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Rookie on F1 Grid | Raise Your Car or Race Your Car? It's Lone Wolff vs The Rest in F1's Latest Civil War

By: Nitya Thirumalai


Last Updated: June 25, 2022, 11:55 IST

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton climbs into his car during the second practice session for the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, on June 17, 2022. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton climbs into his car during the second practice session for the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, on June 17, 2022. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

FIA’s ironic ban on porpoising may end up biting Mercedes in the rear wing, dragging Ferrari for good measure. Red Bull should be happy, but aren’t. And a key appointment in the FIA has added to the unease. It’s all unfolding before the Netflix cameras ahead of the British GP next week

Rookie on F1 Grid

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport worldwide and has gained a massive following in recent years even in countries that don’t get to roll out the red carpet for racing; India being one of those countries and this author being one of those followers. This column is my attempt to connect with other new fans of the sport and share with them my journey of exploring this fast, furious, and yes, at times, frustrating, sport.

Be careful what you wish for. After the back-breaking Baku race made Lewis Hamilton the go-to-meme for millennial health issues, Mercedes drummed up support in the paddock for the FIA to do something about porpoising.

The FIA obliged, but its fix may end up biting Mercedes in the rear wing, dragging Ferrari for good measure, working Red Bull into a frenzy. And the Netflix cameras are watching it all.

Let’s take it from the top. For the uninitiated, the phenomenon giving porpoises – cute aquatic mammals that resemble dolphins – a bad rep is the vertical bouncing of the car at high speeds. The motion is a violent exaggeration of the bobbing of a porpoise in water.

It has entered the 2022 season as a side effect of new regulations the FIA enforced this year to cut down on turbulent or dirty air that F1 cars leave in their wake. Less dirty air means the trailing car has to battle less resistance to get closer to the opponent ahead, allowing for more overtaking opportunities, making for thrilling races.

But any aerodynamic action that adds to the speed of the car must be complemented by adequate downforce. Downforce is the airflow around the car pushing it down towards the ground, giving the car more grip and preventing it from taking off the ground (yes, it’s possible). More grip means more speed.

To make up for the loss of downforce its new regulations bring, the FIA has allowed constructors to use ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics, wherein the floor of the car and the ground are sucked closer to strengthen contact and grip.

So while the underbody of the 2021 car was smooth, the FIA has allowed constructors to have two ducts, called venturi ducts, on the underbody of the 2022 cars. It’s these ducts that create the suction or ground effect to generate downforce. Basically, when a car punches through the air, the air is forced into these ducts at unimaginable speeds. This action creates negative pressure, sucking the ground towards the car which results in race-winning speeds.

But the problem is that the faster you go, the more the car tries to kiss the ground. And at speeds excess of roughly 250 kmph, this powerful suction can bring the floor of the car and the ground close enough to cut off the airflow underneath. No airflow, no suction, no downforce. The floor of the car and the ground abruptly let go of each other. The gap widens enough again to allow for airflow, and the air gets pushed up the venturi ducts to repeat the cycle. This on-off suction results in the gain and loss of downforce in the flash of a second, making the car hop or bounce violently.

Bear in mind that all this is happening at dangerous speeds with a driver inside that bouncing Formula 1 car, who while sitting at a near-90 degree angle, has limited field of vision as it is. He now has to navigate the turns and traffic of the race track in a car that’s mimicking a vengeful trampoline with vision that’s blurred at best, to reach as close to the top finish as superhumanly possible.

There is a cure but it comes at a price, one that no team would be willing to pay voluntarily. Constructors can simply raise the height of the car so that the suction doesn’t stall the airflow in the first place. But the price to pay here is pace. Running the car higher off the ground means less downforce, which means less grip and slower speed.

Ironically, hydraulic suspension systems that could have helped have been banned now since they add to the dirty air. They are expensive too and teams now have to operate under cost caps.

Porpoising and F1 are old frenemies. Porpoises everywhere can blame motorsport legend Mario Andretti who used the species as a verb in the 1970s when F1 engineers first tried using ground effect aerodynamics (I told you earlier, aerodynamics is to F1 what quantum is to Marvel).

If porpoising is dangerous now, imagine how deadly it would have been in the tech-less world of almost half-a-century ago. The FIA finally banned venturi ducts in 1983. The advancements in technology and engineering since then have made porpoising less dangerous, but unlike 40-50 years ago, fans are more creative and louder today in demanding driver safety.

And the most passionate are Mercedes fans, especially followers of Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time world champion has a strong spine and fans want FIA/Mercedes to protect it, literally. It doesn’t help that the FIA seemed too concerned about driver safety when it came to Hamilton’s bling.

Porpoising had emerged as a performance issue for Mercedes long before Baku but the toll it takes on driver health became the debate’s focal point only after Toto Wolff & Co made some noise about it. It certainly helped that Hamilton’s teammate, George Russell aka Mr Consistency, is one of the four directors of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, a trade union for F1 drivers if you will.

And while their teams haven’t been affected by porpoising as much, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly also called on the FIA to act.

So the FIA acted. And banned porpoising.

Just before the Canadian GP, the FIA issued a technical directive and set the cat among the pigeons with its wording. The TD basically said two things of import cloaked in jargon. First, that the FIA would take a peek under the car to observe the design and routine damage to the skids and planks.

Second and most importantly, it would define a metric which would set a limit for “acceptable level of vertical oscillations”. And while the formula for that metric is still being worked out, it essentially means only teams that breach the “acceptable level” of porpoising could be forced to change their set-up or raise ride height. Mercedes are a lonely No.1 on that list.

The Silver Arrows were actually hoping the FIA would set a blanket minimum ride height or enforce setup changes across the grid, but could now end up paying the price alone. Ferrari hasn’t experienced as much bouncing as Mercedes but depending on what that metric and porpoising limit is, the Prancing Horse could be in trouble too. It has already conceded Charles Leclerc’s early title lead to reigning world champion Max Verstappen, and any more troubles coming its way would have to share attention with its engine woes.

As a short-term fix to porpoising, the technical directive also allowed teams to strengthen their floors to withstand the bouncing, but more on that later.

On paper, the technical directive should be good news for Red Bull since it takes care of its two biggest rivals. But Christian Horner is mad at Team Wolff for tattling to the FIA over what he says are essentially issues with the car’s design and not the new regulations.

In an interview to Telegraph Sport, Horner said the FIA should simply black flag cars that put the driver in jeopardy instead of a blanket change in rules. “It seems very unfair to say that just because they’ve got it wrong, everybody else has to change… This is one of those situations where some teams are coping OK but one team in particular isn’t. Should we change everything for one team? Or should that one team sort its issues out?” Telegraph quoted Horner as saying.

The Red Bull boss had fired the first shots after Baku, floating the theory that Mercedes had instructed both Hamilton and Russell to make as much noise about porpoising as possible on the team radio. “Tell them to b**** as much as they could over the radio and make as big an issue out of it as they possibly could. It’s part of the game,” The Race quoted him as saying.

Red Bull also has issues with the FIA obliging Mercedes with such speed. And this is where we come back to the governing body allowing teams to strengthen their floors by adding a second floor support. This secondary floor stay is meant to absorb some of the bouncing. So Mercedes ran with it in the Canadian GP in Russell’s car in FP1 and Hamilton’s in FP2. It, however, removed the secondary support before qualifying when teams, particularly Red Bull and Alpine, threatened to lodge a formal protest.

File photo of Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto. (Reuters)

The fact is that current technical regulations do not permit second floor stays. And technical regulations trump technical directives. Since the secondary floor support is a short-term fix, the FIA hasn’t bothered to update the regulations. Whether anything would have come of the protest is a different question.

But more importantly, the competition wants to know how Mercedes was able to add the second floor stay in time for Canada when the technical directive dropped in at the 11th hour. Leading the charge on this front is Alpine team boss Otmar Szafnauer. Faster this season with former world champion Fernando Alonso putting on an incredible show, Alpine had to stiffen the floor adding to the weight of the car and isn’t taking kindly to Mercedes’ overnight fix.

“The TD came out when our chief technical officer was flying over. So, it was quite late and we aren’t able to produce a stay here. As far as the process goes, technical directives, as we all know, aren’t regulations," The Race quoted Szafnauer as saying ahead of the Canadian GP. “If teams have brought those stays, I would imagine they could be perhaps looked at after and protested."

Adding another element of unease to the tense wait for the FIA metric on porpoising is the appointment of Shaila-Ann Rao, a former special advisor to Toto Wolff, as the Secretary General for Sport. The appointment is a temporary one, but has nonetheless prompted questions about impartiality in the wake of Mercedes adding the second floor support so quickly. Multiple reports point to rumoured allegations that Rao, a lawyer, could have helped speed it up.

The first to question it was Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto. “That’s a question that I’ve been asked as well in Baku in the press conference, and I can only repeat what I said at the time: It is a concern, no doubt… But I have as well the full trust in the FIA that they will prove that obviously she’s a professional, she’s a lawyer, and she’s got integrity. I have confidence for the future that they will prove that my concern is not a concern."

Red Bull have chosen not to be dragged into any controversy on Rao’s appointment and despite being upset at Mercedes’ second stay experiment, Szafnauer isn’t too bothered about Rao either.

But things came to a head at a recent coffee meeting between F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and the team principals, with Wolff at the receiving end from Ferrari, Red Bull and Alpine. And much to the delight of fans, the Drive to Survive cameras captured it all. Aston Martin team boss Mike Krack said tensions ran high during the meeting and Horner conceded that Netflix being present added an “element of theatre”.

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    And the timing is ominous as we head to Silverstone next week, the first British Grand Prix since the divisive drama of Abu Dhabi that cost homeboy Lewis Hamilton a record eighth world title. Given the past, the piercings and porpoising, it’s knives out at Silverstone.

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    first published:June 25, 2022, 10:23 IST
    last updated:June 25, 2022, 11:55 IST