The 2023 Qatar Grand Prix will live long in the memory for many reasons. Max Verstappen secured his third consecutive world title, both Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez found themselves under more pressure after difficult weekends, and both the tyres and the drivers’ fitness were tested to the very limit.
Lando Norris, who bagged his fifth podium of the season, reported that many drivers fainted in the cooldown room as hot temperatures, high humidity and fast corners pushed their drivers to the brink. Esteban Ocon admitted to throwing up in his helmet mid-race, whilst Logan Sargeant was forced to retire due to illness. Though viewers want to see drivers pushed to the limit, this was surely a step too far and the health of the drivers cannot be risked.
When Sargeant came onto the team radio to inform Williams that he was feeling unwell, team boss James Vowles left the decision in the American’s hands. This was surely unacceptable. Sargeant is a driver who is fighting for his F1 seat and will take any opportunity to prove his worth. Had he lost consciousness in the cockpit, it could well have led to a very dangerous accident.
How do we solve this issue? Whilst many ethical issues have been raised about racing in Qatar, due to the laws regarding LGBTQ+ rights and claims that events like this are part of a ‘sportswashing’ programme, it seems that F1 is destined to race here for the foreseeable future.
F1 has experience racing in the Middle Eastern desert, having raced in Bahrain since 2004. The Qatar Grand Prix works as a night race, but clearly early October is far too hot, in the day or at night. The race could be moved to later in the season — potentially just before the finale in Abu Dhabi, which makes far more sense logistically.
Alternatively, the race could be held in March, as part of a triple-header with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Both ideas have potential and, whilst it will still be warm, the conditions will certainly be more manageable for both the drivers and the staff.
The other potential change could be to alter the track layout or change it completely. The Lusail Circuit was initially designed for motorcycle racing, and the high speed, long radius corners are both taxing on the drivers and hamper overtaking due to the dirty air generated mid-corner.
Consequently, the only proper overtaking zone is down the long pit straight. This was disproved in last week’s race, but overtaking into other corners was only possible due to the huge offsets in pace caused by tyre degradation, which will not be as prevalent in future races.
Either the authorities can redesign the circuit to produce more overtaking zones with lower-speed corners or they can change the venue altogether. The idea of a street race in Doha has been suggested, which could have potential.
The driver health was not the only issue during the race weekend, however. Both the high-speed corners and the aggressive kerbs were causing severe damage to the tyre sidewall, causing Pirelli to intervene and force the teams to run each compound for no longer than 18 laps, resulting in a three-stop race.
This was a disaster for the fans. Yes, it added unpredictability, but it was extremely difficult to keep track of the race. Fans were unsure who was going to finish where, as some drivers would have to take mandated pit stops in the closing laps.
Were the tyre stint limitations necessary? There were concerns about punctures, but a puncture is hardly dangerous, especially on a track with vast swathes of run-off. Surely teams could have had free strategy choice and run the race as normal. If a team pushed the tyre beyond its life, it could cause a race-ruining puncture. It seems that this rule was more about Pirelli trying to save face.
The Grand Prix was farcical, and overshadowed what was a thoroughly entertaining sprint on Saturday and landmark weekends for both Verstappen and Oscar Piastri. The kerbs were an issue in 2021, where three drivers suffered mid-race punctures, and it is baffling that the organisers did not deem it necessary to make track changes to solve the issue.
F1 cannot continue making these mistakes so often.
At a time when viewing figures are plummeting, the organisers are under pressure to make the race weekend as entertaining as possible. If Qatar wants to retain its place on the calendar long-term, then it must make major changes before the next race.