Paddock Diary: 2023 Qatar Grand Prix

Formula 1

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As a parade of visibly exhausted drivers appeared after the Qatar Grand Prix, it became clear the punishingly hot conditions had pushed all of them to their limit.


Paddock, Losail International Circuit, 2023

The Losail International Circuit had been lavishly refurbished since Formula 1 last visited a year ago, but finding my way in along with some media colleagues proved the first challenge.

With no signposting into the track, we eventually found an entrance through a dingy side road. The space resembled more a wasteland than a Formula 1 media car park, but we followed the crowd to what looked to be a security check. After a policeman shrugged at us three times with little interest in finding anyone to help us, he eventually allowed us through.

A media shuttle dropped us some way from the paddock, with no directions where we were heading. So we walked in 42C heat trying to find the entrance with no one around to ask. Once we finally did there was little time to appreciate the makeover before getting down to work.

Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo, Losail International Circuit, 2023Media day got underway at Aston Martin where Jessica Hawkins spoke about her recent F1 test. Softly spoken, she explained how the day played out and how she felt she was paving the way for more women in motorsport. As I looked around the media scrum, I spotted she and I were the only two women present. Once again, I thought, we have a long way to go.

Walking into Alfa Romeo for Valtteri Bottas’ media session, I saw Zhou Guanyu sporting a shirt saying his name. Stopping briefly to admire his shirt he proudly told us: “I designed it!”

I finished the day with a frank and candid one-to-one interview with Guenther Steiner, who had plenty to say about recent developments in F1, which we’ll share here soon. After that we headed out for a karting event kindly put on by Alpine. I managed to qualify 16th out of 30. I was proud not to come last.

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Friday is the quietest day on any given weekend during an F1 event for me, sprint weekends especially. It is not mandatory for drivers or teams to speak to the written media after Friday sessions, which is particularly irritating on sprint race weekends, as the qualifying session determines the crucial grid for Sunday’s grand prix.

Driving in, I noticed that the wind had really picked up. Dust covered the roads, flags flapped aggressively and the half-finished area surrounding the circuit was bearing the brunt.

Practice got underway despite the wind, followed by qualifying later that evening. With no support races on the track, the time dragged between sessions and the track gathered more dust.

(L to R): George Russell (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 and Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing in the post qualifying FIA Press Conference.
06.10.2023 Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 18, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar, Qualifying Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: XPB ImagesWhile Max Verstappen stuck his Red Bull on pole position, confusion followed. The McLaren drivers had a string of lap times deleted for track limits infringements, which meant George Russell moved up to second place and Lewis Hamilton third in the other Mercedes.

This caused consternation in the press conference, where a solitary Verstappen was unaware of transpiring events. “Bit quiet in here,” he joked, looking at the four or five journalists in the room. “We could all join you on the sofa” I suggested as Russell joined him.

“Wait, what happened to Lando? Who’s third?” Verstappen quizzed, looking around the room. I explained the track limits situation. Hamilton later appeared, disappeared again to conduct a television interview, then finally returned so the session could proceed.

I ended the evening with a run on the 5.4-kilometre track in 30C heat. I’m training for a half marathon in aid of Alzheimers’ research but this was one of the hardest training runs I had ever done yet.

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With high winds still blowing around Doha we started to make the now-familiar walk from the media shuttle to the paddock and our phones collectively chimed. Pirelli had found an abnormality in the data from yesterday which could pose a risk to the tyres on the harsh Qatar kerbs, and was taking action in conjunction with the FIA. A press conference was scheduled at short noticed with the head of Pirelli Motorsport, Mario Isola, which inevitably was a very busy session.

Oscar Piastri caused a stir by claiming pole position for the sprint race in his McLaren. A few hours later I headed to the grid

I hesitated as I watched Verstappen pulled up to his third-placed spot. Here was the man who, barring a stunning development in the next 19 laps, was about to become a three-time world champion. I took a moment to really take in the moment as I watched the Red Bull driver hop out of his car.

As the race got underway my time in the cool, air-conditioned media centre was quickly over as Logan Sargeant once again made a mistake, this time beaching his Williams in the gravel. Heading down to the boiling media pen I was struck by a wall of heat as I entered the paddock. It was bearable but extremely warm.

Speaking to the drivers it slowly transpired that many of them had learned of the tyre concerns at the same time we did. George Russell admitting he found out on their driver’s group chat. It seemed odd the had not received an earlier heads-up and several of them were not impressed.

Leaving the circuit at around 1:30am the following morning, we still were no closer to understanding what the tyre rules would be for Sunday’s 57-lap race. The pinnacle of motorsport, I thought.

(L to R): Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Oscar Piastri, Lando Norris, McLaren, Losail International Circuit, 2023

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Leaving the hotel at 1pm on Sunday I was almost knocked over by the extreme heat. The intense wind had dropped and the humidity had soared. Expecting it would cool down before the race, we made our way in for the normal Sunday morning tech talk.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Losail International Circuit, 2023Heading back to the media centre I spotted a journalist speaking to Esteban Ocon. Smiling hello, I went to find out any information I could. It turned out the FIA were to announce an 18-lap tyre limit, meaning all drivers had to stop three times during the race.

The grid was hotter than I have ever experienced, far warmer even than Singapore a few weeks earlier. The humidity left you gasping for breath and everyone – and I mean everyone – was struggling. I was relieved to return to the ice-cold media centre.

I left it soon ahead to speak Lewis Hamilton, who crashed into his team mate on lap one. Some 56 laps later the freshly-minted three-times world champion had his 14th grand prix victory of the season. A strong weekend from McLaren meant Piastri and Lando Norris were on the podium, however in the cooldown room two of the three were sprawled out on the floor.

The drivers began to filter through the media pen, each looking progressively worse than the last. I first noticed how few drivers immediately came to the pen. Usually, they want to get their media duties over and done with so they can go home, but they took longer to emerge than usual.

Soaked with sweat, Lance Stroll wobbled towards us physically shaking. To his credit, at the end of a weekend of disappointments, he gave us a lot of time and explained in detail how tough the race had been, even admitting he “passed out” at one stage.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Losail International Circuit, 2023He wasn’t the only one. Kevin Magnussen said he felt nauseous, Ocon spent two laps throwing up into his helmet, Leclerc called it the most punishing race of his career and Russell said his body felt like it was giving up. Alex Albon had acute heat exhaustion and Logan Sargeant withdrew with intense dehydration having been unwell before the race even began. Drivers were so affected they had blurred vision.

We see these drivers day-in, day-out over race weekends, but this time it felt different, like they were almost glad for the race to be over. You don’t often see F1 drivers admit defeat or weakness, or for that matter seem happy to see the media, but with each driver that came through I saw a vulnerability I had never seen before. Of course they are supreme athletes, but they are still human beings and I was left quite shaken. We urged several to get some fluids inside them.

Inevitably some on social media are insisting the race should have been red-flagged. While I don’t agree with that, I do question the wisdom of scheduling a grand prix in the middle of a desert in conditions like these.

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2023 Qatar Grand Prix

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Author information

Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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3 comments on “Paddock Diary: 2023 Qatar Grand Prix”

  1. Coventry Climax
    10th October 2023, 10:47

    Good story, good insight, good confirmation of circumstances.

    16 out of 30 in the Alpine karting event! You must have been one of the best, if not the best, of the female contestants! ;-)

    Best of luck with your half marathon. Worthy cause, that.

    1. The race would be like being in Phoenix 6-months straight …

  2. Congratulations on the karting result and the well-written column!

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