Why Do So Many People Want To See Formula 1 Drivers Suffer?

Why Do So Many People Want To See Formula 1 Drivers Suffer?

This past weekend saw Formula 1 run the Qatar Grand Prix for the second time in history, and conditions were so oppressively hot for the drivers that some withdrew from the event, vomited inside their helmets, and needed assistance to exit the vehicle. But for pundits like Martin Brundle, that kind of suffering is actually a good thing for motorsport — despite the fact that F1 has spent decades routinely eliminating these kinds of unnecessary dangers.

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Let’s debrief. Weather conditions in Qatar were called both “extreme” and “oppressively hot” due to a combination of high temperatures and unexpectedly high humidity. Paired with a slew of high-speed corners and mandatory pit stops after every 18 laps that forced drivers to treat the event as a series of all-out sprint races, drivers suffered.

Logan Sargeant, who had been experiencing some symptoms of illness prior to the race, retired his Williams as a result of the conditions. Esteban Ocon told his team that he vomited in his helmet on lap 15; he ultimately continued racing to complete a top-1o finish. Alex Albon went straight from his car to the medical center. Lance Stroll came close to passing out as he climbed out of the car. Podium-sitter Lando Norris called the conditions “too dangerous.”

Inevitably, these situations are greeted with the cry that real racing drivers would not merely endure the conditions but should be perversely enjoying the fact that these conditions have pushed them beyond their limits — something almost immediately compounded by IndyCar and NASCAR drivers wondering if their cars are actually hotter and that they therefore would have handled the heat better than the boys from F1. Then, the day after the race, former racer and current Sky Sports commentator Martin Brundle once again took to social media to air his views.

“It’s races like Qatar and very rainy days which make F1 drivers look the heroes and athletes they are,” he wrote on X. “Absolutely don’t buy into the weak view we shouldn’t put them through this kind of challenge. Check out Senna in Brazil, Stewart at rainy Nurburgring, Lauda post crash, etc etc.”

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Compounding Brundle’s own (historically inaccurate) statements were those from Esteban Ocon; the Alpine driver claimed that he would never even consider withdrawing from a race that he felt was too dangerous. That, apparently, is supposed to be a good thing.

And then in the aftermath inevitably comes the social media users who argue that, as long as the drivers decide to race and as long as no spectators get hurt, then drivers should have to continue racing in heat and humidity. After all, other drivers take on challenges like wet races or 24-hour races without a problem; why shouldn’t F1 drivers have to suffer?

The problem is that each one of these takes completely ignores just about every step forward F1 — and every other form of motorsport — has made regarding safety. (There are, for example, limits on how long a driver in a 24-hour race can sit behind the wheel, which were implemented for safety purposes. There are times when wet conditions are deemed too dangerous to compete. There are, shockingly, rules already in place to allow for some level of acceptable risk; modern motorsport is always seeking the balance between danger and safety.)

Let’s return to two of Brundle’s examples — ones that he has seemingly plucked from all historical context. At the 1968 German Grand Prix, Jackie Stewart raced in horrifyingly wet conditions with a broken wrist to take victory by a margin of four minutes, yes. In 1976, Niki Lauda did in fact make a dramatic return to motorsport just two months after almost being killed in a fiery wreck. Neither of those “moments,” though, signify the whole story.

Stewart’s experiences at the German Grand Prix, paired with a terrible accident at Spa-Francorchamps two years earlier, served as fodder for the Scottish driver’s career-long safety campaign. While he does consider that 1968 event at the Nürburgring to be one of his best races, it has always come with a caveat: No one should have had to race in conditions like that. No driver should be forced to take so many unnecessary risks simply to maintain their career.

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And then there’s Lauda. Lauda’s dramatic return to Formula 1 after nearly dying — and his decision to forego plastic surgery in order to get back behind the wheel sooner, resulting in him carrying the scars from that accident on his face for the rest of his life — is one of the grittiest tales in F1 history. What Brundle seems to be forgetting is that Lauda withdrew from the final race of the 1976 season because he deemed conditions to be too unsafe. He was willing to race while in immense physical pain at the Italian Grand Prix, but when weather presented an additional layer of risk, Lauda chose to forego his shot at a World Drivers’ Championship, simply because he was unwilling to race in such dangerous conditions.

F1’s history is punctuated by drivers overcoming immensely dangerous obstacles, yes — but people like Brundle seem to forget that those dangers often came with a push for a solution. If that hadn’t been the case, we’d still be racing magnesium-alloy vehicles on hay bale-lined tracks.

When it comes to sport, competitors can often ignore increasingly dangerous concerns in order to keep participating — much the same way that Ocon claimed he would never withdraw from a race. There’s a resistance to making those sports “easier,” or to somehow “cheapening” the product by reducing risk. Competitors often have plenty of legitimate reasons for accepting dangerous conditions, and the sports themselves have little incentive to enact a costly change. It results in a cycle of shrugged shoulders, often until a tragedy forces the sport and its competitors into action.

But within the realm of Formula 1 specifically, claiming that drivers should simply accept an untoward level of risk erases a critical element of history. In 1961, when it was expected that multiple drivers would die each year, the drivers teamed together to form a union called the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. As drivers began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the danger of motorsport, they realized that they simply couldn’t effectively create change alone; for every Stirling Moss demanding increased safety was a Jacky Ickx to argue that the sport was fine as it was. Had Moss argued that point alone, he’d have been fired and replaced with drivers who accepted the danger. By uniting with his peers, Moss was able to leverage a large amount of influence to force conditions to change.

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And in much the same way, when it comes to extreme heat, we’ll always see an Ocon agreeing to race while a Norris deems the conditions too dangerous. We’ll see hockey players refusing to wear head protection until forced to do so. We’ll see NASCAR drivers opt against HANS devices until a notable death writes that protection into the regulations. Competitors can often overlook the detriment to their own health; speaking out about it can cause them to lose their jobs or miss out on future opportunities in favor of a different competitor willing to sacrifice himself for his job. When a large number of drivers speak up, we should listen.

Demanding they become “gladiators” to satisfy some wholly inaccurate version of Formula 1 history isn’t just misguided — it’s insulting. Insulting to the drivers who lost their lives as a result of their passion. Insulting to the drivers who spent decades of their careers pushing for change. Insulting to the fans who are consistently portrayed as bloodthirsty onlookers just waiting for someone to get hurt. Insulting to the very premise that motorsport should always be looking to improve conditions for its competitors. Insulting to every person who mourned the loss of a driver and determined that they never want to feel that way again.

If drivers, fans, and media don’t speak up now to advocate for greater safety conditions, then races like the Qatar Grand Prix will continue to happen until someone is grievously injured. Formula 1’s calendar continues to expand. The sport will continue to tack on races from the highest bidders, irrespective of the potential weather conditions of the locale. And as climate change continues to ravage our world, instances of extreme, unpredictable, or unseasonable weather are bound to become more common. These drivers make a career of something dangerous, yes; we should still push to make them safer.