F1’s driver health crisis


He’s done it. After what has been seen as a forgone conclusion since Bahrain Max Verstappen has claimed the title, his third year of winning the highest award in motorsports in an unconventional manner. 

However, the story that has dominated the entirety of the coverage of the race was not Verstapppen’s victory with the epic conclusion of what has been an amazing season or the Dutchman has seemingly faded into the background. Neither was Oscar Piastri’s first victory, Lewis Hamilton’s disastrous first lap crash or Lance Stroll’s outburst at his personal trainer. 

The main story of the Qatar GP has been the health problems the drivers suffered both during and after the race. The starkest example of this comes in the form of William’s rookie Logan Sargent’s race. Sargent’s retirement due to health concerns was one of the first times a driver has ever had to retire on health grounds after he felt unable to continue due to the heat conditions in Qatar. While according to Team Principal James Vowles, the American driver had been under the weather before the race even started, the fact that he felt unable to continue showed the pressure the driver was under, especially due to his seat for next year still being unconfirmed. 

“Today was beyond the limit, I think, of what was acceptable for driving”

George Russell

The response from the drivers has been clear – the race was dangerous. George Russell, The Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) President spoke after the race saying: “Today was beyond the limit, I think, of what was acceptable for driving” with many members of the grid agreeing with him, including the newly minted world champion Verstappen. 

But how did the FIA let it get beyond the limit? The Qatar weekend was already not a great time for the organisation, with the track surface creating massive problems and track limits once again becoming an issue. But what could they have done about the conditions of the Grand Prix? 

What the Qatar GP has shown is that the FIA cannot ignore the weather when scheduling races. While in recent years we have seen the calendar shift around to fit more into the climate of the country, this is often followed by the cry of too late. We have seen the Japanese Grand Prix, where the impact of the rain has caused many races to be cancelled due to rain being only moved out of Monsoon season for next year, despite calls for this change to be made for years. The lack of action from the FIA on this issue, to keep Suzuka in a more dangerous time of year for longer than needed shows the lack of forward thinking that could have led to this situation. 

However, the issues faced in Qatar are heightened than we see in Suzuka. Driving in the rain is a skill, defining the good drivers from the great. For some wet races are even more exciting, where the field is more levelled.  There is also precedent in the past for cancelling a race due to the rain. We have seen how dangerous these races can be and changes have been made to solve this. 

This same precedent has not been set for races impacted by heat.

The drivers were risking their lives during that weekend

The heat is also inherently more dangerous than the rain. While not confirmed, rumours have swirled that at least a fourth of the drivers fainted after the race, with many throwing up in their helmets even during the race. It’s not just about being a clever driver, it’s pushing a human body past a limit where it’s comfortable. And while sports exist to do that this is simply not safe within F1. 

Fainting while driving is dangerous when driving at 60, 50, and even 30 mph. It’s a danger that increases exponentially when you are going 300kph in a track with 19 other people going at similar speeds. It is very clear – the drivers were risking their lives during that weekend in ways above and beyond what they usually do. 

With changes in the calendar the Qatar GP will take place earlier in the year, meaning that drivers will not have to fight through the same horrendous conditions as this year the lessons of the Grand Prix does have repercussions for the entire sport. Climate change, a factor that F1 does little to change, means that we are going to see more extreme weather throughout the year, not only in these races. 

The FIA cannot become complacent, or blame the safety concerns. In a statement following the race the FIA said ““The safe operation of the cars is, at all times, the responsibility of the Competitors”. While this may be true within the race, it is undeniable that they have huge responsibility in making sure the cars can be operated safely. They must plan more for the extremes weather can create, no longer taking the approach of letting something happen before they make their decisions. 

Simply put the FIA must start thinking of the problems which they face being a worldwide series and start opening up to the challenges that extreme weather will continue to create.

Image: Lukas Raich via Wikimedia Commons

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