Missiles, extreme heat, relentless calendar: F1 must do more to protect their drivers

Sam Cooper
F1 president Stefano Domenicali

F1 president Stefano Domenicali must ask himself if the money is worth it.

The Qatar Grand Prix was an embarrassing affair.

If the country’s non-existent relationship with human rights was not enough to deter Formula 1 from racing there, perhaps this weekend’s events should serve as another opportunity to question whether the money is worth it.

Qatar pays a reported $55 million per year to host a Formula 1 race, making it the joint most lucrative grand prix alongside – you guessed it – Saudi Arabia. The venue also has a 10-year deal with Formula 1, meaning it is slated to be on the calendar until at least 2031 despite being one of the worst ranked countries for human rights’ violations.

But putting aside their human rights atrocities, the country is also unsuitable to hold sporting events. An official figure of 40 migrant deaths was put forward by Qatar in the building of the venues for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, The Guardian estimates to actually be in the thousands. That same World Cup was moved from its traditional summer slot to winter in order for the players to not cook under the Qatari sun.

Formula 1 placed the 2023 race in October but a glance at the weather history for the region would have suggested trouble. The race was deemed as being unseasonably warm but historical data shows that in the same month last year, the average temperature was 31°C. Considering Qatar has made little effort to curb its carbon emissions, that number is only likely to rise.

The result was predictable. Logan Sargeant was forced to retire mid-race, Esteban Ocon vomited in his helmet and Lance Stroll said he passed out going into corners. Afterwards, the FIA said it would work with the teams to avoid a repeat of the situation but that particular horse has already bolted, or at least it would have done had it not collapsed due to heat exhaustion.

The reaction to the Qatar race from some quarters has been bizarre. Rather than trust the 20 drivers who actually raced in the event or the teams that had access to their health data, certain pundits have suggested Formula 1 racing should be tough with Martin Brundle going as far as stating it was a “weak view” that such conditions were not acceptable before going on to list three former drivers of which one campaigned for decades for driver safety, one refused to race on safety grounds and another fatally crashed during a race.

Qatar was the latest in a long line of the sport being reactive rather than proactive. Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen’s Houthi rebels has been going on since 2015 and yet a circuit 500 miles away from the Saudi Arabia/Yemen border was deemed safe to race on in 2022. The result of that choice could have been catastrophic.

A missile launched by the Houthi rebels struck an oil facility just 10 miles away from the circuit, close enough that the drivers could smell smoke, at a time when a free practice session was taking place. Formula 1 is not expected to know the inner plans of every military organisation on the planet but the fact that the same group hit the same facility with the same weapons just five days earlier was a warning sign ignored.

The incident rightly sparked concern amongst the drivers. An emergency meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association was convened with the racers coming to the conclusion that they did not want to race. It was only once the team principals were allowed to enter that the drivers were strong-armed into changing their mind.

It is not just off track matters either. In Qatar, the FIA gave no warning to the teams before they announced to the world that the circuit would be altered. Considering drivers spend hours in the sim practising on inch-perfect recreations of each circuit, a hastily put together 10 minute practice session ahead of sprint qualifying was hardly a fair compromise. It came as little surprise then to see 51 laps deleted during Sunday’s race and multiple penalties handed out.

Drivers have also complained about safety when it comes to circuits. The wet weather in Spa this season again brought concern from the drivers just a few weeks after teeneager Dilano van ‘t Hoff was killed at the venue. Max Verstappen has frequently cited the Jeddah track as the most dangerous.

Then comes the issue of the calendar. With 24 races scheduled for next season, drivers will be asked to travel to 21 different countries in the span of 10 months. If we account for one day for travel, Thursday for media and sponsorship duties and then the race weekend, drivers are seeing a third of their whole year taken up just by races, ignoring the work they have to do around the grand prix.

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The schedule of each is also particularly brutal. In 2024, there is a triple header of Austin – Mexico – Brazil followed by Las Vegas – Qatar – Abu Dhabi. The first races of the year cover a distance of 14,000 miles. Put this all together and it is clear why Verstappen has suggested he may retire sooner rather than later.

And yet, the Dutchman’s complaints and that of every other driver have fallen on deaf ears. The 2024 race calendar has expanded, not shrunk, and while some regionalisation has taken place, it is still just as demanding as it ever has been. In the wake of the 2022 race, drivers raised concern about racing in Saudi Arabia and yet the sport returned there this year, the same will happen with Qatar even if it has been moved to later in the season.

In response to their complaints, it is often thrown at the drivers that they earn enough money to cope but regardless of how big your bank balance is, that does not make you immune to issues. Formula 1 has a duty of care to its athletes and needs to realise that underneath that helmet is a human being who is just as susceptible to problems as the rest of us are.

The one thing that differentiates them from you and me is they are relentless winners. Every single one of them has a competitiveness that is needed to make it into the industry. It is a trait shared by any high-level sportsperson, the inability to know when to quit and is why the phrase ‘throwing in the towel’ has come into existence.

F1 drivers will never voluntarily stop, even in Sargeant’s case it took his team twice persuading him to put health over performance before he called it a day. F1 drivers then cannot be trusted to decide their own safety which is where F1 and the FIA must step in.

It seems Formula 1 is in a period of wringing out just about everything it can from the sport. Paddock members are being exposed to a record-breaking number of races with more demands than ever before. Formula 1 is a sport that has not hidden its love of money but the drivers’ health and safety should always be top of the priority list. If venues such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are going to continue on the calendar, Formula 1 and the FIA must be more proactive than reactive to the dangers they pose.

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