DOHA, Qatar – Formula One drivers endured the winding and sometimes dangerous heat at the Qatar Grand Prix.
During a race weekend that crowned a world champion and saw exceptional enforcement of maximum tire run lengths due to safety concerns, each driver had one big talking point after the race.
“I think this is the most difficult race for any Formula 1 driver in our career and for everyone,” Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc said on Sunday evening. “I don’t believe [anyone] that means it’s not.”
Mercedes’ George Russell agreed, saying: “I came close to fainting during that race, I’ve never experienced anything like that before.
“There were over 50 in the cockpit [degrees Celsius]. You’re wearing fire retardant stuff, a racing suit, and the physicality of a car. It’s just crazy.”
Watching drivers go through the media pen after the incident was extraordinary. Some looked like they had been stuck in a sauna for hours. Some were still red-faced and dripping with sweat.
One or two seemed to stagger in as if they were still low on energy. There were two large puddles of sweat in the corner of the media pen written on the floor where drivers arrive one by one to conduct interviews.
In the cool-down room reserved for the top three drivers, McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri lay down on the floor. Newly crowned three-time world champion Max Verstappen sat against a wall and jokingly asked if anyone had a wheelchair.
Esteban Ocon vomited into his helmet 15 laps into the race. Williams driver Logan Sargeant retired from the race with 17 laps remaining due to dehydration after a week of flu-like symptoms.
Sargeant’s teammate Alex Albon actually visited a medical center due to acute heat exposure. He was then cleared and released.
The air in Doha has been dry and oppressive throughout the week. At first glance, the race temperature of 31 degrees Celsius may not seem extreme – Ocon said it was “almost 80 degrees Celsius in the cockpit” – but the combination of desert conditions and the unique nature of the race made for a perfect storm.
Before the race, the FIA ordered maximum run lengths for each tire available to drivers. This meant that neither could complete more than 18 laps, effectively giving each car at least three pit stops. Unlike, say, a one-stop race, this gave drivers the freedom to push their tires throughout the race.
As Leclerc explained: “I think there were a lot of things that contributed to it, of course it was very warm, we have a track with a lot of fast corners, but I think the most important thing is that we had to make three stops and that meant no tire management with a lot of speed, which meant qualifying lap after lap.”
Things were worse for drivers than they were three weeks ago at the Singapore Grand Prix, often described as the most grueling physical test on the calendar.
“This feeling is like torture,” said Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas. “I would say it was harder than Singapore. Just because the temperature in the cockpit started getting almost too high, I think it’s reaching the limit and someone’s going to get heatstroke.”
When Bottas learned of Sargeant’s situation, he said: “I’m not surprised. Higher temperatures would be, I would say, dangerous.”
Replays showed Albon and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll struggling to muster the strength to get out of his cars. Stroll said he came close to passing out multiple times while driving.
“This is ridiculous,” Stroll said. “At these temperatures, everything becomes blurry. In the last 25-30 laps everything was blurry in the fast corners as my blood pressure dropped and I just lost consciousness, in a car with fast corners and high G-forces. “
Even some of the most basic cool-down tactics didn’t work. Several drivers tried to open the sun visor whenever possible in an attempt to ensure adequate air circulation.
Yuki Tsunoda said she would risk a helmet full of sand.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I actually had to keep opening my visor to breathe. It’s just too, too hot. Of course I don’t want to open the viewfinder because sand also gets through the viewfinder and I could feel the sand in my eyes, but if I close it. It’s crazy how much warmth I felt.
“I don’t know if other helmet manufacturers are the same, but for me it was difficult, and if you’re behind another car it’s even worse.”
After hearing the same from many competitive athletes, the race in Qatar will raise obvious safety concerns.
“Of course every driver, we try to finish the race, we won’t stop if we can still lead, but at a certain point it becomes unhealthy and risky,” Bottas said. “I think that was the maximum level, I couldn’t have gone any hotter.”
Leclerc added: “Maybe next year, if we find ourselves in the same situation, I think we will have to discuss it between us drivers.”
Fortunately for drivers, the 2024 Doha race will take place six weeks later on December 1, around the same time as 2021.
Asked how different the event was from this year, Bottas said: “Exactly, big difference.
“Even if it’s just a few degrees, when the car is warmer than your body temperature, it’s not good news.”
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