F1 drivers suffer heat exhaustion in Qatar GP, should it have gone ahead and what does it mean for the future?

Challenging conditions put a huge strain on the vehicles, team strategists, and the drivers' bodies.

George Brownless
24th October 2023
Image: Twitter- @autosport
Qatar made its second F1 appearance for the 17th round in 2023, and it was a weekend rife with issues from the very start, creating what could only be described as a perfect storm. Previously in 2021, Qatar took place towards the end of November, giving cooler temperatures because of the time of year. This year, it took place at the beginning of October, and air temperature during the race exceeded 30°c throughout the race and 50°c in the cockpits.

Qatar had a Sprint Weekend, changing the format and consequently meaning there was just one Free Practice session, in comparison to the normal three. Qatar had also been completely resurfaced and reprofiled since the last time the F1 circus was there. As with any normal F1 weekend, the teams must give Pirelli, the tyre supplier, some tyres back at the end of Practice Sessions, to ensure they are meeting safety standards and they have no concerns for the rest of the weekend. Usually, there are no concerns, but this weekend, due to the curbs in Qatar and the new track surface, there were serious concerns about the structure of the tyres.

The FIA decided to make some changes to the track on Saturday, primarily affecting track limits, to help stop drivers from going over the curbs that had been marked as particularly problematic. An acclimatisation session was put in place before the Sprint Shootout and the Sprint so drivers could learn the changes to the layout, but after the Sprint it became clear the tyre situation had not improved. Drastic measures were then put in place for the race. All tyres (soft, medium and hard) had a mandated maximum stint length of 18 laps, if a driver exceeded this limit, they would be disqualified from the race instantly. Apart from the soft tyres, which were degrading very quickly, the medium and hard tyres would still comfortably do the 18-lap required stints, effectively forcing every driver to push for qualifying-style laps, for every lap of the race. Team strategists had just a few hours to work out the best way to run this race, particularly as everyone knew when everyone else had to pit.

The end result of the race was far from what anyone expected. Given the reaction of the grid, Carlos Sainz (DNS due to fuel system faults) and Lewis Hamilton (DNF on lap 1 after crashing into George Russell) may well have been glad to not complete the race. Many drivers gave their opinions post-race about the conditions, which were unbearably hot, with high humidity creating dangerous conditions in the cockpit. Logan Sargeant, after a valiant effort considering he was ill early in the week, had to retire due to how unwell he felt. Esteban Ocon remarked he had vomited in the car around lap 15. Both Alex Albon and Lance Stroll visibly struggled to get out of their cars in parc ferme, footage of Stroll stumbling towards the ambulance was alarming when it appeared on social media. He later stated that for the last 25 laps of the race, he had blurry vision and was almost passing out in high-speed corners. Valterri Bottas called the race “torture”, and Russell, after driving from the back of the field after being taken out on lap 1, stated he felt like he was going to faint in the latter stages of the race.

The reaction from the drivers was strong. Everyone was concerned at how widespread the issues were. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but if the conditions were known pre-race, in combination with the tyre problems, the race should’ve been called off. Qatar returns to the calendar again next season, this time taking place at the start of December, which may help to improve the overall conditions for the drivers. The FIA have also announced they will be looking into how to improve the conditions for the drivers in this regard. The whole race weekend was a farce, and we’re very lucky we didn’t see a much more serious incident, either from a tyre exploding, or from an illness causing a crash.

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