“We are not going to put a pillow in the car”… the phenomenon of porpoising agitates the paddocks

“We are not going to put a pillow in the car”… the phenomenon of porpoising agitates the paddocks

A Lewis Hamilton extricating himself with great difficulty from the seat of his Mercedes, holding his lower back for a long time, before pouring out his pain at the Canal + microphone: “It is the most physically difficult race that I have not have never realized. I have never felt such pain in a car. Normally it’s just physical on normal races. But there, it hit me, I had points of pain permanently ”.

It was not until the mid-race of this Grand Prix of Azerbaijan, finally won by Max Verstappen, to hear the seven-time world champion complaining on the radio, “Argh! My back hurts like hell.” Normal, you will tell me, when you are approaching forty. Except that this torture is not the fact of his age but of “porpoising”. A phenomenon that appeared from the first Formula 1 pre-season tests in Barcelona, ​​with the introduction of new aerodynamic regulations and flat ground effect bottoms. “By definition, the lower the car, the more aerodynamic load there will be, which leads to this pumping effect at high speeds,” explains to 20 minutes Stéphane Chosse, former engineer of the Williams team. “This year, the suspensions are simpler, which makes the car stiffer. Mechanical parts were moved downwards, which lowered the center of gravity of the single-seaters. The 18-inch tires, which are almost low sizes, no longer offer the same damping, and the weight has increased even more”, adds Alain Chantegret, FIA medical delegate in Formula 1.

Concerns reported to the FIA

It was not a surprise to find this porpoising in Baku, a bumpy city circuit, unlike the traditional circuits, with a long straight in which the single-seaters reach very high speeds. Lewis Hamilton is not the only one to have suffered the consequences of these rebounds: the Spanish Ferrari driver, Carlos Sainz, or the Frenchman Pierre Gasly, of Alpha Tauri, even alerted the FIA ​​to this question.

“I did a physio session before and after each session, just because my vertebrae suffered from it. The team tells me they can compromise with the settings, but I’m compromising my health for the performance. I don’t think the FIA ​​should put us in a position where we have to choose between health and performance. We alerted to this problem and tried to ask them to find solutions so that we did not end up with a cane at 30,” said Pierre Gasly.

Many thought that porpoising would disappear as quickly as it appeared, as Pat Fry, Alpine’s technical director, hinted to us during pre-season testing in Barcelona. But nearly four months and eight Grand Prix later, those rebounds continue to constrain the majority of teams. Hence the concern of the pilots in Baku. A concern also shared by Toto Wolff, the boss of Mercedes. “Yes, without a doubt. I haven’t seen it and haven’t spoken to it after, but you can see it’s not just muscle anymore. It really goes to the spine and can have consequences, ”he said of a possible Lewis Hamilton package for the next Grand Prix in Canada.

Discomfort more than danger

If Lewis Hamilton will finally be well at the start on Sunday in Montreal, this porpoising is not without effect on the body of the pilots, as Alain Chantegret lists in 20 minutes. “All of these vibrations reverberate. They sit on their pelvis, where the spine ends. Vibrations can accentuate damage to the disc, which leads to lumbago or sciatica. There can also be repercussions in the hands and wrist, which will cause pathologies that can be found in workers who do jackhammers, with numb hands and tingling. At the top there is the neck and the head, on which there is the helmet, and all this is fixed on the column. Pilots can have cervical lesions, torticollis, even with bull necks. These vibrations will also cause eyestrain with eyes that jump around. Over two laps, that’s fine, over a whole weekend, it’s starting to do a lot”.

Quite a list of possible consequences, but the doctor wants to be reassuring all the same. Because pilots are not ordinary people. “A pilot is above all a high-level athlete, young, in great shape, very well trained, with the muscles of an athlete. They are able to cash in things that Mr. Lambda would not accept. If you were in their place, you wouldn’t have finished the race, you would have sciatica and you would be on anti-inflammatories,” he compares. High-level sport therefore has a certain price, according to him:

“The tennis player who is going to play at Roland-Garros will have pain in the joints of the hand, the neck. Our concern is not at the level of comfort, we are not going to put a pillow for them in the cars. It would rather be if a lesion appeared in one of the pilots, like paralyzing sciatica. At that point, we would automatically press the red button”.

It’s certainly not a red button, but the FIA ​​still took the lead on Thursday, ahead of the Grand Prix on Sunday. She therefore asked the teams to make the “necessary adjustments to reduce or eliminate this phenomenon”. The marshals are going to “examine the floors and the pontoons more closely” of the single-seaters, and a “limit on the acceptable level of vertical oscillations” of the chassis could come into force.

“Every team has a choice”, a highly political question

For Christian Horner, the boss of RedBull, this story of porpoising takes on a little too much depth, and the complaints of the Mercedes driver are, for him, oriented: “There are remedies for this, but it is to the detriment of car performance. So the easiest thing to do is complain from a safety perspective. But each team has a choice. If this was a real grid-wide security issue, it would need to be looked into. But if it only affects isolated individuals or teams, then it’s something the team potentially has to deal with. »

Stéphane Chosse: “As long as the teams drive very low, they will drag this problem out for a long time. If they drive higher, these harmful effects will lessen, but it is the performance that will be affected. It’s a compromise to be found between performance and comfort”. A seemingly simple solution, therefore, but unimaginable for many teams, which will always favor performance, like Pierre Gasly.

If the technical director of Alpine, Pat Fry, was amused by the challenge imposed by the phenomenon of porpoising, he does not seem ready to be tamed by the teams. “The problem is that among the people who work in the teams, no one has experienced this phenomenon. No one has ever faced it. Myself, I did not know the F1 with ground effect”, recalls Stéphane Chosse, in Formula 1 from 1996 to 2012.

Fortunately, this should not happen again at each of the 14 remaining Grand Prix. But after three years of absence linked to Covid-19, the drivers are not immune to a new surprise in Canada, a fast circuit.

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