The Media Today

Driving and surviving

April 30, 2024
Max Verstappen answers journalists' questions at the Las Vegas Grand Prix in November 2023. Photo by: Hasan Bratic/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Last month, Road & Track, a Hearst-owned magazine that describes itself as a “window into a nearly unattainable car-centric lifestyle” for the “automotive enthusiast,” published an article with the headline “Behind F1’s Velvet Curtain.” The author, Kate Wagner, more typically covers cycling and architecture than motor racing, but was offered the opportunity to attend Formula 1’s United States Grand Prix in Austin on a junket sponsored by INEOS, a petrochemical company and partner of the Mercedes F1 team. In her essay, she pilloried what she saw as an orgy of wealth. “I saw Ozempic-riddled influencers and fleshy, T-shirt-clad tech bros and people who still talked with Great Gatsby accents as they sweated profusely in Yves Saint Laurent under the unforgiving Texas sun,” she wrote. “The kind of money I saw will haunt me forever.”

Shortly after the article was published, however, it disappeared from the internet without immediate explanation. Various observers speculated that a corporate sponsor may have taken offense and pushed for a retraction. But Daniel Pund, recently installed as Road & Track’s editor in chief (having previously been executive editor), told Defector that “the story was taken down because I felt it was the wrong story for our publication,” and that “no one from the brands or organizations mentioned in the story put any sort of pressure on me or anyone else.” According to Pund, the story had simply escaped his notice as it went through edits, amid his change of role. “Had I been aware of the story I would have put a stop to it long before it ever posted,” he added. “I’m afraid this is a much more mundane situation than you might have imagined.” 

At the very least, the episode rhymed with the meek state of sports media in the US in 2024. As CJR’s Josh Hersh wrote in a recent feature, accountability and investigative reporting about sports are in decline, leaving a void that is increasingly being filled by hagiography and athlete-centered narratives—produced, often, by athletes themselves. “We’re in a time of information abundance,” Brian Moritz, a sports media researcher at St. Bonaventure University, told Hersh. “But actual journalists—the people who hold systems and power structures accountable—they’re being totally phased out.”

The Road & Track imbroglio also pointed, in other ways, to the peculiar place that F1—a sport that, until a few years ago, was not particularly popular in the US—has occupied in this landscape. Perhaps more than anything else, athlete-centered narratives have driven this recent rise in popularity, though these have not been crafted quite as much on the drivers’ own terms as in the football/basketball/baseball podcast-industrial complex that Hersh describes. 

And—ahead of this weekend’s Grand Prix in Miami, itself a relatively recent addition to the American sporting calendar—there are questions as to whether these narratives alone can continue to drive the growth of F1, or whether goings-on behind the velvet curtain, and on the track itself, are increasingly determining how media consumers perceive the sport.

In 2014 I attended qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix. (Qualifying determines the order in which the twenty drivers in a given F1 season will start a given race, and typically takes place the day beforehand.) The scene was far less glamorous than Wagner’s up-close tale of YSL and Ozempic; as I recall, I paid about fifty euros to stand on a hilltop from which I could just about see the tops of drivers’ heads as they zipped, at terrifying speeds, toward the city’s famous casino. Still, even from a distance, the scene encapsulated how F1 was seen at the time in much of the US: as “an effete European sport that happens in Monaco,” as the former head of Fox Sports once put it.

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My experience in Monaco didn’t really sell me on F1 as a sport. Instead—and, apparently, like many other viewers around the world—I got into it more recently, as a result of the Netflix series Drive to Survive, which, in its six seasons so far, has offered a behind-the-scenes look into the world of F1’s golden boys, antiheroes, and managerial class. The show has been credited with juicing F1’s popularity in the US in particular; Drive to Survive has at times been among the most watched shows on Netflix, while race viewership figures on linear TV and various polls suggest a concrete transfer of interest to the sport itself. In recent years, organizers have added a Grand Prix not only in Miami but, to much fanfare, in Las Vegas, making the US the best represented country on the F1 calendar. Practically every prestige American magazine has written about the Drive to Survive Effect.

When I watched F1 in Monaco, the sport was still the fief of Bernie Ecclestone, a diminutive and frequently controversial British businessman who, by many accounts, was oblivious to its huge potential as a global new-media product. In 2017, however, the sport was taken over by Liberty Media, a company founded by John Malone (of hovering-over-CNN fame) that quickly tapped veteran media executives to steer the ship. According to a 2022 story by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times Magazine, one of these executives—keen to expand F1’s appeal in the US, among other objectives—pitched Netflix on the idea of an unscripted series. Netflix—wanting to reach viewers in countries where F1 was already popular, and to broaden its sports portfolio—reciprocated the interest. 

The sports-documentary-as-branding exercise was not a new concept. But Netflix was able to secure a high degree of creative control for the show’s producers. (Per Schoenfeld, F1 “didn’t have the standing to refuse” these terms.) And it has since scored extraordinary access. As the show took off, leading teams (including Mercedes) that didn’t initially participate quickly saw the benefit of doing so; at some point, the show’s crew members started to don team uniforms at races, blending almost into the background. The result is a closely observed show that feels less manufactured than others like it; as The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull once put it, “compared with what American leagues make public, it’s practically cinema verité.” F1’s key characters are “in the same box every few weeks and they all fucking hate each other,” James Gay-Rees, whose company produces Drive to Survive, told GQ this year, referring to the “paddock” in which teams operate during races. “All you have to do is stand in the middle and point the camera.”

Still, as Mull noted, Drive to Survive is at the same time “clear and unapologetic propaganda” for F1, if not for any individual team or driver. And if athletes don’t control the narrative, they do propel it—their titanic egos and unashamed feuds are what make the show so compulsively watchable. Some individual characters have achieved escape velocity; Guenther Steiner, the (now former) principal of a middling-to-poor F1 team, achieved such viral fame through his charming interviews and sweary outbursts that he is now a media personality in his own right.

Drive to Survive is, at least in moments, a work of reportage; The New Yorker’s Carrie Battan once described it as affirming “the promise of access journalism.” Journalists are among the show’s on-screen narrators. (One, Will Buxton, has achieved viral fame of his own for his perceived habit of stating the obvious with hammed-up gravitas.) And yet it is, more so, a work of drama, compared by its creators and participants to prestige scripted series and other forms of entertainment. Sometimes, the producers have been accused of contriving this drama, by quoting drivers out of context (the producers have denied this) or—as Max Verstappen, F1’s current dominant driver, once charged—“faking rivalries.” (“When you edit down some hundreds of hours,” the showrunner told GQ this year, “you obviously pick the most revealing.”) Some observers even accused F1 officials of misapplying the rules to ensure a Netflix-worthy ending to the 2021 season, when Verstappen controversially edged out Lewis Hamilton, of Mercedes, to win his first world title. (There is no concrete evidence for this, though following the race, the official who oversaw it lost his job.)

Recently, meanwhile, some observers have questioned whether the Drive to Survive Effect might be wearing off. In recent seasons, the show has become increasingly self-referential (to the point where it showed footage of one driver deftly skewering its narrative tropes). “Six seasons of any Netflix show, regardless of genre, is miraculous, but the longer it’s around—and as the storytelling gets sloppier—the show and sport will be dealing with the law of diminishing returns,” Lily Herman wrote last year in her F1 culture newsletter, Engine Failure. “What becomes the purpose of a show like Drive to Survive as it continues to produce new episodes? Is it meant to convert people into active F1 fans? Provide entertainment for folks who simply want to watch the show once a year? Keep existing fans engaged? Do all of the above or something else entirely? I can’t really tell if the show or F1 as an org has an answer.” 

Given Drive to Survive’s apparent impact on the popularity of F1 as a whole, these questions also matter greatly to the sport itself, which some journalists likewise see as slowing down in the US. For now, interest still seems healthy. But ESPN’s average race ratings for last year were down from 2022, when the inaugural Miami Grand Prix, in particular, scored big viewership. And F1’s ratings have never been in the same stratosphere as those for, say, a football game attended by Taylor Swift or a college basketball game involving Caitlin Clark. It’s likely too soon to say whether F1 is entering its “flop era,” as Herman puts it. But the sport feels like it has reached a pivotal point.

In this sense, the current F1 season feels like a test of the proposition that visual media and narrative storytelling can turn a little-watched sport into a phenomenon with staying power. This is a question with relevance beyond F1; other sports—tennis and golf, to name a couple—are themselves trying to harness the Drive to Survive Effect. 

It feels like a test, too, of fan appetite for even less varnished narratives in sports media. As Wagner noted in her Road & Track essay, the sheer dominance of Verstappen—who won the drivers’ championship easily in 2022 and 2023 after the nail-biting drama of 2021—has made the sport itself boring to watch. This season, he is on track to do the same again. And recent stories emerging from behind the scenes have cast F1 in a negative light, too, showing that athlete-centered narratives don’t always equate to insight.

According to Schoenfeld, Christian Horner—the uber-competitive principal of the Red Bull team, for which Verstappen drives—personally urged the Drive to Survive crew to film at the team’s UK headquarters after seeing what exposure in the show did for Steiner. The show also captured Horner at home in the idyllic British countryside, with his wife, Geri Halliwell—a/k/a Ginger Spice—and their young children. Then, on the cusp of the new season this year, a less flattering portrait of Horner emerged, after the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported that he was under investigation by Red Bull for alleged inappropriate relations with a colleague

An investigation conducted by an external lawyer cleared Horner of wrongdoing, but Red Bull did not offer much in the way of transparency as to the process or its results, to the chagrin of the team’s rivals. (Horner has suggested that the latter have exploited the situation to gain competitive advantage, calling this the “not so pretty” side of the sport; he has consistently denied any wrongdoing.) Shortly after the probe concluded, however, images purporting to show inappropriate messages that Horner sent were emailed to over a hundred people connected to the sport, including many journalists. Horner has remained in his post. (The person who accused him has reportedly been suspended.) But the fallout continues—late last week, various outlets reported that an engineer perceived as critical to Red Bull’s success was on the verge of quitting. 

What is actually happening behind the scenes remains murky. (Among other things, the claims and counterclaims appear to be part of a baroque power struggle within Red Bull itself.) Herman has argued that there has been a deficit of good investigative journalism on the Horner situation. Similar could perhaps be said of other recent controversies that have remained opaque, including claims (since refuted by an internal probe) that the head of F1’s governing body tried to interfere with race decisions, including the certification of the track for the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix last year. (It remains to be seen how Drive to Survive will handle these controversies, which only broke after its latest season wrapped.)

Wagner’s retracted Road & Track essay wasn’t a piece of investigative journalism in the classic sense; it was, rather, a piece of cultural criticism, one that—perhaps ironically, given its fate—didn’t cast the actual sport of F1 in a bad light as much as the circus surrounding it. The lesson that Wagner took from her experience on the INEOS junket in Austin “wasn’t a crash course in Formula 1—in fact, Formula 1 only became more mystifying to me—but journalism, as viewed by the other side.” The sport, she wrote, “needs journalists to spread the good word”—but, unfortunately for those running it, “journalism still remains a double-edged sword.” 

“Send me on an experience,” Wagner continued, “and I’ll have an experience. Sadly, I suffer from an unprofitable disease that makes me only ever capable of writing about the experience I’m having. The doctors say it’s terminal.”

Other notable stories:

  • Attorneys for Hunter Biden, the president’s son, have threatened to sue Fox News and its parent company, claiming that they conspired to defame Hunter in their coverage of corruption allegations against him as well as publishing explicit images that were “hacked, stolen, and/or manipulated,” in possible violation of state-level “revenge porn” laws. (Fox pushed back.) In other legal news involving right-wing media, the far-right One America News Network retracted a story in which it quoted a social media post that claimed, without evidence, that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, had an affair with Stormy Daniels (who has, of course, claimed that she had an affair with Trump).
  • The Washington Post’s Greg Miller, Gerry Shih, and Ellen Nakashima are out with a new investigation linking officials in India’s intelligence services (and possibly higher up the food chain) to an ultimately thwarted plot to assassinate a critic of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, on US soil. Among other details, the Post reports that the Biden administration, which has stressed its warm relations with India, has “taken steps to contain the fallout from the assassination plot”—including by warning Modi’s government that the Post’s investigation was in the works, without notifying the Post itself.
  • In France, prosecutors brought preliminary charges against Arnaud Lagardère, a media mogul, stemming from allegations that he used corporate funds to pay for personal expenses. Lagardère has denied wrongdoing, and his eponymous group has said that it is not a legal target—but Lagardère has nonetheless been forced to resign as its chairman and CEO, per the FT. Lagardère’s media assets were taken over last year by the group of the right-wing billionaire Vincent Bolloré (who I wrote about recently).
  • And CJR’s Hersh sat down with Fatima Faizi, Stanislav Kucher, and Anisha Dutta—journalists from Afghanistan, Russia, and India, respectively—for a video interview discussing “their experiences reporting from, and on, their home countries—as well as the current situation in the US, where reporters face growing pushback on fundamental freedoms of the press.” You can watch the discussion here.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.