As a child, Mike Janik could be found spending days crashing Hot Wheels cars and playing racing games together.
Now, two decades later, he’s “vertigo” knowing he’ll be taking part in the 2022 Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal this weekend – and can check out the “pinnacle of motorsport” off his wish list.
As a child, Janick always followed the rally scene more. Until one day he stumbled upon F1 highlights on YouTube and his interest went “from zero to 100”.
“I went from not knowing about it to… at the snap of my fingers, I tune in every race weekend,” Janick said. “I won’t miss a second.”
Starting with the Netflix series Drive to survive – featuring behind-the-scenes footage of normally secretive racing teams – debuted in 2019, F1’s audience has skyrocketed. In May, the show was confirmed for a fifth and sixth season. And Apple Studios has confirmed that it’s making a racing film starring Brad Pitt, co-produced by champion race car driver Lewis Hamilton.
But it’s more than other studios trying to cash in on a new audience for F1. Other sports like the PGA Tour are also looking to see if they can.
While F1 focuses on high-octane racing, the show lifts the veil on the drama and complexity of what it takes to make a living as a Formula One driver.
“I think the most revealing part of this series… was just understanding the real team effort behind it,” Janik said. “Seeing these teams go above and beyond to squeeze out thousandths of a second and just perform at this superhuman level, I think that’s really what bought me.”
Popularity as a driving force for new content
The show’s humanity is part of its winning formula, says Adam Seaborn, sports media analyst and head of partnerships at Playmakers Capital.
This, he says, takes spectators off the track, giving people the opportunity to connect with the drivers and teams, and also reduces the difficulty of racing for people who might otherwise not be watching sports.
“You can get a storyline,” he said. “You can know their backstory, you know the rivalry, where they grew up… So it’s easy to see who is up against whom each week.”
The popularity of the sport and its shows on Netflix has led the streaming platform to enter the F1 racing rights war, hoping to overtake ESPN, whose TV rights are ending next season.
People also watch the show after hours, according to Seaborn, with an average of 200,000 to 400,000 viewers per race between 7 and 9 am. In Canada alone, the show’s ratings doubled from the previous year, he said.
“Netflix is in millions and millions of homes in Canada,” Seaborn said. “I think [Formula One] hit the intersection of digital media, social media and sports at the perfect time.”
On the road to glory
Previously such films Hurry as well as Ford vs Ferrari became the starting point for the growing presence of racing in the media. But the reality show has raised the profile of Formula 1 by shifting the line between sport and entertainment.
“What we are currently obsessed with and interested in is actually promoting content that I find so exciting,” said Alexandra Nikolaeva, who started watching the series during the pandemic.
She became fascinated with the sport and its level of luxury and exclusivity. Only 20 drivers can compete, creating a world of drama, politics, and teamwork between drivers and vehicle makers behind the scenes.
And F1 stars themselves are using new media, says Nikolaev, who shares pop culture analysis on TikTok with her more than 92,000 followers.
“They start doing podcasts, they start doing interviews,” she said, adding that fans “are starting to invest.”
According to Nikolaev, not everyone agrees to make F1 racing massive. There was a backlash from older fans who would have preferred the sport to maintain an air of exclusivity.
“But I think the whole point of content these days is to be accessible and connect us all. And I think it’s… amazing that we keep pushing those boundaries.”
Drivers stand for social change
Reaching such a wide audience has given drivers the opportunity to push other boundaries.
Drivers use their celebrity status to advocate for human rights and other causes they are involved with, said Shanika Abeisinghe, co-host Get checkeredCanadian Formula One podcast.
“Drivers advocate for change, whether it be in their own little world, publicly or otherwise,” Abisinghe said.
Sebastian Vettel advocated for the inclusion of an LGBTQ driver in Formula One wearing a rainbow “Same Love” T-shirt at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix. Hamilton is the only black Formula 1 driver. non-profit organization identify and reduce barriers to blacks in UK motorsport.
But while the sport has grown in popularity, Abisinghe says it still doesn’t reflect the diversity of its growing fan base.
“The powers that be, namely the FIA, need to understand that we need a woman to drive, we need someone who identifies as LGBTQ to drive,” she said. “There are only 20 seats here – so how do we ensure equality in a sport that is inherently unfair?”
Inspirational Imitation Show
As Drive to survive prepares for next season, other sports organizations are exploring using the show as a template for sports media development.
The PGA Tour made a deal with Netflix to provide behind-the-scenes access to the sport in an attempt to recreate Ride to survive success.
“In many ways, there is a lot in common. These are athletes who are independent contractors who have great storylines,” Seaborn said.
“You attract them with the entertainment part. It’s exciting, it should be fun. And if you become a real fan, you get hardcore.”