Formula One: A reality TV show shot on the moon

Photo of F1 racing
Netflix/Courtesy

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Formula One is hella fast.

It’s no use trying to justify that claim — humans are awful at understanding the true scale of large differences. It’s like how if the sun were the size of a gym ball the Earth would be a pea. And, to that scale, the distance between them would still be nearly the length of a football field. But even seeing that, what changes? Language was conceived for what we can perceive. How big is the sun? Hella. How far away is it? Hella. How fast is Formula One?

Unlike the sun, Formula One Grands Prix can be observed without protection. During the race season, millions from across the globe tune in to watch these wheeled-up stabbed rats scurry around sublimely sculpted tracks scored by the symphonies of late scurrying stabbed rats of the better part of the past century. This all sounds marvellous, but there is a problem: Formula One doesn’t feel all that fast anymore.

Obviously, watching from the grand stand as the shrieking beasts pull six lateral G’s around the final corner into a 200-plus mile per hour blast down the back straight, the rat-race still looks fast — but especially during the pandemic, most fans are stuck watching Formula One on TV. While TV programming in general looks better than ever with advances in technology, Formula One just feels slower.

Formula One live broadcasts have a rich history of technical innovation. The first live onboard cameras were introduced way back in 1985 when Renault’s François Hesnault gave audiences their first taste of the ludicrous sensation of speed Formula One drivers feel. Back then, the camera was mounted to the side of the driver, just above eye level, and signals were beamed to the broadcast center via a helicopter flying above the track. The resulting image was riddled with analog interference patterns projecting the pounding sensation through the drivers’ bones that was wired from the frigid chassis. It looked like the first images from the surface of the moon — forbidden footage from a place that would really prefer it if people weren’t there. And it looked hella fast.

These days the onboard cameras are mounted higher up on the cars to provide a wider field of view. They’re also perfectly stabilized, reliable and informative. They’re great cameras for actually understanding the racing, but no longer do they elicit a feeling. It looks like a reality TV show shot on the moon: it’s wonderfully detailed, easy to see what’s happening, but no longer feels so forbidden.

Should a potential fan stumble across a televised Formula One Grand Prix, they’d find that the initial awe of the spectacle is diminished by the polish. Someone watching NFL football (still often a plodding sport to watch through) for the first time might catch a crazy play from start to finish in 20 seconds and be hooked for life. 20 seconds of Formula One might be enough to watch a spectacular crash happen, but it’s not really enough to get hooked by the actual racecraft — and as a rule of thumb, it’s more than just a tad inappropriate to watch Formula One in anticipation of an accident to rubberneck.

No, the sound bite spectacles are only one part of a good sport. Sports are a vehicle for storytelling. The underdogs playing in unfamiliar territory and overcoming an immense points deficit to clinch victory in the final seconds. The rivalries between sworn enemies against a backdrop of international tension playing out on the field. The baggage from outside the court, the ring, the dome, the rink, the stadium, the park, the beach, the backyard, or the playground all distilled into one performance, one self-contained story within a network of stories spanning weeks, seasons, years. Feeling fast was once enough to attract new fans; now, Formula One must shift gears — to communicating feelings fast.

Liberty Media, the American company that acquired Formula One in 2017, might have had this in mind when they gave a bunch of Netflix producers unprecedented access to the paddock for “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.” The result weaves narrative context into the on-track action of the season while visually celebrating the virtuosity on display — all in the spirit of speed. For the stories “Drive to Survive” chooses to tell, never have the emotional stakes felt clearer, more visceral and more real. “Drive to Survive” is today’s onboard camera: a novel, if not a sometimes-temperamental way to make audiences feel something, fast. It turns out that when your race series starts to look like a reality TV show shot on the moon — you hella turn it into a reality TV show shot on the moon.

Contact Lachie Wappet at [email protected].