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Is Drive to Survive’s play on F1 2020’s big ‘betrayals’ fair?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
11 min read

This article contains spoilers for the third season of Netflix’s Formula 1 docuseries Drive To Survive, released on Friday morning

Formula 1’s driver market shenanigans last year created plenty of awkwardness. Several drivers went through the season with teams they would be leaving, some felt undermined by their teams and one team even felt undermined by its driver.

It was therefore of great interest to see what Netflix’s behind-the-scenes docuseries Drive To Survive captured of what might be termed the four big ‘betrayals’ of 2020.

Ferrari never offered Sebastian Vettel a new contract, Carlos Sainz Jr abandoned McLaren – the team that helped him salvage his career – to replace Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo chose to leave Renault before a single race was run in 2020, and Pierre Gasly was snubbed by Red Bull despite a stellar season in which he became a race winner.

We know from how those four storylines played out in public, and what we were able to interpret from them, that some were more difficult than others.

While Vettel and Ferrari seemed to have a toxic separation, McLaren and Sainz maintained a great relationship through the year. Ricciardo earned Renault’s wrath initially before giving the beleaguered works team plenty to celebrate.

Gasly did all he could to merit a Red Bull recall and was firmly told ‘no’ even though his replacement, Alex Albon, was underperforming.

So with more behind-the-scenes access than anybody in F1, and often candid interview with the key players, how did the third season of Drive to Survive capture these stories – and did it do them justice?

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Tuscan Grand Prix Preparation Day Mugello, Italy


The episode ‘We Need To Talk About Ferrari’ begins with an air of tension between Vettel and the team when Vettel cracks a joke about his new helmet’s best feature being that he’s allowed to take off his face mask.

“We cannot be too funny considering the performance in Belgium,” Vettel is told. He asks “says who?” and adds: “Because I think you should be funny if you look at our performance.”

It’s amusing, it’s Vettel being a bit cheeky, and showing he cannot be controlled

Then after a pause: “So is that the credo for this weekend? Don’t laugh? No jokes?”

It’s jovial enough and met with awkward laughter but it establishes a tone that persists for the rest of the episode, which dives into Ferrari’s miserable season up to the Italian Grand Prix and the reasons for it. You can’t watch it without thinking this relationship has soured.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

We stated more than once in 2020 that the relationship seemed fractured and even was at a point where neither party was doing justice to the other. Ferrari and Vettel insisted that was not the case. Their appearances in this episode do the same, with Binotto insisting that suggestions it would be a problem to have told Vettel he was being dropped so early “were the wrong concerns”.

But as was the case in reality there are little giveaways that the foundations of the Vettel/Ferrari union were not what they once were.

During a Zoom call with fans, Leclerc is asked about his clothing collection, and says he has postponed it. Vettel interrupts to say he is not allowed to do it, points to the Puma logo on Leclerc’s top and says Ferrari has a partner: “I’m not supposed to say that but I’m leaving at the end of the year so I can say what I want!”

It’s amusing, it’s Vettel being a bit cheeky, and showing he cannot be controlled – it’s not a sign of total rebellion. There is nothing explosive, no obvious moment where Vettel is hugely swiping at the team or making an outlandish accusation – but there are moments of awkwardness that are a direct result of the situation.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Tuscan Grand Prix Race Day Mugello, Italy

These are where the episodes reflect the perceived reality. It would be interesting to know how a more distant observer interpreted the episode but from the perspective of an F1 journalist who heard these people speak every week it was impossible to view the episode without thinking ‘this shows that the relationship had soured’.

Obviously as a work of entertainment and drama the show works to exaggerate at times. There is one interview in which Binotto says “there are not tensions inside the team” before it cuts to Vettel interview fragments being critical of the team and its season – which creates a suggestion Vettel is undermining Binotto and Ferrari.

Likewise, as Vettel reveals his Aston Martin move, he says to the camera that “life is treating me far too good to drag on and keep suffering”. And the implied subject is clear. The timing of that announcement, on the first morning of Ferrari’s 1000th grand prix, was taken at the time to be a gleefully opportunistic moment for Vettel to take the shine off his team’s big celebration and make it about him. That is even addressed in the episode.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Tuscan Grand Prix Qualifying Day Mugello, Italy

In a team meeting, Ferrari’s position is established as ‘this is because of Perez’s late-night announcement’, and Vettel insists “it’s the truth as well”. Leclerc glances left at Vettel, Vettel glances to the left off-camera. It then cuts to a Christian Horner interview snippet: “The timing probably tells you everything. He probably couldn’t have picked a more inappropriate time for the team. But I guess he was pissed off.”

Who knows how much the editing amplified that exchange. But it was a very good reflection of how Vettel’s timing was perceived.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Portuguese Grand Prix Qualifying Day Portimao, Portugal


This is the best episode in terms of how it zeroes in on a thread and portrays it versus reality.

Ricciardo’s decision to leave Renault went down so bitterly and was met with quite a churlish public response from Cyril Abiteboul, who questioned his driver’s loyalty and integrity without even naming him.

We knew in that moment that Abiteboul had taken it personally and we knew that Ricciardo found it very awkward with his team boss at first, and was grateful there was a gap before the start of the suspended season so that any frustrations within the team had calmed down by the time they were reunited.

This comes across very clearly in the episode. Abiteboul states, perhaps over-dramatically, that “we need to be in a position for podiums and then fight for wins and then fight for championships – but Daniel has put a stop to all of that”.

The portrayal of their respective turmoils – Ricciardo in wrestling with a decision, Abiteboul grappling with the aftermath – match entirely with what we were seeing on the surface.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

“I’ve done my best in not being hurt, not making it personal, Daniel leaving me,” says Abiteboul.

“What’s hurting the most is it’s not the long-term project I thought we signed up for.”

Ricciardo says in his own interview: “There were a few sleepless nights trying to figure out what was best.

Abiteboul basically needed time to get over it, and couldn’t fast-track that process

“Can I win with all cars finishing? It still hurts to say this…The reality is no. Deep down I knew I had to leave.”

Abiteboul goes on to admit he is an emotional person and that he didn’t speak to Ricciardo for a while after the news. By the time they are at the season opener, Ricciardo barely gets more than the cold shoulder as Abiteboul arrives in the paddock – the frostiness is real, and this doesn’t look overplayed. If anything it’s a revelation that the relationship was still awkward, more awkward than we thought, when the season started properly.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Race Day Imola, Italy

Abiteboul admits towards the end of the episode that he doesn’t want to “build bridges artificially” with Ricciardo, which underlines the feeling that while the professional thing to do was to maximise 2020 there was an element of Abiteboul’s character preventing him from moving past the sense of betrayal. He basically needed time to get over it, and couldn’t fast-track that process.

But once the season started properly, or at least a couple of races in, it did seem like Renault and Ricciardo were focused on what mattered.

And that is reaffirmed in this episode which ends with Ricciardo’s stirring drive in the British Grand Prix and genuine warmth between Abiteboul and Ricciardo again. It is the first sign of the reconciliation that Ricciardo even admitted to us he was relieved could be achieved in the circumstances – and would allow him to finally end Renault’s podium drought later in the year.

Oh, and as an aside, this episode confirms the suspicion at the time that Red Bull team boss Horner, Abiteboul’s long-time sparring partner, was loving it. Horner absolutely leans into the discomfort, comparing it to being dumped by a girlfriend who hasn’t moved out the house.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy


The less said about Netflix’s portrayal of McLaren’s split with Sainz the better.

Initially, entertainment is in line with reality. The narrative around Sainz’s decision to join Ferrari is amicable, that the team understands why it happened, and there are no grudges.

This is what happened. Sainz kept McLaren in the loop when Ferrari first signalled its interest in him and the team swooped for Ricciardo as soon as it knew losing Sainz was as good as done.

There was a courteous, affectionate tone to the initial announcement and no sign of animosity as the season progressed – between Sainz and the team, or between Sainz and team-mate Lando Norris.

The episode would have you believe Norris and Sainz’s relationship fractured. Yes, there was the potential for Sainz’s departure to create a Ricciardo-like rift, at least initially, even if it was never going to deteriorate into a Vettel/Ferrari situation.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

But that didn’t happen. It certainly didn’t manifest itself in the form of a falling-out between team-mates, least of all Sainz vindictively pulling Norris’s chair from under him (a prank done in jest on a different timeline to the one the episode portrays).

True, there is a sign of needle in Norris’s answer on Sainz’s move to Ferrari, given its miserable 2020 season: “Ferrari, last year, they were still podium contenders. Now you would say in some of the races they’ve been… seventh-best team. And you would say it’s one of the worst decisions that you could possibly make.

“He probably is regretting it – even if he says he’s not, he probably is.”

Sainz, of course, insists he is not. Just as he has said in real life. But this is not really a spectacular juxtaposition of views nor is it outrageous for Norris to have suggested what he did.

The narrative is a little frustrating. It seeks to create a story where there was none.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy


One thing that’s very consistent with reality in the third season of Drive To Survive is Horner’s insistence that Red Bull will want to make it work with Albon and that Gasly is doing a great job at AlphaTauri.

We spent much of last season witnessing the gradual erosion of Red Bull’s faith in Albon while never really believing Gasly had a chance to replace him.

Perversely, Gasly’s belief that if he did a good job he would be on the senior team’s radar should have skyrocketed after his shock Monza win for AlphaTauri but instead seemed to be quickly met with the realisation that Red Bull wasn’t interested in him whatever he did.

So an entire episode dedicated to the Spa and Monza weekends, in which Gasly starred and Albon struggled, was always going to be a good test of how the Netflix series compared with reality. And it absolutely tracks.

Gasly’s belief is total: “I deserve to go back to Red Bull. That’s the target, that’s clear.” He adds: “They gave Alex the seat because he had some decent results. Hopefully in the coming years it’s decided on the same criteria”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying Day Sakhir, Bahrain

The contrast in confidence between Gasly and Albon, and their respective career storylines is clear and well done.

But there is plenty of foreshadowing that Gasly is going to be ultimately disappointed, with Horner making it increasingly clear that Gasly isn’t going to be returning to Red Bull, even saying at one stage that there’s nobody internally pushing saying we’ve got to have Pierre back.

Horner retains confidence in Albon getting it together, which on the Sunday morning of Monza creates the fascinating situation in which Gasly – while being driven to the track – reads a story about Horner saying there will be no Red Bull return for him.

Gasly shakes his head after reading comments that Albon has the team’s full support and will get better.

“It’s a joke,” he says. “How they treat this is a joke.”

The transition in the episode between feeling like he can earn back Red Bull’s faith and growing frustrated with its handling of the situation is swift, but it was like that in reality.

While Gasly won at Monza, Albon was a muted and miserable 15th-place finisher. There was never a starker contrast between their form and their respective arguments for a Red Bull drive than that weekend – so it’s no wonder Gasly expresses the view: “I thought ‘OK, I’ve done it, what more do I need to prove?’”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Tuscan Grand Prix Preparation Day Mugello, Italy

This episode ends with Gasly professing his dedication to the team – i.e. AlphaTauri – and this is exactly how he handled it in reality, putting aside the personal frustration and using it as fuel for his ambition.

But it was interesting to see more of a glimpse of how that irritation was manifesting itself behind-the-scenes and the producers do a good job of managing that.

With the exception of the manipulation of the McLaren storyline, that’s consistent with the treatment of the other major moments of driver market intrigue. And that makes for compelling viewing.

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