Exclusive: Physiological expert reveals how FIA ‘dodged a bullet’ at Qatar GP

Thomas Maher
Aston Martin's Lance Stroll racing with Alpine's Esteban Ocon at the Qatar Grand Prix.

Aston Martin's Lance Stroll racing with Alpine's Esteban Ocon at the Qatar Grand Prix.

With the Qatar GP one of the most difficult races ever physically for the F1 drivers, a renowned expert has evaluated the impact on them…

Dr. Chris Tyler, an environmental physiologist within Life and Health Sciences at the University of Roehampton in London has over 10 years of experience focusing on the human response to extremely hot and cold environments and regularly works with elite sportspeople – including Carlos Sainz, Oscar Piastri, Lando Norris, and the McLaren F1 team.

Dr. Tyler sat down for an extended interview with PlanetF1.com to discuss the Qatar Grand Prix and the physiological effects of the race on the drivers.

PlanetF1.com: Watching the race from a physiological perspective, can you talk us through what you were thinking while you took in the Qatar Grand Prix?

Dr. Chris Tyler: “What was obviously unfolding in the Qatar race was that it was a whole other level of danger. Not only were the drivers expected to control the cars as they would normally, but they were also fighting the added stressor of the heat and the humidity.

“You could see that or you could hear that, particularly in the radio communications, they were really suffering. So it wasn’t just it was a little bit uncomfortable. It wasn’t just that they were a little bit uncertain about some of their manoeuvres, they were really struggling to see, they were losing consciousness, they were nauseous with vomiting, and you don’t have to have any background to know that that’s not a good place to be in – particularly if you’re driving at 200 miles per hour.

“I think the FIA had a bit of a lucky escape. It’s very pleasing to see that they’ve tried to be a bit proactive to make sure it doesn’t happen again because I think they know that they were pretty close to the line yesterday.”

PF1: Let’s assume the drivers were all well-hydrated to start the race. But, with 35-degree Celsius temperatures and 60+ per cent humidity, how long would it have taken for dehydration to kick in?

CT: “Let’s assume they were hydrated beforehand. That’s one thing we assume, obviously, what we often forget is that the race starts for the drivers on Thursday. So, hopefully, they were preparing well, Thursday was actually even hotter than Sunday.

“But one thing we’ve seen, particularly in the mechanics, is that there is this idea of cumulative dehydration, they can’t take on enough and do their role.

“Now, if we assume that drivers are fine, data concerning how dehydrated they normally get is somewhat limited but seems to range between a litre an hour to two litres an hour, something like that.

“So if you’re doing a two-hour race, you might lose two litres, and if you’re a driver weighing about 70 kilogrammes, that’s going to be a decent chunk of loss. That’s exacerbated by the fact that you have a litre of fluid if you’re a driver. Many of the drivers won’t drink it. It quickly turns into just warm water.

“If they drank that, despite being hugely unpalatable, it would have a rehydrating benefit. So they could replace, for argument’s sake, they could replace 50% of what they lost if they drank all of it.

“If they drank none of it, they could be two litres down at the end.

“They’re already sitting on an engine, sitting close to a hot track in fire retardant uniforms, in encapsulated clothing wearing a helmet. So, even in normal races, they are at risk of some fluid loss and some dehydration – that was exacerbated by the Qatar temperatures because there was nowhere for anything to go, exacerbated by the lack of palatability of the fluid.

“So they’re going to finish the race dehydrated to some degree, how much will depend on how much they drink and will, to some degree, depend on how well they prepared in advance.

“So if any of them did come in slightly under-hydrated, so hypo-hydrated before the race, they could be more susceptible going into the race and, particularly as it seemed like most of the drivers really focused on Singapore from a heat perspective, there wasn’t as much talk for Qatar, it seemed like it almost sprung upon them.”

PF1: So what kind of period into the race are we talking about before the effects of dehydration would have started to kick in for the drivers? Simplistically, is it a case of the first half of the race was fine, the second half was a field full of dehydrated drivers?

CT: “As soon as body temperature is elevated, they’re going to start sweating. Now, it’s going to depend entirely on how frequently or how rapidly they’re refuelling [drinking]. Now, we know they don’t all drink, but say they drank a little bit.

“If they drank sips throughout the race, they could maintain hydration for about 50% of it. If they sweated at two litres an hour, they drank a litre about an hour in, they could roughly maintain hydration.

“But then, after that, they’re going to not have any fluids to replace. Dehydration is not a simple switch. As the body notices that you’re lacking fluids, it does start to retain things better. The colour of your urine changes if you’re dehydrated, that’s your body clinging on to fluids. So the body will be doing a bit of that, as the body senses that the driver is becoming hypo-hydrated.

“But there won’t be a magical sort of switch whereby they are dehydrated, I think we can be safe in saying that, even if they drink all of it, they will all finish dehydrated. Depending on their drinking strategy to some degree, that will dictate at what point that is noticeable or of any real consequence.”

PF1: At what point does that dehydration start having a significant impact on the mental faculties of the driver, and a physical effect in terms of mind-to-muscle connection?

CT: “That’s the million-dollar question. Plenty of sports drinks tell you it’s about 2%. It’s very much situational-specific and individual-specific. So these guys are very well trained, they’re elite. So they will have a greater resilience than you or I if we were doing a similarly stressful task. So that buys them a bit more time.

“But certainly, as hydration levels become worsened, physical performance will impair. They’re not doing a great deal of physical work, they never like me saying that! They’re resisting G-forces, they’re doing some work, but they’re not running a two-hour marathon. But they are making lots of complex cognitive decisions.

“They’re the things that are most severely affected by hydration. We’re very good at maintaining simple tasks. If you’ve got a simple decision-making task, we’re pretty good at that, like you can be really dehydrated and still be successful.

“But the more complex a task becomes, so dealing with strategy, dealing with race command, dealing with your engineers telling you one thing, track limits… all these factors will then start to separate those that are either more dehydrated or at least more susceptible to the heat stress and the dehydration, which then you’ll see that in poor decision making.

“It’s not as simple as this will always happen because there were poor decisions at Turn 1 which has nothing to do with being dehydrated! But, certainly, as the race continued, trying to maintain focus on those cognitively challenging tasks, it was mentally draining as much as it was physically draining with all the individuals lying around in the recovery room like it was a bit of a battlefield.”

PF1: Could the effects of this hydration be viewed as comparable to hypoxia in terms of mental degradation?

CT: “Only to the extent that you will be impaired – the mechanism is different and there’s still that individual resilience. So some people’s dehydration level x will be severely impaired, while others will be fine – just like with hypoxia.

“So, if you go to elevation, some will be affected by the hypoxia to a much greater effect than others. But it’s certainly another environmental stressor that moves the body away from where it wants to be and can therefore have a knock-on effect in a highly demanding situation such as F1.”

PF1: Esteban Ocon vomited into his helmet quite early into the race, Lap 15 or 16 – only about 30 minutes into the race. Was that more likely to be shock-related rather than dehydration, a response from the body to the physical demands being put on it?

CT: “That was unlikely dehydration, and, actually, even dehydration you can tolerate. Elite marathon runners finish the marathon 9, 10, 11, 12% dehydrated in a race. That doesn’t mean being dehydrated is good. It just means that elite athletes can tolerate it.

“In that sort of situation, that’s got to be a combination of the heat, the humidity, the G-force, the concentration required to obey track limits. We’ve also got to factor in that, although it was only X number of laps into the race, they will have been in the paddock, in their overalls and in the car for more time than that – paddock walks, pit lane walks, etc. in broad sunshine, it’s 39 degrees Celsius, it’s humid, they are accumulating heat all the time that they’re in those overalls.

“The teams can try their best by pumping in liquid nitrogen and stuff, but it’s not doing a great deal. I’m purely speculating on Esteban, but it’s unlikely to have anything to do with being dehydrated, it is a combination of all those other stressors, and maybe a large redistribution of blood from the core to the skin, which is what we try to do to get rid of heat.

“Once you do that, you end up with changes in blood pressure, and you end up with potentially a leaky gut because the blood is no longer going to the gut. It’s unlikely it would have happened that quickly. But it could be that he wasn’t going in in a perfect state because of what had gone on prior to the race or something. He may have had complications with prior illnesses or whatever. Obviously, it was not a good situation to be in.”

PF1: I don’t want to use torture, as it’s a sensationalist word to use, but Logan Sargeant had to make a very difficult decision to retire while having a solid race weekend – one he really needed given the precarious position he’s in in his career right now. As a sportsman, he would have really wanted to continue, so how bad must he have been feeling for his body to scream louder than his mind?

CT: “Often, elite athletes can tolerate a lot. Whatever you think of as a normal heart rate, body temperature, G force to resist or whatever, these guys aren’t normal. These guys can tolerate a lot more.

“But everybody has a limit. We’ve seen that in marathon running, the Olympics, and things like that. Even prime Olympians sometimes get beaten by the elements. There comes a point where it doesn’t matter how determined you are to continue, that is not the logical decision. If you’re driving at high speed in a car versus running in a marathon, the consequences of not stopping are potentially far graver.

“Most people are good enough to stop before they reach physiological injury but, if you’re doing that in charge of a rocket, essentially – ultimately, it doesn’t become your decision. It comes down to the team’s obligation as well to look after their driver. So often you have to make the call to pull people out for the safety of everyone, the driver, the car, the other drivers, the spectators, and the marshals. That’s a very difficult conversation to have, and a very difficult decision to make.”

PF1: So, as dehydration sets in, is it a case of a linear fall-off in ability? Or is it a case you can handle for X amount of time, and then a rapid collapse?

CT: “It’s gonna be progressive, it’s definitely not linear. It’s almost certainly not really dehydration either, it’s the heat rather than the dehydration – the drivers will be used to being dehydrated. But they might not necessarily be used to doing that amount of work in those conditions. So, as their body temperature has gone up, they’re under greater physiological strain.

“Hydration is just one piece of the jigsaw. But it’s more likely to be linked to increases in body temperature, increases in heart rate, and redistribution of blood, which therefore means that you could get a lowering in blood pressure.

“It’s a bit like if you were laying down on a sunbed in the sun for too long and got up too quickly, you feel a bit lightheaded. Imagine doing that in overalls in charge of an F1 car. So it’s certainly not linear. In the case of 15 laps for Ocon, that’s quite early for what it is because they’d be used to tolerating it for quite a while. So it’s not linear and, also, it’s not the same for everyone. So you saw that not everyone was affected by it but to slightly different extents. That’s pretty true for heat, everyone will be affected by it at some stage, but not everyone equally.”

PF1: Let’s talk worse-case scenarios then. Let’s assume the drivers didn’t take on any fluids whatsoever during the race and, with the pace being so unrelenting throughout, was there any danger of the drivers ever reaching a point where their bodies might not have reacted to the brain’s commands, or the muscles failing to obey?

CT: “Probably not. I mean, we don’t know. But the body is very good at having some sort of common-sense stop mechanisms as well. Elite athletes push that further than most. If we get people in the lab, generally the more elite, the individual, the more likely they are to keep pushing themselves – the sub-elites drop out earlier.

“But it’s very difficult to really go to complete physiological collapse or exhaustion. There could have been signs of that. A few of them talked about sort of losing consciousness a little bit. They’re the warning signs that you can’t do this for much longer, or those sorts of things and you’ve got to stop or slow down which, ultimately, did happen.

“But the idea of it being sort of full catastrophic failure, probably not. But if you’re driving an F1 car, you just need to lose consciousness for half a second and that can be catastrophic failure.

“We’re fortunate that even those who said they were drifting in and out, nothing happened. But that’s more luck than anything else.”

PF1: What did you make of Lance Stroll’s comments regarding him passing out behind the wheel through the high G-forces? Is that something that can really happen?

CT: “It’s certainly possible. It’s largely linked to changes in blood pressure. If you get a momentary change in blood pressure, you don’t get quite enough blood flowing to the brain from the heart, you get a momentary lapse. We’ve all probably seen videos of people on rollercoasters and things who pass out and regain consciousness. That’s just a G-force response, just as you would if you’re a racing driver.

“You could also get that in the heat because, when you’re hot, blood goes to the skin. If you’re sitting down as a driver, the blood goes to the skin and starts to pool. So it’ll start to pool around the back of the legs, the thighs, those sorts of things, which therefore means that there’s a real good chance that, as that blood is drifting away, you’ve got less blood pressure in the core –  there’s a real chance for sure that you could have momentary lapses.

“Think of the guards who stand outside Buckingham Palace and things on hot days, those that don’t move. Because the blood is pooling in the lower legs, they can suddenly have a loss of consciousness. If you’re a driver, you can’t do a great deal to try and get blood flow going back. You can twist your legs a little bit, but you can’t do a great deal and I have no reason to suggest that he was making it up. It’s certainly plausible, and obviously very scary as a result.”

PF1: Combining everything together, Chris, just how borderline were the conditions of the Qatar Grand Prix? How genuine were the risks facing the drivers, if there had been, say, a crash that required a quick escape?

CT: “Very [borderline]. It was a perfect storm, a perfect cocktail. Because there have been hotter races, in other disciplines. But it’s a perfect storm.

“It’s not as simple as how hot is the track, or how hot is the air because we need to know what the driver’s response is. Currently, physiological data during driving is extremely limited. The FIA restricts most of it if not all of it. So it’s very difficult, but we know it was too much based on what happened. And we’re fortunate that nothing worse happened. So we know it was close to the limit, but… it’s a sport where you want to find your limits in lots of things, you know, engineering, track limits, limits in these things you want to find.

“But there comes a point even in these sports where they have to have that compromise between safety as well as the limits. We were very, very close. It would definitely go as a near miss, which is why it was pleasing for the FIA to almost preemptively come out and say ‘We know this was bad, we need to do something again’.

“That could be as simple as not hosting the race at this time of year again, so it doesn’t need wholesale, crazy changes. It just needs a little bit of common sense sometimes.”

PF1: The FIA has come forward to say an analysis of the situation will be carried out to reduce the risks of this happening again, but the significance of what the drivers went through has been downplayed by some, including Sky F1’s Martin Brundle. Are these conditions something the drivers could train for to reduce the risks if they were to happen again?

CT: “You certainly can. Humans are very good at adapting to the heat. It’s not a quick process so you need at least a week and, ideally, more than that, but you can make physiological adaptations.

“When you do that, the subsequent effects are less. I’ve been working with a couple of drivers over the last few years to do just that, primarily with Singapore in mind.

“So although Singapore’s a night race, it’s another one where the heat and the humidity are stifling. We prepare them for it. We’ll get them in cold water immersion before the race, and lower their body temperature, so you certainly can do things.

“I can see where they’re coming from. Because the idea is you’re always trying to push the limits. If you’re Christian Horner, it’s probably easier if you’ve got the driver who has the best car and no traffic. He didn’t find it as stressful as the rest.

“But there comes a point that it can still be a challenge. It can still be the pinnacle but with some considerations. If you’re an elite runner, or if you’re an elite tennis player or elite footballer playing in the heat, what you tend to do is down-regulate your pace. So the best tennis players, the best runners or the best footballers, are the ones that lower it the least. So they’re conserving a bit of energy, they’re not producing as much heat. They might be playing different tactics, in tennis, they might play short points rather than long points. They might make their opponent really run because they want to really tire them out.

“You have less room for that in F1 because the cars are set up to drive fast. They are some of the best athletes in the world. Some of them are more athletic than others, but they are still very well-prepared.

“But you get to the point that it almost becomes who is willing to find that limit first. That is a recipe that doesn’t generally end particularly well. There are simple common sense things, you can reduce the strain, and move the race to a different time of the year.

“You can still have the race, they don’t have to be under huge physiological danger. If there was a sudden Heatwave, you could make an executive decision on the Sunday to reduce the number of laps or something. You could do something which maintains the sport, and maintains the challenge, but does it with a little bit of common sense before something more severe happens.

“American football used to have a problem with heat, particularly during preseason training. They’ve made wholesale changes now as a result of a number of athletes becoming seriously ill and some even dying. So it’s pleasing to see the FIA being pre-emptive. Comments like those from Brundle are not particularly helpful, because we don’t need to find the line, we know the line isn’t a million miles away from where we got to. So you can still have the sport without that bit of it.”

PF1: We had a chat with Le Mans 24 Hours winner Richard Bradley this week, in which he said that the tyre rules made it so much more difficult as the drivers couldn’t drive a little more slowly to save the tyres. How much of an energy difference would it have made to the drivers if the normal rules applied – would it be as dramatic as 50%? 99%? What type of figure would we be talking?

CT: “I would speculate it’s probably somewhere in between. But even having a reduction, or even having parts of the track where you have almost like recovery parts can make a marked difference.

“It’s accumulation as well. So if you’re pushing every single lap, there is no downtime. If you have parts of the track or parts of the race where you can ease off a bit, you’re cumulatively reducing the loads that you have over the whole race.

“I would doubt it would be 50 per cent but I would doubt it’d be 98! If you’ve got a hard race where people are racing close together, racing every single lap and there’s no opportunity for them to ease off … every race driver will ease off at some point in some lap in some races, even if it’s just to refocus or that sort of stuff.

“But, if you can’t do that because you’ve got to push the tyres, you can’t do that, because you’re being attacked front and back. You’re going to be working the whole the whole time. If you are going to try and make complicated decisions for two hours straight in a hot environment with people throwing different information at you, you’re probably not going to be able to do it. So by not having any windows of rest, that’s certainly going to exacerbate everything.”

PF1: How would the drivers be feeling today, 48-72 hours after the race? Would they be fully recovered?

CT: “No, no, they certainly won’t be. They’ll have been back to normal body temperature pretty quickly but if, for example, they did have the leaky gut, you end up with this influx in the blood, that’s gonna have a bit of time to clear.

“They’re also going to feel a lot more tired than if they’ve done a normal race. So, not only the demands of the race, but also heat. I think they’re probably quite fortunate and are quite happy with the fact that they’ve got a weekend off and not a back-to-back.

“If they were going straight into Austin, which will be another warm one, they wouldn’t be 100 per cent. They’ll be pleased that they have a rest weekend rather than another race weekend. That’s another issue as well, that sometimes you get the accumulation effect, the knock-on effect, which, fortunately, they don’t have in this particular case.”

PF1: How would you summarise the events of the Qatar GP from a physiological viewpoint, Chris?

CT: “I think it was a bit of a lucky escape. Some of the opinions I’ve seen suggest they’re complaining about something without merits, I disagree with that.

“These individuals are at the top of their game, with huge risks even in the nicest conditions. So I think the FIA got a bit lucky. I don’t think it needs wholesale changes. No one wants to sort of rip up the rulebook and start again, I think it’s just more common sense with scheduling.

“Some of the drivers are better prepared than others so some of the drivers who don’t do as much of the specific preparation – they’re all athletes, they will do their driving-specific prep – but some of them that maybe don’t do some of the heat prep or something like that, will in the future, because heat will affect everybody.

“One thing we haven’t talked about is also the engineers and the mechanics and all that sort of stuff. The drivers are the sexy ones, they’re the 20 in the cars. But everyone around them, the mechanics are in their 40-degree garages, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It’s a wholesale wider issue. There are lots of warm races, and lots of it is common sense. It’s just trying to find a common sense and a practical way of making sure you don’t overheat.

“So really, the FIA dodged a bit of a bullet.”

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