reflects a general trend of growth from a slow 2020 for all sports in America, the numbers actually being reached across ESPN networks represent a serious spike from past years, too. That point is backed up by Google Trends data for the U.S., which shows American interest in the sport was 29% higher at its peak this year than in either 2020 or 2019. That number is more consistent, too; F1 has drawn more significant digital interest than any point prior to 2021 in 13 separate weeks this season.
While not all of this growth can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Drive to Survive without a more robust data set, the correlation between the audience for that series and the audience for F1 itself appears significant from the numbers available outside of F1 and Netflix's internal systems. That has cast more attention on the series in the F1 paddock, where the drivers and team executives that act as the protagonists of the show have become increasingly aware of the part they play in the program.
For Max Verstappen, that has not necessarily been a good thing. The championship leader told the Associated Press earlier this week that he is no longer participating in interviews for the show. As he sees it, the series used his quotes about unrelated situations out of context and "faked a few rivalries which don't really exist."
While Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi agrees with Verstappen's general point that the series can over-dramatize, he sees it as a necessary element in telling the more human stories within the cold, complicated, and difficult world of F1.
"You can't have it all," said Rossi. "they're bringing more people into F1, more audience, more sponsors, and more money. They did it because they did something very well, showing the human side of the sport, the managers and drivers in the midfield and back of the field under a lot of stress. They might lose their job, they might disappear to more obscure categories of racing from the glory of F1. This is cool, they know it's not just stardom, glitz, not just champagne all the time. I think the onus is on Netflix not to break the toy, but I find it exciting. It's showing another side of the sport."
Aston Martin Racing executive Otmar Szafnauer has been American F1 fan since the early 1980s, an era when being an F1 fan in the U.S. was a much less common thing. As he sees it, a core strength of Drive to Survive is its ability to introduce fans who may not consider racing as a sport to the elements that make it so appealing.
"I think [Drive to Survive] has driven a much wider and diverse crowd [to F1] than just motor racing fans. I think our product is so entertaining and enticing once you get a flavor for it, once you understand it. From there, I think the audience for F1 in the States can grow significantly. It's been my experience that, if a household likes Formula 1, then the children like it, and that grows geometrically. Many, many of my friends who are now in their 50s like me started watching Formula 1 because their parents enjoyed it back in the 70s. If we can get that momentum, I think that grow could happen very quickly."
Not everyone in the paddock even watches the series. Kimi Raikkonen, for instance, told Road & Track that he hasn't seen an episode. Laurent Rossi, however, has come around on it as a show and is already looking forward to a big moment for his team next season.
"Even I watch it. I was very apprehensive in the beginning when my friends who are not F1 fans said 'You should watch it,' I said 'I watch the events.' But I watched it and, like, 'Nicely done guys! This is entertaining.' I don't know how they're going to spin [Esteban Ocon's] victory, but I'll watch it as a spectator and hopefully I'm not going to wince too much."
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