A winning formula: How a show about car racing captivated an audience that doesn’t typically watch sports | CBC News

As a kid, Mike Janik could be found spending his days crashing Hot Wheels cars together and playing racing games. 

Now, two decades later, he’s “giddy” knowing he’s attending this weekend’s 2022 Formula One Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal — and can check watching “the pinnacle of motorsports” off his bucket list.

Growing up, Janik had always followed more of the rally scene. Until one day, he stumbled upon F1 highlights on YouTube and his interest went “from zero to 100.”

“I went from having no knowledge of it to … at the drop of a hat, at the snap of a finger, I tune in for every race weekend,” Janik said. “I don’t miss a beat.”

Ralf Schumacher, centre, of BMW Williams team reacts as his brother Michael Schumacher, left, and Mika Hakkinen pour champagne down his back following his victory at the Canadian Grand Prix Montreal in 2001. Since this victory, the sport’s fans have grown, much of it due to new movies and TV shows. (Reuters)

Since the Netflix series Drive to Survive — featuring behind-the-scenes footage of the usually secretive racing teams — debuted in 2019, the audience for F1 has skyrocketed. In May, the show was confirmed for fifth and sixth seasons. And Apple Studios confirmed it’s producing a racing film starring Brad Pitt co-produced by champion driver Lewis Hamilton.

But it’s more than other studios trying to cash in on the new audience for F1. Other sports, like the PGA Tour, want to see if they can too.

While F1 focuses on high-octane racing, the show lifts the curtain on the drama and complexity about what goes into making a livelihood as a Formula One driver.

“I think the most revealing part of that series … was just sort of understanding the real team effort behind it,” Janik said. “Seeing these teams put everything they can to eke out thousandths of a second and just perform at this superhuman level, I think that’s really what sold me.”

Mike Janik can be seen playing racing games as a child. As an adult, he’s become a huge fan of Formula One. (Submitted by Mike Janik)

Popularity as driving force behind new content

The humanity of the show is part of its winning formula, says Adam Seaborn, a sports media analyst and head of partnerships at Playmakers Capital.

It takes audiences beyond the track, giving people the chance to connect with the drivers and teams — and it breaks down the complexity of racing for people who might otherwise not watch sports, he said.

“You can get a storyline,” he said. “You can know their back stories, you know the rivalries, where they grew up … So it’s easy to understand who versus whom every single week.”

The popularity of the sport and its Netflix show has driven the streaming platform into a bidding war for the broadcast rights to F1 series racing — hoping to unseat ESPN, whose TV rights end next season.

People are also watching the show outside of primetime hours, with an average of 200,000 to 400,000 viewers per race between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., Seaborn said. 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 an intersection of digital media, of social media and of sport all at the perfect time.” 

A car can be seen from the stands during the Formula One free practice session at Gilles Villeneuve circuit in Montreal. Janik will be among those watching this weekend. (Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports)

Steering into stardom

In the past, films like Rush and Ford v Ferrari marked a starting point of racing’s growing media presence. But reality TV boosted Formula One’s visibility, straddling the line between sports and entertainment.

“What we are currently obsessed with and interested in is actually driving the content, which I think is so exciting,” said Alexandra Nikolajev, who began watching the series during the pandemic.

Since the Netflix series Drive to Survive — featuring behind-the-scenes footage of the usually secretive racing teams — debuted in 2019, the audience for F1 has skyrocketed. In May, it was confirmed for fifth and sixth seasons.  (Netflix)

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 the drivers and vehicle creators behind the scenes.

And F1 stars themselves are embracing new media, said Nikolajev, who shares pop culture analysis on TikTok with her more than 92,000 followers.

“They’re starting to go on podcasts, they’re starting to do interviews,” she said, adding that fans are “starting to be invested.” 

Not everyone agrees with bringing F1 racing to the masses, Nikolajev said. There’s been backlash from legacy fans who would prefer the sport maintain its air of exclusivity.

“But I think that the whole point of content in this day and age is accessibility — and bringing us all together. And I think it’s … amazing that we’re continuing to push that boundary.”

Drivers advocate for social change

Reaching that larger audience has given drivers a chance to push other boundaries. 

Drivers are using their celebrity status to champion human rights issues — and other causes they’re connected to, said Shanika Abeysinghe, co-host of Get Checkered, a Canadian Formula One podcast. 

“The drivers are advocating for changes, whether it’s in their own little world or publicly or whatever that looks like,” said Abeysinghe.

Sebastian Vettel has advocated for the inclusion of an LGBTQ driver in the Formula One, wearing a rainbow shirt with the words “Same Love” on it at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix. Hamilton is the only Black Formula One driver, and has created a non-profit organization to identify and reduce the barriers to Black people in U.K. motorsports.

Drive to Survive fan Alexandra Nikolajev shares pop culture analysis on TikTok with her more than 92,000 followers. She’s seen here with some amazing cars. (Submitted by Alexandra Nikolajev)

But for all the sport has risen in popularity, Abeysinghe said, it still fails to reflect the diversity of its growing fan base. 

“It’s the powers that be, which is the FIA, that need to realize that we need a woman to drive, we need someone that identifies as LGBTQ to drive,” she said. “There’s only 20 seats — so how do we create equity in a sport that’s inherently inequitable?”

Inspiring copycat shows

As Drive to Survive looks to its next season, other sporting bodies are exploring the possibility of using the show as a template to develop sports media. 

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton walks through the paddock at the Canadian Grand Prix on Thursday. Hamilton is one of the world’s best drivers and has created a non-profit to reduce barriers for other Black people to enter the sport. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The PGA tour has commissioned a deal with Netflix to provide behind-the-scenes access to the sport, attempting to recreate Drive to Survive’s success. 

“In many ways there’s a lot of similarities. It’s athletes who are independent contractors who have great storylines,” said Seaborn.

“You get them in with the entertainment piece. It’s exciting; it should be fun. And if you become a real fan, you get hardcore.”

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