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In case you had not noticed, there was no Formula One race last weekend. In this marathon season, it was a fallow Sunday. 

There was no need to panic, though: there is a new series of Drive to Survive to binge-watch and these days it is getting harder to decide whether the best of the action in grand prix racing happens on the track or the small screen.

Let’s face it, we are two races in to 2024’s 24-race extravaganza and as the F1 circus reconvenes in Australia for the Melbourne grand prix, we already know that Max Verstappen is going to win the drivers’ world title. Again. 

And so the search for compelling drama veers away from live action towards Netflix.

It is difficult to know any more whether the television show is reliant on the sport or the sport is reliant on the television show.

The men who put the F in Formula 1: Drive to Survive was built on their legend – the incredible stories of rebels, lunatics and dreamers

James Hunt poses with two naked ladies in an advert – he was lionised for his sexual exploits 

Another advert from Hunt's prime that most definitely wouldn't be allowed today

Another advert from Hunt’s prime that most definitely wouldn’t be allowed today

We can already be pretty certain Max Verstappen will win another Formula One championship

We can already be pretty certain Max Verstappen will win another Formula One championship

Instead it's the off-track drama surrounding Red Bull chief Christian Horner - pictured with wife Geri Halliwell - that the next series of Drive to Survive will be focusing on

Instead it’s the off-track drama surrounding Red Bull chief Christian Horner – pictured with wife Geri Halliwell – that the next series of Drive to Survive will be focusing on 

The inversion of the natural order has been most obvious in the feeding frenzy of speculation and curiosity surrounding Red Bull team principal Christian Horner‘s behaviour towards a female employee that has put his role at the helm of the grid’s leading team under threat.

There is an absence of compelling drama on the track, where Red Bull’s Verstappen is already 15 points clear of his nearest rival, his teammate Sergio Perez, and so Formula One has sought, extremely successfully, to provide a substitute with what happens off the track. 

The scheming to unseat Horner has been relentlessly vicious. His rivals at Mercedes have stuck the boot in with great enthusiasm too.

And it has all been lovingly documented for the next series of the show. The release date for Season 7 is already eagerly awaited. Drive to Survive has become proxy sport.

None of this is to say that F1 has lost its innate thrill. Never underestimate the courage it takes to sit in a car that travels around a track at speeds of more than 200mph, buffeted by G-forces, centimetres away from calamitous collisions with other four-wheeled rockets. 

However big Verstappen’s championship lead, the drama of that spectacle never fades.

But it is a short step from the peek into the private lives of the protagonists provided by Drive to Survive to the fixation with Horner’s future. 

It is a sign, too, of an overdue recognition that the inappropriate behaviour of which Horner was accused, and of which he was cleared, no longer gets a free pass in the workplace, not even in F1.

In the 1970s, when James Hunt was lionised for his prolific sexual conquests and grand prix drivers were regarded as the playboys of the western world, Horner wouldn’t even have made the papers, let alone the front pages.

It's all a far cry from Formula One's heyday, featuring Playboy drivers like James Hunt

It’s all a far cry from Formula One’s heyday, featuring Playboy drivers like James Hunt

Hunt and his great rival, the Austrian Niki Lauda, pictured at the Japan Grand Prix in 1976

Hunt and his great rival, the Austrian Niki Lauda, pictured at the Japan Grand Prix in 1976

In those days, it felt as though F1 drivers climbed into their cockpits straight from the pages of an Ernest Hemingway novel. 

They were swashbuckling comic-book heroes, gentlemen racers cut from the same cloth as bullfighters and fighter pilots, portrayed with a drink in their hand and a woman on their arm. Their lives were cheaper, too, sadly.

At the start of Rush, the 2013 film about the rivalry between Hunt and Niki Lauda, Daniel Bruhl, the actor who plays Lauda, breaks into a monologue. 

‘Twenty-five drivers start every season in Formula One and each year two of us die,’ he says. 

‘What kind of person does a job like this? Not a normal man for sure. Rebels, lunatics, dreamers. People who are desperate to make a mark and are prepared to die trying.’

The film’s claims about death are slightly exaggerated. But only slightly. 

There were some years when two drivers died. And the list of those killed includes men like Jim Clark, one of the greatest there ever was, Jochen Rindt, a posthumous world champion, and Gilles Villeneuve, a driver immortalised by his daring and panache.

Lauda (front) and Hunt race at the 1976 British Grand Prix - one of their many duels

Lauda (front) and Hunt race at the 1976 British Grand Prix – one of their many duels

In so many ways, the success of Drive to Survive is built on the legends of these men and the way they danced with death in every race they drove. 

The cumulative effect of their daring and their bravery, their triumphs and their tragedies, bequeathed an aura of glamour and speed and danger to today’s drivers, racers who have been embraced by a new generation of F1 fanatics.

I missed the Hunt-Lauda era. My heroes were the Gang of Four – Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna – and when I started working as a motor racing correspondent in 1993, the pit lane was still awash with the drivers’ charisma and dynamism.

Footage of that era still has the power to thrill. Watch Senna and Mansell going wheel to wheel at 200mph down the straight at Barcelona in 1991, their cars twitching and sparking on the tarmac, their wills iron and unbending, and it never fails to send shivers down the spine. Men like them built the modern sport.

(L-R) Brazilian Ayrton Senna, French Alain Prost, British Nigel Mansell, and Brazilian Nelson Piquet at Estoril in 1986

(L-R) Brazilian Ayrton Senna, French Alain Prost, British Nigel Mansell, and Brazilian Nelson Piquet at Estoril in 1986 

Mansell sportingly gives his rival Senna a lift back to the pit lane at Silverstone in 1991

Mansell sportingly gives his rival Senna a lift back to the pit lane at Silverstone in 1991

Once, Mansell used to tell us when he had moved on to racing in America, his Williams teammate, Riccardo Patrese, crawled up to him theatrically after Mansell had performed a particularly daring manoeuvre, and asked if he could cup his testicles in his hands. 

‘I want to feel how heavy they are,’ Patrese said. 

The success of Drive to Survive, the mystique that still surrounds racing drivers, is built on racers like Senna and Mansell.

It is hard to think that, in a few weeks, Formula One will mark the 30th anniversary of the day Senna was killed at Imola. 

The three-time world champion, who many still believe was the greatest driver ever to get behind the wheel, a man considered something close to a mystic by others, died when his Williams-Renault smashed into the wall at Tamburello in the early laps of the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1, 1994.

It had already been a cursed weekend. Two days earlier, the young Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello had been injured when his Jordan clipped a kerb at Variante Bassa, became airborne and smashed into barriers. Debris scattered. 

Senna's deadly crash at Imola in 1994 - the three-time world champion is regarded as the greatest driver of all-time by many

Senna’s deadly crash at Imola in 1994 – the three-time world champion is regarded as the greatest driver of all-time by many

The wreckage of Senna's Williams after his fatal crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994

The wreckage of Senna’s Williams after his fatal crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994

Miraculously, Barrichello survived relatively unscathed. The first person he saw when he regained consciousness in the circuit medical centre was Senna, staring down at him with tears in his eyes.

And on the Saturday, Roland Ratzenberger, a hugely popular Austrian driver who was trying to gain a foothold in F1, was killed at the Villeneuve corner when a front wing failure meant he lost all control of his steering and careered into a concrete wall. 

It was the first death in Formula One since Villeneuve was killed at Zolder in 1982.

Senna drove to the scene of Ratzenberger’s accident in a road car. Like all the other drivers, he was deeply affected by it. He was carrying an Austrian flag in his Williams when he was killed the following day.

Gerhard Berger, Ratzenberger’s compatriot, summed up how it felt for the rest of the drivers on the grid. 

‘I felt sick,’ Berger said, ‘and my whole body was shaking. In our job, you must be prepared to see situations like this but it gave me again the picture of how close sometimes we are between life and death.’

I was relatively new to Formula One back then. I was in my second season as a motor racing correspondent and I loved being part of the travelling circus. 

Drivers observe a minute's silence for Senna and Roland Ratzenberger ahead of the 1994 race

Drivers observe a minute’s silence for Senna and Roland Ratzenberger ahead of the 1994 race

The wrecked car of Roland Ratzenberger is lifted from the Imola track after his fatal crash

The wrecked car of Roland Ratzenberger is lifted from the Imola track after his fatal crash

It was intoxicating being around speed and glamour and danger, close enough to sense it, far enough away not to have to have the courage or the skill to confront it.

I flew on private planes with Mansell, played football with Michael Schumacher, rode the Bullet Train with Damon Hill after he won the world title at Suzuka in 1995, went for dinner with Eddie Jordan and Flavio Briatore as often as finances would allow and watched the drivers letting their hair down at Coconuts, one of their favourite haunts near Estoril, after the Portuguese grand prix.

It was the height of naivety but until that weekend in Imola, I had never thought any of the drivers would die. I thought those days had gone. 

I had been driven around the old Nurburgring, a 14-mile circuit that plunges up and down through woods in the Eifel Mountains, where Lauda, had his terrible crash in 1976.

To be driven around there, a circuit that Jackie Stewart called ‘the Green Hell’, was to marvel at how close the spectre of death had been for drivers when Lauda, Hunt, Ronnie Peterson, Mario Andretti, Jochen Mass, Clay Regazzoni and their contemporaries had ruled F1.

Lauda with the wounds of his near-fatal crash at the 1976 Nurburgring crash

Lauda with the wounds of his near-fatal crash at the 1976 Nurburgring crash 

Jackie Stewart and wife Helen after his victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, 1969

Jackie Stewart and wife Helen after his victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, 1969

All in a day's work for Stewart as he enjoys a cup of tea on top of a stack of tyres

All in a day’s work for Stewart as he enjoys a cup of tea on top of a stack of tyres

Lauda had been terribly injured, Peterson died as a result of injuries sustained at the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix and the first time I saw Regazzoni in the flesh was at an IndyCar race in Long Beach in 1994 when he was being pushed around the paddock in a wheelchair after being paralysed in a crash at the United States Grand Prix West, in Long Beach, in 1980.

F1’s swashbuckling past still felt close behind us then. We still drank in Rosie’s Bar in Monte Carlo where Graham Hill and other drivers had once danced on the tables after the grand prix in the 1960s and partied long into the night. 

Rosie’s made way for a cardio-thoracic hospital some time ago. By the 90s, the playboy image that had surrounded drivers like Hunt had softened but only a little.

I spoke to a friend on Wednesday who said he had only just got over the hangover he inherited from going out with Eddie Irvine in Suzuka to celebrate his first F1 race in 1993. 

Clay Regazzoni (left), Ronnie Peterson (right) and Niki Lauda at the 1974 French Grand Prix

Clay Regazzoni (left), Ronnie Peterson (right) and Niki Lauda at the 1974 French Grand Prix

Actor Paul Newman strolls through the pit lane with Mario Andretti at the Long Beach GP, 1985

Actor Paul Newman strolls through the pit lane with Mario Andretti at the Long Beach GP, 1985

Irvine finished 6th at Suzuka and was then involved in an altercation with Senna, who came to find him in one of the prefabricated huts that served as motorhomes at the Japanese Grand Prix, and punched him as Irvine argued with him about race etiquette.

Irvine was one of that era of devil-may-care drivers. In those days, when we still mixed with the drivers, I went to stay with him in Dalkey, outside Dublin. We had a night out at a club called Lillie’s Bordello where he was a firm favourite.

Wild driver parties at Coconuts in Cascais were legendary. Other extreme behaviours had grown a little more nerdy: Berger threw Senna’s briefcase out of a helicopter on the way to the Italian Grand Prix in 1991.

How different Formula One seems now. Not worse. Not better. But different. 

In the latest series of Drive to Survive, I watched an episode that showed Nyck de Vries, who raced for Alpha Tauri last season, paying great attention to cleaning the windows of his apartment in Monaco. 

I tried to imagine Berger doing that. Or Piquet. Or Irvine. I couldn’t quite get there.

F1 now chases the oil and gas money of the Middle East with events such as the Saudi GP

F1 now chases the oil and gas money of the Middle East with events such as the Saudi GP

F1 does not exist in a vacuum, however much it might sometimes wish that it did, and if Hunt was lauded and celebrated and deified for his prodigious sexual adventures, it was a reminder of just how much attitudes have evolved that Horner should find himself at the centre of that recent media storm.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton reacted to the furore around Horner by saying: ‘I think we always have to do more to try to make the sport and the environment that people get to work in feel safe and inclusive. 

‘I think it’s a really important moment for the sport – to make sure that we stand true to our values.’

They are admirable words but quite what values he was referring to is a moot point, given that he was talking as F1 prepared to race in one Middle Eastern autocracy, Bahrain, before flying on to another Middle Eastern autocracy, Saudi Arabia.

F1 goes where the money is. In the past, it was in hock to Philip Morris and British American Tobacco and now, like boxing and golf and football, it has embraced the oil and natural gas money that flows out of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

Max Verstappen drives his Red Bull at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year

Max Verstappen drives his Red Bull at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year

In Formula One, just as in every other sport, some things change and some things remain the same. And if Verstappen wins again in Melbourne this weekend, never mind. 

Because the cameras will be there as the Horner saga rumbles on and you can be sure that the next series of Drive to Survive is going to be the best yet.

Still, maybe it’s a good thing the Netflix cameras weren’t authorised to pry when Senna, Prost, Piquet and Mansell were racing no-holds-barred and Hunt was in his pomp on and off the track. 

It might have been a blockbuster but they would never have got it past the censor.



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