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

A Lewis Hamilton slipping barely out of the seat of his Mercedes, holding his back for a long time, before pouring his pain into the Canal+ microphone: “It’s the the race the hardest thing physically I’ve ever done. He had never felt so much pain in a car. Normally it’s just physical in normal races. But there, he hit me, I had permanent sore spots.”

We only had to wait halfway through this Azerbaijan Grand Prix, finally won by Max Verstappen, to hear the seven-time world champion complain on the radio: “Argh! My back hurts like hell.” Normal, you tell me, when you get closer to forty. Except this torture is not due to his age but to “porpoises”. A phenomenon that appeared in the first pre-season tests of Formula 1, in Barcelona, ​​​​with the implementation of the new aerodynamic regulations and flat ground effect bottoms. “By definition, the lower the car, the more downforce there will be, which leads to this pumping effect at high speeds,” he explains to 20 minutes Stéphane Chosse, former Williams team engineer. “This year the suspensions are simpler, which makes the car stiffer. The 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 Formula 1 Medical Delegate.

Concerns communicated to the FIA

It was no surprise to find this porpoise in Baku, a bumpy street circuit, unlike traditional circuits, with a long straight where single-seaters reach very high speeds. Lewis Hamilton is not the only one who has suffered the consequences of these rebounds: the Spanish driver of Ferrari, Carlos Sainz, or the Frenchman Pierre Gasly, of Alpha Tauri, even alerted the FIA ​​about this issue.

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

Many thought the porpoise would disappear as quickly as it appeared, as Alpine technical director Pat Fry hinted to us during pre-season testing in Barcelona. But almost four months and eight Grands Prix later, those rebounds continue to limit most teams. Hence the concern of the pilots in Baku. A concern that Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes, also shares. “Yes, definitely. I haven’t seen it and I haven’t talked about it afterwards, but you can see that it’s not just muscle anymore. He really goes to the spine and it can have consequences,” he said of a possible Lewis Hamilton package for the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix.

discomfort more than danger

If Lewis Hamilton will finally be fine at Sunday’s start in Montreal, this porpoise is not without its effects on the drivers’ bodies, as Alain Chantegret lists in 20 minutes. “All these vibrations reverberate. They sit on your pelvis, where your spine ends. The vibrations can accentuate disc damage, leading to lumbago or sciatica. There may also be repercussions on the hands and wrist, leading to pathologies that can be found in jackhammer workers, with numb hands and tingling. At the top is the neck and head, on which is the helmet, and all this is fixed to the column. Pilots can have cervical injuries, torticollis, even with bull necks. These vibrations will also cause eyestrain with popping eyes. In two laps it’s fine, in a whole weekend it starts to do a lot”.

A whole list of possible consequences, but the doctor wants to be reassuring anyway. Because pilots are not ordinary people. “A pilot is above all a high-level athlete, young, in very good shape, very well trained, with the muscles of an athlete. They can charge things that Mr. Lambda would not accept. If you were in his place, you would not have finished the race, you would have sciatica and you would be taking anti-inflammatories, ”he compares. Therefore, high-level sport 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 pillows in the cars. Rather it would be that an injury appeared in one of the pilots, like a crippling sciatica. At that point, we would automatically push the red button.”

It’s certainly not a red button, but the FIA ​​still took the lead on Thursday, ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix. Therefore, he asked the teams to make the “necessary adjustments to reduce or eliminate this phenomenon.” Marshals are going to “take a closer look at the floors and pontoons” of single-seaters, and a “limit on the acceptable level of vertical oscillations” of the chassis could come into force.

“Each team has an option”, a very political question

For Christian Horner, the boss of RedBull, this story of porpoises takes on too much depth, and the Mercedes driver’s complaints are, for him, oriented: “There are remedies for this, but it is to the detriment of the car”. performance. So the easiest thing to do is complain from a security perspective. But every team has a choice. If this were a real network-wide security issue, it would need to be investigated. 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 out this problem for a long time. If they drive higher, these damaging effects will lessen, but it is performance that will suffer. It’s a compromise between performance and comfort.” An apparently simple solution, therefore, but unimaginable for many teams, which will always favor performance, such as Pierre Gasly.

If Alpine head coach Pat Fry was amused by the challenge posed by the porpoise phenomenon, he seems unwilling 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 him. I myself did not know F1 with ground effect”, recalls Stéphane Chosse, in Formula 1 from 1996 to 2012.

Fortunately, this should not happen again in each of the remaining 14 Grands Prix. But after three years of absence linked to Covid-19, the pilots do not escape a new surprise in Canada, a fast circuit.

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