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Why cockpit heat is such a big issue for F1 drivers

The fallout of the heat exhaustion issues suffered by the drivers in the Qatar GP continues to be a talking point in the Formula 1 paddock.

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Daniel Ricciardo, AlphaTauri AT04

Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The race was a perfect storm of high ambient temperatures, humidity that ramped up on race day, draining heavy g-loadings through the fast corners, and the one-off tyre rules that turned the race into a series of four sprints, with little respite for the drivers.

The FIA soon promised an investigation into the factors involved, and that has quickly developed into the subject being added to the next meeting of F1’s technical advisory committee, where teams and the governing body discuss rule changes. 

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has also written to the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association), essentially thanking their drivers for their efforts, and acknowledging how tough their Sunday evening was.

He also pointed out that scheduling the Qatar race for early October was unavoidable, and reminded them that next year it will move to December, and thus conditions won’t be so challenging.

The date change should certainly take the edge off the specific issues seen in Qatar, and some believe that should be the end of the matter.

However, the race highlighted a bigger picture of unregulated cockpit heat, and the role played by hitherto little-known factors such as thicker overalls mandated since Romain Grosjean’s accident at the 2020 Bahrain GP.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing leads at the start

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing leads at the start

The subject has definitely got the attention of the drivers, and it goes far beyond the specific circumstances of Qatar, as it’s likely that there will be other races in the future where heat is an issue.

GPDA chairman Alex Wurz is in close contact with both the FIA and F1, and he will ensure that the issue stays on the sport’s agenda, and that lessons are learned for the future.

“The bottom line is we, meaning the sport, will deal with it,” he says. “And I am certain the right balance will be found.”

Another element to the story is the suggestion, even from former F1 drivers, that the Qatar race somehow highlighted that the current stars are not fit enough, or contrasting what happened with other racing categories or even with other sports. As you can imagine that hasn’t gone down well.

“What I can say is I train substantially for the heat,” says GPDA director George Russell. “I train with three layers of clothes ahead of these hot races. I do a huge amount of saunas to adapt to the heat.

“These guys who are commenting on this, we're driving laps 20 seconds faster than they were, going through corners pulling 5G in every single aspect. And of course, we need to be gladiators.

“But when it comes to the heat, there's only so much the body can take. And if you take the contrast of the Qatar World Cup, due to the heat they added three-minute water breaks twice throughout the game.

George Russell, Mercedes-AMG, on the Sprint grid with an engineer

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

George Russell, Mercedes-AMG, on the Sprint grid with an engineer

“They have their 15-minute half time break, and we were driving flat out for 90 minutes on a super high-speed circuit, a high downforce circuit, with temperature and humidity that were through the roof.”

He paints a compelling picture of how tough it was: “Anybody can say what they like, but also the race cars in the nineties and eighties, they didn't have all the electronic boxes around the cockpit heating the cockpit up.

“They didn't have the power steering system that was running at 50-60C radiating heat. We have hydraulic lines running all around the cockpit, which is at 120C. The cockpit was closing in on 60C throughout that race.”

He added: “I know from some drivers who suffered with heatstroke, they were ill for the week following.”

Wurz is adamant that it’s wrong to relate what happened in Qatar to driver fitness, as conditions were so extreme. He believes that the time has come for the FIA to regulate the matter.

“Heat fatigue is not necessarily directly linked to fitness,” he says. “So it's not enough for people to say those guys should be fitter. Because fitness, again, is not always related to heat resistance.

“There's a lot of contributing factors to heat fatigue and working in a hot environment. I do believe that the aggressive nature of all those contributing factors made it an extraordinary event in Doha, something we need to learn from, and progress.

"And this is definitely not to make the sport that you have to be less fit. No, it's just that there's certain rules and limits. Like with everything, every performing part on a race car has a limit. The FIA gives load limits, temperature limits, weight limits, deflection limits.

“And the driver is one of those 100 performing parts. And there should also be certain limits. We have limits when we hit the wall of when we have to go to the medical centre. Other sports have heat related limits. Materials have heat related limits.

“No one asks to make the sport less hard, less tough, easy. It will never be easy. I think that would be a really inappropriate comment from anyone. So bottom line is we need to just look into the contributing factors, learn from it, and move on with it.”

Ferrari SF-23. detail cockpit

Photo by: Ferrari

Ferrari SF-23. detail cockpit

One of the basic problems is that current cars are by the nature incredibly hot, with so much kit related to the power unit in close proximity to the drivers as teams squeeze the limits of packaging.

“The hydraulics, electronics, they all run very hot,” says Wurz. “The whole package is closer than ever before, and this is a typical effect of racing and F1. And perhaps even the aerodynamics with the halo and the new downforce means there is less cockpit ventilation, and less air going out.

“Motorsport itself has certain categories with heat related rules. In the World Endurance Championship, the cockpit temperature has to have a certain limit above ambient temperature that is measured.

“And then the mitigation is down to the teams, and the teams of course, do that. So this is a regulation basically forcing the teams to construct the cars in a way that the working environment is set to a limit.

“In the WEC we have aided cockpit temperature, but also teams run with cooling seats. It's something we run just to ensure the performance of the drivers is not in any shape limited by the heat, so that they can go flat out and exhaust themselves with just pushing and not heat exhaustion, because it is two different things.”

Alexander Wurz

Photo by: Erik Junius

Alexander Wurz

Cooling seats have become a topic of conversation in F1 circles, and Wurz can draw on personal experience of how valuable they can be.

There’s obviously a weight factor with any such equipment, as there is with simple things like drink bottles that F1 teams have sometimes not used for just that reason, but the gains from having a fit and healthy driver can be significant.

“I did one IMSA race with Chip Ganassi in the States,” says the Austrian. “This car was so hot that without the cooling seat after 40 minutes, you were done, like properly done and grilled. And with the cooling seat, it was okay and easy to do three stints, so two and a half hours in the car.

“The car didn't have much downforce, but the heat was so strong, and the cooling seat already supplied enough cooling and circulation that that you were under control, and your working environment was basically still having to deal with the fitness and forces and concentration.

“That of course was a performance related thing the teams did, because they knew everything in the car was too hot to basically run for appropriate stint lengths.”

Fernando Alonso also has recent experience of sportscars after his spell with Toyota.

“In WEC there is a sensor in the cockpit, and the temperature inside cannot be two degrees more than the outside temperature,” says the Spaniard. “If you are above that temperature, you have to stop, the FIA tells you to stop.

"There is some kind of air con. And I think there has been work behind those regulations to make sure that there were not electrical boxes in the cockpit, and things like that, just to make sure that you are within the regulations on the temperature.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, settles into his seat

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, settles into his seat

“I think the priority in F1 is just to put the all the boxes and all these things in the cockpit, because you can tighten the bodywork, and you make priority for aerodynamics, which is obviously good.”

In Qatar, Alonso suffered with a specific cockpit hot spot that had arisen previously with the AMR23, but which tipped over the limit. The team is already working on improvements.

As noted another issue that has emerged is how the thicker overalls mandated since Grosjean’s accident have made life harder for the drivers.

“The racing kit, the overalls, the fireproofs underneath, is very thick right now, to be within the regulations after Grosjean's crash,” says Alonso. “So it is a difficult topic, because you need to have very safe equipment for fire in case it happens.

“But that equipment is in some conditions, in some races, is just not evaporating the heat, it just stays with you for the whole race. So the body cannot perform at its normal level.

“The regulations are just much tougher for the companies to pass the fire test, and now they are thicker. But as I said, they are safer. So you know, this is where you put the right balance."

Russell added: “The fireproofs are substantially thicker. It's like wearing a fleece.”

Alonso flags another issue that he sees as a contributing factor and is nothing to do with the cars, but rather the build-up to races.

“We are trying to do our best in terms of preparation as well, trying to start the race as cool as possible,” he says. “Just about the temperature, for sure, we will discuss with FIA a couple of different scenarios and procedures.

“I'm not a big fan for example of the national anthem being 14 minutes before going in the car. I think this is unthinkable in any other sport, that you will put your body in the limit.

“So if that can move a little bit earlier, and then you can cool down before going in the car or whatever. It’s just putting that temperature limit further into the race, instead of reaching that limit in lap 15, maybe you reach it in lap 40, and it’s only 15 laps of struggling."

Whether any solution is focussed on driver equipment, or changes to the cars, remains to be seen.

“Should it only be the teams looking at it from a performance point of view?,” says Wurz. “Or does it need a heat related rule like football or triathlon has temperature related rules? We will debate between the stakeholders.”

Alexander Wurz

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Alexander Wurz

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