Just about every racing series in the world has looked at Drive to Survive, the Netflix docuseries dedicated to dramatizing Formula One — but so far, only Formula E has actually attempted to release something. Formula E Unplugged is a short series totally available on YouTube… and it could have benefited from attempting to be something more than a formulaic repeat of Drive to Survive with electric cars.
I hate to write those words, because I’ve loved following Formula E, and I desperately want everything it touches to find success. And while Unplugged is good, it’s hard not to watch it without getting Drive to Survive flashbacks.
Let me give you an example. In the first episode, Sam Bird does that thing where he snaps the movie clapboard to start or finish a take. It’s a move generally adopted by documentary filmmakers to illustrate that this particular person is a little goofy and fun-loving, and you’ll see it in DTS with Daniel Ricciardo.
Or there’s the Mitch Evans/Sam Bird rivalry in the first episode that isn’t really the cutthroat rivalry the series tries to set it up to be. Or episode three, where the camera crew follows Oliver Rowland to his hometown of Barnsley (something, interestingly, that only happens with Rowland; no other driver has the at-home treatment).
It’s going to be hard for any racing series to create a docuseries about its season without drawing DTS comparisons, but I was disappointed that Formula E Unplugged had leaned into so closely mimicking the formula that brought F1 success — but without the big budget and careful editing that makes DTS shine.
I will give Unplugged credit in many ways. The short episodes are far more bingeable than those of DTS (though I’ll have more on that later), and the series actually makes an effort to cover every single one of the 2020-21 season’s 15 races in chronological order, where in DTS you’ll skip around for the benefit of the narrative. Unplugged stays linear, focusing on individual teams in each episode and drawing from history to explain why this particular event is important.
And there were great moments, to be sure. Susie Wolff speaking of her experience as a woman in the motorsport world in episode seven was great — though the episode didn’t do much to really delve into what that looked like. Episode one showed Mitch Evans’ hesitation in checking in on Alex Lynn after his car flipped upside down — but there wasn’t much time to explore how that impacted either Evans or Lynn.
I don’t think the format — the one thing that really distinguishes Unplugged from DTS — though, provided enough time for anyone to actually get really involved in the narrative. The thing with DTS is that it provides you something a little extra, that behind-the-scenes story that adds complexity to the things you actually saw on the race track as the season went on — but it can also be watched without having any familiarity with F1.
With Unplugged, it almost felt like we were watching a 15-minute event recap blended with some race-specific interviews — which are things I can already get from the Formula E YouTube page. I think you’d probably be better served re-watching the races; many of the narratives the series follows are ones you’d glean from a broadcast. And that’s fine, but it doesn’t make for a particularly compelling series.
Perhaps the most bizarre was the fact that I was left feeling I’d gained even less from an episode than I could have gained from a five-minute recap of the race. Episode eight follows the disaster in Puebla, Mexico, where Pascal Wehrlein was disqualified as race winner because his tires hadn’t been properly registered in the sport’s technical passport. The technical passport is never explained. We get very little response from Wehrlein or his team, since this was originally set up as a Mahindra-based episode. We see then-CEO Alejandro Agag raging against the stupidity of the rule. We see a journalist noting that the whole concept is more complex than it needs to be.
Then that’s it. No more explanation, follow-up, or context. We see a preview of the next episode, and we move on. We never really wrap up the Mahindra narrative. We don’t follow the concerns about the technical passport. We just pop off to the next race.
And with such an emphasis on the race-by-race format, I was keenly aware that the series never explained the unique format of a Formula E weekend (practice, qualifying, and race all in one day), nor did it ever give a sense of the Championship standings beyond mentions of a certain driver leading. The heavy use of race footage, then, meant very little. I could tell Unplugged was trying to build tension, but it fell flat because I didn’t have a sense of what was important. It’s a strange feeling, watching a recap of a season I followed live and feeling more confused than I had at any point during the season itself.
To put it simply, Formula E Unplugged is fine, but it’s not going to be the thing I recommend a potential fan watch to get them interested in electric open-wheel racing. Instead, I’ll point them to And We Go Green, which did a much better job of crafting an interesting narrative of a season while also highlighting unique driver personalities and the quirks of Formula E. Formula E Unplugged is probably better for a hardcore fan, or one that’s already well familiar with the concept of FE within the context of motorsport overall.