The season’s two dominant teams could be paralyzed as F1’s technical politics heat up
Thousands of seconds in qualifying, inches of white paint defining the track boundaries, and millimeter-by-millimeter degradation of tire rubber can profoundly impact the careers of some of the world’s most talented young athletes, while being basically impossible for spectators to watch at home or at the track, to really see the moment.
Individual races and even entire seasons in Formula 1 can be decided with such small differences that they are imperceptible to most viewers except the most seasoned technical experts.
All elite sport is defined by tiny improvements over extended periods of time, but the level of technology in Formula 1 means these improvements are often hidden from the eyes of spectators and are often the subject of intense public political debate.
Now, another usually unnoticeable and fairly rudimentary piece of technology can be added to the list of imperceptible things that make the difference in Formula 1: a wooden plank on the floor of the cars.
Formula 1 underwent the biggest change in technical regulations in a generation over the winter, with the sport returning to ground-effect aerodynamics for the first time since the 1980s. All 10 teams were forced to design their machines from scratch, ending Mercedes’ eight-year dominance as the fastest team on the grid and allowing other teams like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Haas to push the field forward.
The name “ground effect” was coined because the aerodynamic theory of the design is to use the bottom of the car to generate downforce, which essentially sucks the car down to the tarmac, allowing it to go faster around the circuit. All teams have developed intricate floor concepts to channel air under the car as efficiently as possible.
The changes were made to allow cars to follow each other more closely, which in turn meant drivers could compete more often and improved the overall racing spectacle. Although the field is still so broad that only a few teams can compete for victory, the new regulations are having the desired effect so far.
Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc have engaged in tactical battles for the lead in a number of races, swapping positions back and forth more often than has been the norm in recent F1 seasons, while five different cars fought for ninth at the last race in Austria Battled for place – place over the course of an entire lap, races that would have been virtually impossible in the previous iteration of an F1 car.
However, the return to ground effect has also had a negative impact. Some teams’ cars bounced violently up and down long straights at high speed, forcing the air underneath the car too hard for the vehicle to handle.
This results in intense vibrations that send drivers up their spines and means their heads bounce wildly in the cockpit. A multitude of drivers have reported severe back pain caused by the problem known as ‘porpoise’, and some have raised concerns about possible long-term neurological damage.
All F1 cars are required to have a long, thin plank of wood running the full length of their floor to absorb shock. Titanium is attached to both ends of the plank, which creates the sparks under the cars as they race around the racetracks.
The wooden board is allowed to bend up to two millimeters while driving, which the motorsport association FIA monitors at three different points along the board. However, there is a suspicion that some teams have floors that can deflect up to six millimeters and allow this to improve the performance of their cars.
This extra flexing is said to occur at points on the plank not monitored by the FIA and may help explain why some teams suffer much less from porpoises than others. While these teams might not technically be breaking the rules, they would certainly be breaking the spirit and intent of the regulations.
The main players in the series are the most recently successful and prosperous Formula 1 teams: Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes.
While Red Bull and Ferrari have won every single race between them so far this season and have had little trouble with porpoises, Mercedes hasn’t been able to contend for wins. Drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were too busy worrying about the extremely intense ups and downs in their W13 car.
Recently, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff accused Red Bull and Ferrari of sagging their floors too much. “I think so,” said Wolff when asked by Sky Sports whether some teams in Austria are circumventing the rules. “I wasn’t able to squeeze the runners of certain teams. We look at our competitors.”
Wolff’s Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner, meanwhile, responded scathingly to questions about whether his team was breaking the rules. “That’s total bullshit,” Horner exclaimed. “Absolutely no issues or concerns on our floor.”
Both Red Bull and Ferrari insist their floors are perfectly legal.
Various drivers have urged the FIA to intervene to protect their health and safety after this year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where many suffered severe back pain due to porpoises. Hamilton was filmed trying to get out of his car at the end of the race.
Subsequently, prior to the Canadian Grand Prix, the FIA issued a technical guideline aimed at limiting how much a car could jump. But it proved impossible to implement, and the governing body has since been working on an update.
Now it plans to introduce a new policy ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August that should put an end to extra flexing. Mercedes supports the policy, but parts of it are opposed by Red Bull and Ferrari.
“I probably would have liked it to come a little earlier,” said Wolff. “But it is what it is. We won’t see that in Spa [extra flexing] more.”
Horner, meanwhile, said: “The technical guideline obviously focuses on the jumping and porpoise that certain cars struggle with. Is it the competitor’s duty to ensure the safety of his car? Or is it the FIA’s duty to ensure that the competitor drives his car safely?’
If Mercedes’ suspicions are correct, and Red Bull and Ferrari are indeed allowing their bottoms to flex beyond the limits set by the FIA, then the new technical guideline for the Spa-Francorchamps race could prevent them from doing so and do a negative impact on their overall performance.
That would bring any team that has stayed within the limit the whole time closer to the top two, but how much the gap would narrow can only be determined once the policy is implemented.