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F1’s ‘marriage’ with Netflix has more mileage

Season four of Drive to Survive, the Netflix docu-series that has turbocharged Formula One for new and younger audiences, debuts on Friday with the sport committed to the "marriage" despite controversy and criticism.

The 10 new episodes offer behind the scenes insight into the 2021 season, one of grand prix racing's most exciting and closely-fought championships.

"I think it's a great partnership," Greg Maffei, CEO of Formula One's US-based owners Liberty Media, told analysts in a recent conference call.

"It's been a win all the way around. Clearly grown our sport, not only in the US but around the world. It is a great thing for Netflix as well.  hope the marriage continues for a long time."

Cumulative television viewership in the US was up 58% year-on-year in 2021, according to F1 figures, with 400,000 fans making the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, the best attended race of last season.

A second US race, in Miami, debuts in May and US-based sponsors, such as Red Bull's new title partner Oracle, are increasingly prominent.

The Netflix partnership has had its critics, however, with last year's final showdown in Abu Dhabi triggering accusations that the sport's integrity had been sacrificed for entertainment.

Race director Michael Masi, since replaced, changed the safety car procedures in a late move that allowed Red Bull's Max Verstappen to win and deny Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton a record eighth title.

McLaren's Lando Norris said afterwards he felt it was done "for the TV".

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, playing a starring role in a series snubbed by Verstappen who said last year he felt some of the driver rivalries were "faked", felt the criticism was unfair.

"F1 is still a sport, but sport is an entertainment," he told the BBC.

"One could also argue that there have been more people talking about Formula One in the past two and a half months when, traditionally, it would have been in hibernation."

Much of that talk has also been about what might ultimately be revealed by the Netflix cameras.

Formula One chief executive Stefano Domenicali recognised, however, that Drive to Survive needed to remain a "differentiating factor" with other sports jumping on the bandwagon in a bid to boost audiences.

Amazon Prime launches a similar MotoGP Unlimited docu-series on March 14 while the Netflix producers have teamed up with tennis's Grand Slam tournaments and ATP and WTA tours and are also reportedly in discussions with cycling's Tour de France.

"If it's becoming just a different way to speak about Formula One without  giving to the F1 platform any added value maybe I think it's better to renegotiate and see with Netflix or with the other partners what could be a possibility to do something different in the future," said Domenicali.

"But for sure this platform has been a vital point in the growth of awareness, mainly with the young generation and newcomers."

The 2022 Formula One season starts in Bahrain on March 20.

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