Formula One drivers at the Chinese Grand Prix respectfully distanced themselves from Pascal Wehrlein’s decision to withdraw himself from the second consecutive race of the 2017 season.
Wehrlein, who moved from the defunct Manor team to Sauber this season, was involved in a rollover accident at the 2017 Race of Champions exhibition event in Miami and injured his back.
The German was unable to train during his recovery period and was forced to miss the first preseason test, and though he was able to resume his seat for the second test at the start of March and enter the Australian Grand Prix, he withdrew from the Melbourne event on the Saturday morning citing a lack of fitness.
Sauber said in a statement that its driver was preparing for a Chinese Grand Prix return, but on the Tuesday before the race it announced Wehrlein would not take part and was also in doubt for the Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend.
It is rare for a driver to miss a round of the championship after receiving medical clearance to compete. The last such occurrence was Sergio Perez’s withdrawal from the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix after free practice one due to the ongoing effects of a concussion sustained two weeks prior in Monte Carlo.
“I couldn’t race at all because my brain was moving still,” Perez remembered. “I think it was up to summer break — it was around four or five races before I was totally clear.
“Me, personally, I just want to race and I want to be in the car — I don’t want to let another driver take my place.”
Perez said he respected Wehrlein was able to make the decision to pull himself out of the car despite the competitive pressure, but he added that he wouldn’t himself be moved to do the same as a result of a physical injury.
“If I was in that position … as a race driver you’re not really bothered if you’re not 100 per cent to do the race,” he said. “I would be doing the races, even if I suffer in the car — that’s the best way to get your physicality back up.
“But every driver and every person is different, so I respect his decision — but I really hope there’s nothing more serious with him and that we can have Pascal back as soon as possible.”
Williams’s 18-year-old rookie, Lance Stroll, echoed the sentiment.
“For me, obviously if I felt it was physically hard, I would get through it — but I don’t want to comment on it, because maybe he has bigger issues that I don’t know about.
“But for me the physical limit doesn’t exist. I push myself through it no matter what.”
Drivers were required to up their training regimes ahead of the 2017 season due to the increased stress put on their bodies by this year’s high downforce, high grip, and fast-cornering cars, which generate peak loads of 8G in some corners.
With the neck being a major focus along with general fitness and endurance, Haas’s Romain Grosjean said he could understand the reasoning behind Wehrlein’s decision.
“I’ve seen that every driver has put a lot of effort into winter training,” said the Frenchman. “If I was coming in last year as I was and jumped in [this year’s] car, I would have struggled a little bit.
“I was naturally maybe a bit more experienced, a bit more strong, than Pascal even last year, but if you don’t have the time and have two months of rest, it’s just hard.”
But even Grosjean says the temptation to continue driving would have overwhelmed him.
“My wife would hate me for saying it, but I would drive!
“I think it’s fair to say he could have not said anything to anyone and just gone with it and retired for some reason, but he’s quite brave to say, ‘I’m not taking the risk to put myself and others in danger because I would not be able to drive the car’.”
The rarity of driver withdrawals and Wehrlein’s colleagues’ adamant denials that they would do the same has led to some questioning the veracity of the team’s reasoning for Pascal’s absence, but Sauber principal Monisha Kaltenborn denied all rumours when asked in China.
“The story is actually very straightforward,” she said. “You just cannot force things, and when the driver is saying this you cannot simply take that risk.
“That’s why I don’t understand it, particularly because you know his personality and you know how ambitious he is and what dreams he has.”
“It’s may be not such an exciting story, but it is as it is.”
A decision on Wehrlein’s fitness for the Bahrain Grand Prix will be made early next week.