Friday, February 23

F1’s toughest race? Qatar GP pushed drivers to their physical limit

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LUSAIL, Qatar — Two weeks ago, Max Verstappen, Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris cut relaxed figures as they joked around in the cool-down room ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix podium ceremony.

As the top three finishers of the race, they sat nonchalantly in chairs. They watched replays of the race, discussing various incidents and moves that had unfolded behind them, and Verstappen’s dislike of podcasts.

While Sunday’s race in Qatar provided a near-identical result — Verstappen winning ahead of the two McLarens, only with Piastri leading Norris this time — the aftermath of the race could not have been more different.

Norris sat clutching a towel filled with ice. One day after clinching his third world title, Verstappen crouched in the corner and asked if anyone had a wheelchair. Piastri laid out flat on his back.

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They were physically finished, like every other driver who raced on Sunday. Logan Sargeant retired mid-race because he felt so unwell. Lance Stroll staggered out of his car after the race before going to the medical center for a check-up. Alex Albon needed help getting out of his cockpit and was also taken to see medical staff, where he was treated for acute heat exposure before being cleared.

Qatar’s conditions — temperatures around 90ºF (32ºC), humidity around 70% — broke F1 drivers on Sunday.

“This is the toughest race, I think, for every driver in F1 of our career, for everybody,” Charles Leclerc of Ferrari said. “I don’t believe anyone that’s says it’s not.”

As the drivers came one by one to the media pen after the race, the efforts of their exertion were written all over their faces and bodies. Most were drenched in sweat and carried towels around their necks. Nico Hulkenberg left after two questions as he needed to get cool. Liam Lawson wore an ice vest with his overalls undone on the top half.

Many turned up a few minutes later than planned after using an ice bath to cool their bodies — one so cold that George Russell, believe it or not, had to put on a jumper.

There can be a misunderstanding in the outside world about how hard it is to drive F1 cars and just how much physical conditioning the drivers require to deal with the immense g-forces and loads their bodies are put under. They need to be super fit and strong simply to get these cars around the track.

Heat makes everything harder. Singapore has typically been regarded as the most difficult race physically due to the tough street circuit, the long race length, and the high heat and humidity that comes with being so close to the equator.

But this weekend in Qatar took things up another level. While it may have been a night race, starting at 8 p.m. local time on Sunday, the temperature was still incredibly high. It peaked at over 105ºF (40.6ºC) during the daytime and had only dropped to around 90ºF by the time the race got underway.

Inside the tight confines of the cockpit with the engine behind them and the hot air only being blown towards them, the drivers couldn’t stay cool. “The temperature in the cockpit started to be almost too much,” Valtteri Bottas explained. “The feeling is like torture in the car. Any hotter than this would not be safe.”

Although the drivers have water available to them through a tube running from a drinks bottle into their helmets, the high temperature means this gets turned into tea, making dehydration a serious issue.

“It’s not even physical preparation, it’s just dehydration,” Leclerc said. “It’s 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. It was really, really difficult.”

Esteban Ocon said he started feeling ill around Lap 15 of 57. “Then I was throwing up for two laps inside the cockpit,” he revealed. “Then I was like, ‘s—, that’s going to be a long race.’”

Many tried to find ways to stay cool. Russell and Yuki Tsunoda both opened their visors at points for air to get in, only for that to cause, in Tsunoda’s case, sand to blow into his eyes. Ocon used his hands when possible to try to guide air towards his helmet.

“The more I was breathing to try and get everything lower, the more heat that was coming inside the helmet,” Ocon said. “Honestly, it was hell in there.”

Ocon has a very high level of physical dedication, even by the standards of F1 drivers.“I can normally do two race distances, even in Singapore,” he said. “Physically, like muscle-wise and cardio-wise, I’m always fine.” But not in Qatar. “I was not expecting for the race to be that hard.”

Yet even while throwing up, Ocon did not consider pulling out of the race. “It’s not an option, retiring,” he said. “I was never going to do that. You need to kill me to retire.”

How we got here

A few factors came together to make Qatar such a physical test.

Naturally, the ambient temperature was the biggest contributing factor. While F1 has raced in Qatar before, in 2021, that was at the end of November, when temperatures were a bit cooler. But coming here at the start of October, it is still sweltering. There was also no breeze today, unlike earlier in the weekend, making it even harder for the drivers to get cool. Next year’s race in Qatar is on Dec. 1, meaning the temperature should be more tolerable.

The decision to limit the number of laps per tire stint on safety grounds also had an impact. By making it a mandatory three-stop race, the drivers could push harder as they did not need to manage their tires in the same way as normal. Around such a high-speed track like Lusail, especially through the fast final sector with such quick cars, that only increased the physical toll.

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“These cars are so quick in the high speed that when you are doing quali lap after quali lap, the g-forces for 57 laps in this heat are crazy,” Leclerc said.

All the conditioning in the world would not have prepared them for the physical exertions their bodies went through, particularly those engaged in race-long battles that made them work extra hard.

“It’s just too warm,” Verstappen said. “It has nothing to do with training or whatever. I think some of the guys who were struggling today they are extremely fit, probably even fitter than me.

“The whole day, it’s like you’re walking around in a sauna, and then in the night, the humidity goes up.”

Finding the limit

It prompted a number of drivers to say F1 had found — or even surpassed — the maximum heat for them to be racing in, making it a discussion point for the future.

The penny dropped for Leclerc when he got out of the car and saw the other drivers in the FIA garage, where they must be weighed after the race. “We can always look at each other at the end of the race when we are sat down, and this time you could feel it was different,” he said. “Some drivers really felt really bad. This is something we’ll have to discuss.”

Norris said F1 had “found the limit” in Qatar, and that it was “sad we had to find it this way.”

“It’s never a nice situation to be in, if some people are ending up in the medical center or passing out, things like that,” said Norris.

“It’s a pretty dangerous thing to have going on.”

(Lead photo of Max Verstappen: Mark Thompson/Getty Images)