Examined: F1’s lucky escape with Qatar Grand Prix a clear step too far

Thomas Maher
Red Bull's Max Verstappen on the podium after winning the Qatar Grand Prix.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen on the podium after winning the Qatar Grand Prix.

A combination of factors combined to make the Qatar Grand Prix a gruelling endurance test on the limits of human biology, and F1 was lucky to escape unscathed.

One look at the drivers who made it to the end of Sunday’s race in Lusail would have left viewers in no doubt as to just how difficult the Qatar Grand Prix had been.

From Lance Stroll staggering to prop himself up against an ambulance in the pit lane, Alex Albon’s anguished climb from his Williams before heading to the medical centre, and Logan Sargeant’s tortured decision to withdraw himself from the race – the conditions of the Qatar GP were a step too far to demand of the drivers.

Why was the Qatar Grand Prix so difficult on the drivers?

With the Qatar GP weekend taking place in 40-degree Celsius heat, with humidity figures of around 60%, the drivers were already set for a huge challenge to their overall fitness levels.

The Singapore Grand Prix has been the race the drivers train for as the most extreme challenge to their physical fitness ever since the Malaysian GP fell off the calendar, but even Singapore this year failed to hold a candle to the Qatar GP.

This is mostly down to the much higher average speeds of the Lusail Circuit, a ferociously fast, swooping circuit with high G-force demands that would prove energy-sapping regardless of temperature.

But the circumstances of the weekend meant that the demands placed on the drivers became more and more extreme as it played out. FIFA’s World Cup last year was held in November and December, specifically to avoid forcing the players to play in the Qatari heat, but such considerations were overlooked for F1 as it coincided with the Geneva Motorshow being held in Doha from October 9-14.

But F1 drivers don’t have the luxury of partaking in their sport in a light T-shirt and shorts. Instead, they’re bundled up in fireproof underwear, balaclavas, race suits, and a helmet. Then, they’re bundled into the claustrophobic confines of an F1 cockpit, strapped in tight to a machine that is brimming with electricity and fuel running through a 1000bhp engine and exhaust system that generates its own vast amount of heat, and told to go drive very quickly – for three days in a row.

Unlike a normal weekend, where the ultimate pace isn’t required at all times – the fast and frantic nature of the Sprint format meant the drivers had to push hard on all three days, starting with refining their setups in the sole 60-minute practice session. Grand Prix qualifying on Friday evening determined the grid, before Saturday qualifying and the Sprint race – none of which gave the drivers a chance to just tootle around or ramp up the pace like they normally can.

But it was the ludicrous situation of the Pirelli tyres and the mandatory stint lengths that really did a number on the drivers. The Lusail Circuit’s extreme kerbing, which was a tyre destroyer even back in 2021 on F1’s last visit, proved too much for the Pirelli construction and was causing alarming separation of the sidewalls. Unlike the disastrous stand-off of the 2005 United States GP, the FIA took swift action – reaching the solution of mandating a maximum of 18 laps on each set of tyres.

The fairness of this on the cars and drivers who could make their tyres last longer aside – after all, who could really say that, for example, the Haas and Red Bull were each hitting an unsafe limit with 18 laps done – the move took the strategic element out of the Grand Prix. Aside from deciding what order to run the remaining tyre compounds in, the maximum stint lengths meant that tyre conservation went out the window and, with it, the ability for every driver to push as hard as they wanted for every stint.

While this might sound like manna from heaven, it was a huge demand to place on drivers who had already done two qualifying sessions, a re-acclimatisation session after the track limits were adjusted mid-weekend and a Sprint race. 57 laps, full balls-to-the-wall for every single one of them? In 40-degree heat? That was a frankly unfair expectation to put on the drivers, especially at such short notice.

F1 drivers vomiting, ‘passing out’, and voluntarily retiring from Qatar GP

The race itself ended up being a huge physical and mental challenge for many of the drivers. While some up front, like Max Verstappen and Oscar Piastri, got to circulate in some clear air, most of the midfield had to contend with even more heat being blown straight at them as it came off the cars in front.

The strict track limits, perhaps unsurprisingly, were a bigger issue for those racing closely in the midfield. Some, like Sergio Perez, Lance Stroll, and Pierre Gasly, seemed to stop caring towards the end of the race, with the finer details of racing falling secondary to the simple completion of the event.

Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, who finished seventh, vomited into his helmet with just 15 laps gone – spending the next hour circulating with his own sour sick soaking into the cushioning around his mouth and only adding further to his discomfort.

Stroll, who fell foul of the track limits more than once, explained afterwards that he was borderline ‘passing out’ behind the wheel for the last 20 laps of the race, while even the unbreakable spirit of Fernando Alonso cracked as he pleaded with his team to throw water over him at his pitstop – a futile request against the rules.

But it was the Williams drivers who seemed to suffer the most, with both drivers enduring overheating cockpits that led to Alex Albon – who finished the race in 13th – barely being able to climb from his car before he took himself to the medical centre for evaluation and clearance.

Logan Sargeant, who put in a commendable performance all weekend, is feeling an incredible amount of pressure in his career as he fights to retain his seat for next season. The American driver knew that he was being pushed beyond his physical limit, taking to the radio to request retirement.

It’s to the credit of Williams and team boss James Vowles that they made it clear to Sargeant that there would be no shame in retiring – a hugely commendable display of solidarity with their rookie driver. Despite the unwanted circumstance of retiring an undamaged car, Sargeant promptly slowed and withdrew from the race, taking a few minutes to sit in his car and cool down before gingerly climbing out.

Just think of the sheer mental turmoil Sargeant would have been going through as he realised the remaining 15-20 laps were a step too far, knowing he would potentially be a danger to himself, and others, and putting in the selfless request to call it off. It’s one of the most mature and sporting decisions a sportsperson can take, and both Sargeant and Williams deserve every bit of praise they get for how it was handled.

Aston Martin's Lance Stroll at the Qatar Grand Prix.
Aston Martin's Lance Stroll at the Qatar Grand Prix.

F1’s lucky escape and what might have been?

Of course, no one expects the drivers to have a cushy time of it behind the wheel. F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of mental strength, strategic planning, engineering brilliance, outright skill, talent, and determination, and a test of physical fitness.

Said fitness has even taken something of a little bit of a backseat in the modern era, with the more endurance-focused nature of strategy nowadays meaning less physical stress on the drivers’ bodies.

But it’s still a major consideration, and the conditions of the Qatar Grand Prix took the drivers’ bodies into a place where the physiological demands being put on them were on the brink of being too much for the human body to endure.

With limited fluids, dehydration was an obvious issue for the drivers. As the race progressed, and the conditions got tougher and tougher as the pace remained relentless, there was a real danger of a driver making an error as a result of this. A tiny moment of a lapse of concentration, like Fernando Alonso’s error, muscle memory failure brought about by parched muscle connections, or even a more extreme faint as Stroll was close to as he complained of his blood pressure dropping through the G-forces – any of which could have sent a driver ploughing into the barriers at high speed.

F1 has strict rules for how quickly a driver must be able to extricate themselves from the cockpit – that figure is five seconds. Pushing drivers into a state of exhaustion means some needed minutes to compose themselves enough to get the energy to drag themselves out – imagine a situation like Romain Grosjean’s 2020 Bahrain crash unfolding. Would the drivers have had their wits about them – and the sufficient energy – to be able to co-ordinate themselves to get out of their car in five seconds? It doesn’t seem likely.

“By Lap 15, 16 for two laps I think I was [vomiting] and I was like, sh*t, sorry for swearing, but it’s gonna be a long one,” Esteban Ocon admitted after the race.

“Managed to get that under control, just mentally tried to focus on exactly what I had to do, but I’ve never had that in the past.

“I’ve always been able to do two race distances in the car, that’s always what I’m training for but today, it’s just the hot air and how hot the engine is from behind the car.

“I don’t think we particularly see in the cockpit too well, so it must have been like 80 degrees inside the car today. I’m glad that next year we come back in December.

“I felt to a point that in the straight line, I was trying to catch some air with my hands to try and guide it to the helmet, because the more I was breathing to try and just get back better into the corners, the more hot it was in the helmet.”

Kevin Magnussen admitted to feeling dizzy and nauseous throughout, while Yuki Tsunoda was unable to cool down behind the wheel. Complaining of being “just too, too hot”, he had attempted to cool down by opening his visor at high speed, only to get sand particles going straight into his eyes.

George Russell, a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) said he felt the conditions had been a step too far.

“Today was beyond the limit, I think, of what was acceptable for driving,” he said.

“If over 50 per cent of the grid were saying they’re feeling sick, couldn’t drive, close to passing out – you don’t want to be passing out when you’re driving 200 miles an hour down the straight and that’s how I felt at times. Any hotter, I think I’d have retired because my body was going to give up.”

Even Verstappen, who ran in clear air up front, said: “These kind of temperatures are just too extreme. It has nothing to do with more training, or whatever.

“But just the whole day it’s like you’re walking around in a sauna. Then in the night, the humidity goes up. The races are quite long. It’s very, very warm. I think it’s also quite on the limit of what is what should be allowed. So there are a few things to look at. But this was definitely way too hot.”

So what solutions can be reached for F1?

Given Qatar’s 10-year deal with F1, as well as the arrival of Saudi Arabia to join existing Middle East races such as Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, the obvious solution to such issues is to ensure smart scheduling to avoid the worst of the heat.

This consideration was not taken into account in the scheduling of the Qatar GP, unlike football’s World Cup. But, in a sport dictated by data and figures, perhaps it’s time to determine actual numbers as to what constitutes “too much” for the drivers to handle.

The infamous ‘wet-bulb’ measurement might be something F1 needs to evaluate for introduction to its own rulebooks. The ‘critical’ wet-bulb threshold, the point at which healthy people can survive for six hours, is regarded as an air temperature of 35 degrees Celsius with a humidity of 75%. With 60+ per cent humidity during the Qatar Grand Prix, together with the elevated cockpit temperatures the drivers were subjected to, it’s clear that the circumstances of the race pushed the drivers very close to the limits of what is regarded as survivable – and that’s for people simply existing, not taking part in a Grand Prix.

In order to ensure this never happens again, clear temperature and humidity figures on a sliding scale need to be outlined and ratified into the rule book. Scheduling Grands Prix for extreme climates will suddenly be dependent on expected climactic conditions, rather than commercial considerations, and will ensure the safety of everyone involved.

Let there be no doubt, or downplaying of the circumstances that unfolded in Qatar – F1 got lucky that everyone came through the weekend without issue, and let there never be any doubt about just how tough and physically fit the current crop of F1 drivers really are.

Update: Shortly after the publishing of this article, the FIA issued a statement acknowledging the extreme conditions the F1 drivers encountered during the Qatar Grand Prix and explained that an analysis will be carried out to reduce the chances of such a scenario occurring again.

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