In 2021, the inaugural event added momentum to the riveting title race between Mercedes‘ Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Since then, the Formula 1 cars have undergone extreme changes, leaving little resemblance to the older models.
However, with the upcoming race in focus, teams hoping to rely on prior data for leverage will face disappointment. The circuit out for the race is a newly transformed version, making it seem virtually brand new to the teams. The most notable changes include a complete resurfacing of the tracks and the replacement of kerbs, run-off areas, guardrails and fences. To quote the FIA‘s official preview notes, “Given the extensive nature of the changes made, to all intents and purposes, it is considered to be a new circuit”.
A professional as they come, F1 teams are adept at working around such venue modifications during race weekends. Nevertheless, the ‘new’ Lusail doubles the complexity, causing a much-anticipated stir of challenges. This weekend’s race is also a sprint race. Teams will have to keenly exploit the opening practice session on Friday afternoon to establish their set-ups – a limitation owing to the parc ferme conditions commencing right after Friday evening’s qualifying.
Mercedes Boss Toto Wolff commented, “There have been changes both on and off track. A key feature of FP1 therefore will be understanding the effect of the track resurfacing. It will be an interesting task and one we are excited for”.
The stakes are raised higher as the event unfolds in Qatar, indicating that it is a night race. With fluctuating temperatures and unstable track conditions coming into the picture, the teams will need to make educated predictions about how these parameters will evolve after only one session. More specifically, they’ll have to gauge the potential temperature drop from around 40C at 4:30 pm (during the first practice) to approximately 33C at 8 pm when the qualifying starts.
Preparations on the simulators ahead of the weekend will be crucial in guiding the teams. Enrico Sampo, Head of Driving Simulation at Ferrari, mentioned the importance of “Running the ground effect cars here for the first time”, referring to another uncertainty. “It means that work in the simulator is vital to predict car handling on-track and to try and anticipate its behaviour”, he added.
While all teams must stay sharp and avoid any miscalculations in choosing the set-up, Williams Head of Vehicle Performance, Dave Robson, speaks for all when he says, “This is one of three remaining sprint events of the 2023 season and is likely to be the most demanding due to the new track surface and evening sessions”. All focus will be on navigating these situational difficulties with the utmost diligence.