[Why Qatar GP was “hell”, “torture” for F1 drivers
Drivers are super fit athletes, and thus the state of some of them when they met the media having walked straight from parc ferme told its own story.
Others were careful to quietly head back to their team hospitality buildings, catch their breath, change out of their soaking overalls and have a shower. They then returned to undertake media duties feeling a little more refreshed.
Two never made it. Logan Sargeant was forced to pull out of the race, while his team-mate Alex Albon also had to go the medical centre for treatment after climbing from his car. Both were later given the OK to head to the airport and fly home.
They were far from the only ones to suffer in what turned into the most physically punishing race in recent memory.
“That was the hardest fought points that I’ve ever had to fight for,” said Ocon. “I was feeling ill, lap 15-16 I was throwing up for two laps inside the cockpit, and then I was like, ‘Shit that’s going to be a long race.’
“I tried to calm down, I tried to remember that the mental side in sport is the strongest part of your body, and I managed to get that under control and finish the race.
“But honestly, I was not expecting the race to be that hard. I can normally do two race distances, even in Singapore. Physically muscle-wise and cardio-wise I’m always fine.
“It was so hot that I wanted to open the visor on the straight line, because I had no air, and I was trying to also guide with my hand some air into the helmet.
“The more I was breathing to try and get everything lower, the more heat was coming inside the helmet. Honestly, it was hell in there.”
Esteban Ocon, Alpine A523
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
Valtteri Bottas, a man not averse to sitting in a sauna, agreed that it was a tough test.
“I would say harder than Singapore,” said the Finn. “Just the temperature in the cockpit seems to be almost too much, like it’s getting to the limit that somebody’s going to have a heat stroke.
“The feeling is like torture in the car. Any hotter than this would be not safe anymore.”
So why was this race more punishing than Singapore, and indeed tougher than other established events in the region such as Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia?
The simple and obvious main answer was the general level of heat and humidity. There were good reasons why the 2024 World Cup was held from November 20 onwards.
It’s worth recalling too that the 2021 Qatar GP was held on November 21, and the 2024 edition is scheduled for December 1. However, this year’s race was squeezed into a busy schedule in early October, and that timing should perhaps have been given greater attention.
Conditions seemed to be more extreme on Sunday than at any point during the weekend, with little or no wind. It also felt more humid compared to the dry heat we usually experience at the other Middle Eastern F1 venues.
Despite it being an evening race, the cars themselves soaked up the heat and worked like ovens on the drivers sitting in the cockpit.
Fernando Alonso complained of a burning sensation coming from the right side of his seat, usually an indication that it’s close to an electronic box or hydraulic lines.
He’d highlighted it previously, but in this particular race, it became so hot that he asked if the team could dump water on him during the pitstop, but it wouldn’t work because it would be illegally adding weight to the car.
“It was just like 80 degrees inside the cockpit this race,” said Ocon. “I don’t think we probably do the best job in terms of not keeping the heat in the back, but dissipating it inside the cockpit where the driver drives. And I think that was the reason probably today where we felt so bad.”
It wasn’t just the heat. The g-forces are a key aspect of the punishment a driver takes, and the high-speed nature of Losail is a tough test anyway, especially with the current high downforce cars.
This time there was the added element of the 18-lap stint limit and the need to do three pit stops.
For this one race, F1 effectively returned to the Michael Schumacher era of multiple ‘qualifying’ stints run flat out, with little or no need to manage the tyres.
Throw in a lack of safety car interventions after the initial one for Lewis Hamilton’s Turn 1 off, and it became an unusually punishing test.
“I think the most significant part is the fact that we had to do three stops,” said Charles Leclerc. “And that meant no tyre management in the high speed, which meant quali laps after quali laps.
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
“It’s just the dehydration is such a level that your vision is so much worse, your heart rate is going to the stars, and it’s very difficult to control all of this. So it was really, really difficult.”
Leclerc’s point on dehydration was significant. Radio messages were heard on Sunday with drivers being reminded to take a drink, but as many have said in the past, the contents of their water bottles quickly heat up and become useless.
Dehydration is obviously a key element of the punishment drivers take, and it can affect concentration and focus. That made life particularly difficult at a venue where track limits, and hitting the white line just right every lap, was such a big issue.
In the end, it says a lot about the physical and mental strength of the drivers that all bar one made it to the flag.
“It’s not an option retiring, I was never going to do that,” said Ocon. “You need to kill me to retire.”