The weekend of the Qatar GP will be remembered for Max Verstappen’s third title but also for the perfect storm that hit the drivers. Across the field, significant physical problems were encountered both during and after the race.
Images circulated online of the drivers getting out of their cars completely exhausted, some like Stroll who, staggering, immediately required medical attention and who claimed to have fainted in the cockpit during the race.
Logan Sargeant was forced to withdraw, unable to continue due to lack of strength and also due to physical weakness caused by flu-like symptoms at the beginning of the week leading up to the Qatari weekend.
The heat presented significant danger, but in Qatar, an unprecedented perfect storm hit the pilots
The day after the race, the Federation said it had noted “with concern” that extremes in temperature and humidity during the 2023 FIA Formula 1 Qatar Grand Prix had an impact on the health of the drivers.
“Despite being professional athletes, they should not be expected to compete in conditions that could jeopardize their health or safety,” the Federation said in a statement.
In Qatar, a perfect and probably unprecedented storm hit the drivers. The race was extremely hot, with temperatures of 31-32°C during the race, coupled with 75% humidity.
“The various heat indices with those temperature and humidity levels indicated situations of significant danger with possible heat stroke following prolonged exposure to the sun and/or physical activity,” explained a doctor who stated the high unlikelihood that teams weren’t aware of that their drivers were dacing.
Heat stroke was the biggest problem during Sunday’s race, something more dangerous and less manageable than the more classic dehydration.
“It was much tougher than in Singapore. It was too hot in the cabin. We were on the limit that someone could get heatstroke,” said Valtteri Bottas post-race.
Added to the high temperatures, which could already predict a very complicated race for the pilots, was the significant drop in wind.
“In free practice, it wasn’t that bad. Maybe because it was windier there. Today, there seems to be a lack of ventilation, and everything has become extreme,” confirmed Fernando Alonso.
If these factors were purely climatic and, in a certain way, unpredictable and unchangeable, a unique series of racing conditions imposed by the FIA forced the drivers to race with much more intensity than usual.
All this took place at one of the most physically demanding circuits on the calendar, and without there being any major Safety Cars or Virtual Safety Cars to give the drivers a moment’s respite.
The issue of curbs, resulting in micro-cuts to the tyres (which required the intervention of the FIA to limit the number of laps of each stint), forced the drivers to push hard for the 57 laps of the race. This made conditions even more intense than before.
The FIA learns its lessons: The Qatar GP will take place in December 2024
A series of factors generated significantly dangerous conditions for the health of the drivers, who had to endure up to 70°C inside the cockpit.
“It felt like being in an oven,” said George Russell, a pilot who also admitted to training, at times, in a sauna to prepare for the hottest and most humid seasonal events. But the Qatar Grand Prix was beyond even the worst conditions imaginable.
Clearly, the most important mistake was the inclusion in early October of a critical race at this time of year from a thermal point of view.
The FIA has stated its intention to include recommendations to align the calendar with acceptable climatic conditions. However, for 2024 this will not be needed – given that the Qatar GP will be held at the beginning of December, when the average temperature will be 10°C lower, a significant difference.
Then there is the issue of track limits and curbs, laid last month, with renovations to the circuit completed just a week before F1 arrived on the track.
Due to important requests from the FIM, the International Motorcycling Federation, it was not possible to insert gravel escape routes, requested instead by the FIA, which could have eliminated the now-famous pyramid curbs.
It is not mandatory for the organizers or the FIA to inform Pirelli of the changes made to the circuit. However, there was not even time to conduct an in-depth analysis of the solutions used by the Italian-Chinese manufacturer.
It is equally perplexing how the teams were also kept in the dark about the solutions used until a few days before the GP weekend.
“The photos of the circuit only reached us on the Tuesday of the week of the GP, and for this reason, we were unable to try the ‘new’ circuit on the simulator.
“From the images, you could see really aggressive curbs, and all the engineers were worried,” said Yuki Tsunoda, linking himself more to possible structural problems of some car components, such as the floor, rather than the tyres.
At the next meeting of the medical commission in Paris, a series of measures will then be discussed, such as possible guidelines for pilots, the search for possible modifications for a more efficient flow of air arriving inside the cockpit, or even possible other solutions such as cooling breaks using the Virtual Safety Car in certain phases of the race.
For the FIA, lessons still need to be learned. This is especially true for anticipating any issues with new ‘new’ or modified circuits.
Last weekend, a perfect storm hit the drivers without any warning. Fortunately no accidents occurred, which is what matters most.
Author: Piergiuseppe Donadoni
Translation: Jaden Diaz-Ndisang