F1 winners and losers: Qatar GP heat, tire drama don’t slow McLaren’s rise

As our 2023 Qatar Grand Prix coverage unfolded, one word flitted around our team: weird.

There was no other way to describe it. We thought this would be a tidy weekend of Max Verstappen championship celebrations and straightforward racing. Instead, it became a gusty, dusty and unbearably hot race. The teammate collisions, tire mandates, and serious health concerns offered a reminder that nothing in Formula One is ever simple.

With that in mind, let’s sort the weekend into winners and losers, shall we?

Why celebrate when you can finally sit down? (Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Category #1: The heat

Winner: Nobody

Loser: Everyone

A 2012 paper by a researcher at the University of Barcelona analyzed the impact of mild or moderate dehydration on cognitive performance. “Being dehydrated by just 2% impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills, as well as assessment of the subjective state,” Adan found.

In another 2012 study, researchers found that even mild dehydration diminished golfers’ distance, accuracy, and distance judgment. You know, things that might be useful when driving a race car.

Of course, you and I don’t need studies to tell us what we already feel in our mammal veins. Water when hot? Good. No water when hot? Bad. We spent so much time talking about how physically demanding the Marina Bay Street Circuit is when, three weeks later, we had a coastal desert race some drivers called the toughest of their careers.

The scenes after the race were quite something. Drivers struggled to exit their cockpits and laid down wherever they could, darted for the ice baths, or visited the medical delegate. Do you know those “leaf blower” things that F1 teams affix to car vents to cool the engine? Kevin Magnussen asked Haas mechanics to blow that on him instead.

When you consider dehydration and impaired cognition, the abundance of track limit violations starts to make some sense. All the training drivers do for hot and humid races can’t prepare them for that problem.

“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,” Charles Leclerc said. “It was really, really difficult.”

“When it gets hotter in the car than your body temperature, then that’s not good news,” Valtteri Bottas said. He added that drivers were at the limits on Sunday – any hotter than that and “somebody is going to have a heat stroke.”

“Any hotter than this would be not safe anymore.” For what it’s worth, the FIA seems to agree.

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The 18-lap stint mandates made for an interesting race. (Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images)

Category #2: Tire shenanigans

Winner: The race

We had two GP qualifying sessions this weekend. Only the first, on Friday, was scheduled. Pirelli’s last-minute mandate that limited stints to 18 laps gave us another quasi-quali during the grand prix.

Tire management? Not a factor this weekend. The three-stop imposition meant drivers were encouraged to push for most of the race – “It was (like) 57 qualifying laps, which I definitely feel like I’ve done,” Piastri said.

The result, by some measures, was a three-fold positive. It brought Verstappen back to the pack – with the Red Bull’s tire management superiority neutralized, the champion only won by 4.8 seconds. The many pit stops kept cars out of position for much of the race, resulting in many overtakes. And, for some fans, the Qatar GP looked a lot like how they remember the old F1: flat-out, every lap to the limit, nothing left to give after the checkered flag.

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella called the tire limitations “an interesting challenge.” It certainly made for an interesting race, the likes of which we haven’t seen all season. But, then again …

Loser: The race?

Was it a good race? Let’s look at those positives again.

Verstappen’s four-second gap to second place is a little misleading. When he made his final pit stop, he had built a 23-second lead. And the McLaren drivers wouldn’t have finished quite so close if their pit crew weren’t throwing down historically fast stops.

Verstappen’s Red Bull drove out of the first turn with the lead, and we didn’t hear much from him again until he collected his trophy. Regardless of the tire limitations, it felt like a standard 2023 Max Verstappen victory.

Lots of overtakes, sure, but to what end? In reality, it was a jumble of cars passing each other but not actually racing each other for position. That’s mistaking the sea breeze for a squall. For instance, Leclerc confirmed the mandatory stint lengths restricted Ferrari’s ability to strategize and put themselves in a position to race for position.

“I don’t remember exactly what kind of tires George had and if he had a bit more flexibility,” Leclerc said. “But on our side, we had four laps flexibility, so it’s not enough to create a tire delta. Then it’s just a train until the end of the race.”

At times, it felt like that – a colorful river of racing. But a river, not rapids. As for the flat-out race harkening back to the good old days of F1, that’s down to personal preference. We can only say that the drivers didn’t seem to love it.

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McLaren has something special right now. (Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Category #3: The future

Winner: Oscar Piastri, McLaren

It’s easy to mistake McLaren’s rookie for a veteran by now, especially since Piastri danced with Verstappen in the Belgian GP sprint race. There’s no taking away from the work done back in Woking – even Red Bull boss Christian Horner admitted after the Qatar GP that the McLarens are probably Red Bull’s closest competitors.

But not every rookie (not even every driver) would take advantage of those upgrades like Piastri has. The turnaround is remarkable – Piastri had five points after the Austrian GP. He’ll bring 83 points with him to Austin next week.

This, at brutal tracks like Singapore and Qatar, mixed conditions at Zandvoort, and tracks he’s never raced at before.

“Keeping Oscar calm is very easy,” Stella said, “because he has this amazing natural characteristic of keeping himself in the most productive state as an athlete, as a driver.”

He’s strung together two straight podium finishes after securing second place on Sunday. McLaren are just 11 points behind Aston Martin in the battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship. It’s starting to feel like they have something long-term and special there.

F1 Point Gains Since Austria



Points After Austria


Points After Qatar




Max Verstappen




Sergio Pérez




Fernando Alonso




Lewis Hamilton




Carlos Sainz




Charles Leclerc




George Russell




Lance Stroll




Esteban Ocon




Lando Norris




Pierre Gasly




Nico Hülkenberg




Alex Albon




Oscar Piastri




Valtteri Bottas




Zhou Guanyu




Yuki Tsunoda




Kevin Magnussen




Logan Sargeant




Loser: Pérez, Stroll and Sargeant

Where to begin?

Stroll hasn’t made it out of Q1 in the last four race weekends, and the gap between him and teammate Fernando Alonso widened to 136 points after Qatar. (He also said he was passing out during the race due to the heat.) It was the most frustrated we’ve seen him all year and an indication that the pressure may finally be getting to the young Aston Martin driver.

Sargeant, the only driver still without a confirmed 2024 contract, also suffered physically during the race. The team tried to convince him multiple times to come in for his own sake, and he finally did. There’s nothing he really could have done about that, but he also crashed out of the sprint race on Saturday – something that’s becoming a near-weekly occurrence.

And then there was the maligned Red Bull driver. Pérez started from the pit lane after a Q2 quali exit and collected several penalties for track limits violations. I was ready to chalk that up to the dehydration effects, but Checo took responsibility after the race.

“I really suffered with the new track limits; they were brought in very last minute, which I don’t think is right, but it is the same for everyone, and I should have done a better job,” Pérez said. “It was hard for me to judge them inside the car because I think, a little like in Austria, I am sitting a bit too low, and that made things harder. I should have maybe altered that when the changes were implemented.”

Regardless, the result fits the theme of a weekend where Verstappen claimed his title – a crown that once seemed up for grabs between the two Red Bull drivers but ultimately felt inevitable when it came time to place it upon Verstappen’s head.

(Lead image: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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