An F1 documentary lacking Ferrari and Mercedes? It's all the better for it

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At first glance, a fly-on-the-wall series about a championship series that doesn't feature its main protagonists might seem to be missing the point. But F1's new Netflix show excels without its two most obvious stars actively involved in it.

Last month Netflix accused Mercedes and Ferrari of doing Formula One a disservice for declining to be involved in its 10-part 'Drive to Survive' series, which dropped on the streaming service in full on Friday. Although Ferrari did reverse its decision later in the year and open its garage doors for cameras at the Italian Grand Prix, the lack of focus on Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel's championship fight is notable throughout.

But don't let the absence of the silver and red teams -- or the questionable title of the series, for that matter -- put you off. If anything, the series is enhanced by having to dig deeper into the stories dominating the teams further down the pecking order, away from the front of the grid.

While some of the behind-the-scenes access and race footage is superb and captivating, it is the real people who work with the state-of-the-art racing machines who steal the show. 'Drive to Survive' is Formula One as raw as you have ever seen it.

Steiner shines

Whether its Red Bull team principal Christian Horner joking that the donkeys he owns are easier to manage than F1 drivers after seeing Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen collide in Azerbaijan (or the revelation he has dogs named Bernie and Flavio, presumably named after former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore), Claire Williams openly voicing her doubts about whether she is the right person to lead her father's beleaguered team or the emotion of Joe and Grace Ricciardo watching their son race in Australia and win in Monaco, there are some genuinely brilliant, candid moments throughout. Having to focus away from the front end of the grid allows the series to dig into the characters that make up the rest of the F1 pit-lane.

This documentary will undoubtedly create some cult figures but none more fitting than the man who leads America's F1 team, Haas boss Guenther Steiner. The Italian, born in the town of Merano just south of the Austrian border, is a fascinating character -- his accent alone is hard to decipher on the first few listens. The polite and unassuming Steiner is a popular figure in the paddock, he's loved by those that work for him and admired by the press for his frank, honest and occasionally eccentric media sessions, as well as his propensity for colourful language.

Two scenes in particular stand out. The first is in the aftermath of Haas' heart-breaking double retirement in Australia while running fourth and fifth, both from identical pit-stop issues which Steiner himself is shown to be concerned about on the eve of the race. The way this plays out is exquisite -- a beautiful yet painful montage of it all unfolding so quickly, including the teary-eyed mechanic responsible for the errors, the head-in-hand moments in the garage and an irritated Kevin Magnussen looking for help from a nearby PR man as he tries to navigate his way through the Albert Park paddock post-race without running into camera crews.

But it's Steiner who is the star of the piece. Filmed while talking over the phone to team owner Gene Haas after the race, Steiner speaks as frankly as ever.

"I don't have the answer to this one, Gene," he says. "We just f---ed it up.

"F---! Fourth and fifth. Gene, if we finish fourth and finish here we f---ing look like rock stars but now we look like a f---ing bunch of w---ers, a bunch of f---ing clowns!"

It's not his only starring moment. Steiner -- who memorably told a complaining Romain Grosjean to "shut up" over race radio during the 2017 U.S. Grand Prix -- pulled no punches with the Frenchman through his tricky period at the beginning of last season. At one point on the pit-wall he tells Grosjean's race engineer, "just tell him to focus on driving and not f---ng whing[ing]."

But most striking is a Haas team dinner during the French Grand Prix weekend. At the beginning Steiner stands up to talk to the assembled team and makes a reference to the absent Grosjean, saying in his deadpan style: "Romain is not here. Maybe he is not here because he doesn't have any points. Or I didn't invite him because he doesn't deserve any food."

During pre-season, I asked Steiner if he was looking forward to watching the documentary, and his answer suggested he was aware of the moments which might feature prominently in it.

"I don't want to see it, actually," he said, laughing. "I was told my daughter shouldn't watch it! There will be certain words... I will be questioned because that's what we always say, 'don't say them', but then daddy's saying them on TV. So if you see a 10-year-old running around the paddock [this year] saying all those words, you'll know who it is!"

Steiner is not unique, as there are plenty of people in F1 outside of each season's championship fight worthy of a documentary episode or two. But for all the talk in recent times of modern F1 lacking some of the characters of yesteryear, Steiner's starring role is testament to the sort of access no-one would have dreamed of a few years ago when Bernie Ecclestone still controlled the sport.

Australian driver Ricciardo is an established character of F1, with or without this documentary. But his contract year and the decision of whether to continue with Red Bull or leave for another team dominates the episodes he is in. For a sport often left second-guessing during what is affectionately called "silly season", seeing that thought process evolve into the decision to join Renault for this coming season makes for compelling viewing.

While some drivers seemed lukewarm on the idea of the series, Ricciardo understands the bigger picture. "I think it's going to be cool," he said during pre-season testing in Barcelona. "Not just for me, but for F1, to have more of a presence like that.

"Someone in a small town in the States, or wherever they are in the world, can watch it and get a bit more of an understanding about it. I think that's the most important thing, globally, to get that across."

'Why would you ever go back?'

F1 wants Netflix to stay in the paddock for at least another season. The cameras were at the launches of the new cars and in the paddock for pre-season testing this year as negotiations with all the teams -- including Mercedes and Ferrari -- continue.

F1 motorsport boss Ross Brawn can understand why his former teams were reluctant to take part, but hopes they are able to see the bigger picture going forward.

"Let's say I was running Mercedes and a driver didn't want to co-operate, it would be a pretty difficult situation to force that situation onto the team," Brawn said. "I think this sport is able to grow and it will grow quicker if all the teams are part of that process, there is no doubt.

"I think the teams are starting to recognise that their involvement is not just limited to the track but they can be involved in every way we improve the sport. I think maybe not every team is reaching that conclusion at the same time, but they are all reaching that conclusion. I think we will see another step forward in 2019."

Brawn thinks the documentary is simply the next stage in F1 realising the sort of access it can give existing and potential fans to enhance the viewing experience around the show.

"One very small example, and it's not a big one, is team radio. For years they were encrypted and secret and no one knew what was being said, and then it became compulsory to have the channels open.

"[Now] everyone has realised how much the extra dimension of hearing the driver adds to Formula One. Of course they are cautious and they have their codes, which you can work out after a while, but we would never dream of going back to no radio because it is such a great element of the sport. Our sport is able to bring to the fans the emotion of the radio communications between the drivers and the engineers, and I can't think of a sport apart from motor racing that can do that - talking to a driver in the middle of his performance.

"That's a great example of where we can move forward and I think Netflix is a similar example. When you are able to offer this insight, why would you ever go back?"