DOHA, Qatar — Formula One’s drivers survived tortuous and, at times, dangerous heat at the Qatar Grand Prix.

In a race weekend which crowned a world champion and saw a unique enforcement of maximum stint lengths for tyres due to concerns over safety, there was one major talking point after the race for every driver.

“This is the toughest race I think for every driver in Formula One of our career, for everybody,” Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc said on Sunday evening. “I don’t believe [anyone] that says it’s not.”

Mercedes’ George Russell agreed, saying: “I felt close to fainting in that race, I have never experienced anything like it before.

“Inside the cockpit it was over 50 [degrees Celsius]. You’ve got your fireproofs on, race suit on, the physicality of the car. It’s just crazy.”

Watching the drivers come through the media pen after the event was remarkable. Some looked as though they had been stuck in a sauna for several hours. Some were still red-faced and dripping with sweat.

One or two appeared to stagger in, as if still low on energy. In the corner of the media pen reserved for the written media, there were two large pools of sweat on the floor at the points where drivers arrive one by one to do 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 the wall and jokingly asked if anyone had a wheelchair.

Esteban Ocon had vomited inside his helmet 15 laps into the race. Williams driver Logan Sargeant retired from the race with 17 laps remaining, suffering from dehydration after a week of having flu-like symptoms.

Sargeant’s teammate Alex Albon actually visited the medical centre for acute heat exposure. He was cleared and discharged afterwards.

The air in Doha has been dry and oppressive all week. On the surface, the race temperatures of 31 degrees Celsius might not seem extreme — Ocon said “it was just like 80 degrees Celsius inside the cockpit” — but the mixture of the conditions of the desert and the unique nature of the race made for a perfect storm.

Ahead of the race, the FIA mandated maximum stint lengths for every single tyre available to drivers. That meant none could accumulate more than 18 laps, effectively ensuring at least three pit-stops for every car. Unlike, say, a one-stop race, this gave drivers the freedom to push their tyres throughout the event.

As Leclerc explained: “I think there as many things adding up, obviously the heat was extremely warm, we have a track with lots of high speed corners, but I think the most significant part is we had to do three stops and that meant no tyre management in the high speed which meant quali lap after quali lap.”

For drivers, it was worse than what they experienced three weeks ago at the Singapore Grand Prix, often cited as the most grueling physical test on the calendar.

“The feeling is like torture,” Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas said. “I would say it was harder than Singapore. Just because the temperature in the cockpit started to be almost too much, I think it’s getting to the limit and someone is going to have a heat stroke.”

When told of Sargeant’s situation, Bottas said: “I’m not surprised. Any hotter than this would be, I would say, not safe.”

Replays showed Albon and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll struggling to muster the strength to climb out of their cars. Stroll said he felt close to passing out on numerous occasions while driving.

“It’s ridiculous,” Stroll said. “In these temperatures, everything goes blurry. In the last 25 to 30 laps everything was blurry in the high-speed corners with blood pressure dropping and just passing out, basically, in the car with high-speed corners and high g-forces.”

Even some of the most basic cool-down tactics didn’t work. Several drivers tried to open their visor when they could in an attempt to get some air circulation going.

Yuki Tsunoda said doing so risked a helmet full of sand.

“It was crazy,” he said. “I had to consistently open the visor to breathe, actually. It’s just too, too hot. Obviously, I don’t want to open the visor because sand also comes through the visor and I could feel that sand inside my eyes, but if I close it’s insane the amount of heat I felt.

“I don’t know if other helmet manufacturers are the same but for myself it was tough and if you drive behind another car it’s even worse.”

After hearing so many high-performance athletes saying the same thing, Qatar’s race will raise some obvious safety concerns.

“Of course, every driver, we try to complete the race, we’re not going to stop if we still can drive but at some point it becomes unhealthy and risky,” Bottas said. “I think this was maximum level, I wouldn’t go hotter than this.”

Leclerc added: “Maybe next year if we find ourselves in the same situation I think we’ll have to discuss between us drivers.”

Fortunately for the drivers, Doha’s 2024 race will be held six weeks later, on Dec. 1, around the same kind of time it was in 2021.

Asked how different that event was compared to this year’s, Bottas said: “Big difference, exactly.

“Even if it’s just a few degrees, when it gets hotter in the car than your body temperature, then that’s not good news.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *