Driver safety has become political this season.
New aerodynamic regulations were introduced earlier in the year that were intended to allow cars to follow more closely and make overtaking easier, making racing more exciting.
A secondary effect is porpoising, a violent up and down motion caused by stagnant airflow under cars, which can also be affected by bouncing when they repeatedly hit the ground.
That has been tough on drivers. AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly said he feared he would “end up with a cane at age 30” if no changes were made.
“It’s not healthy, that’s for sure,” he said. “Literally without suspension, it goes through your spine. At the end of the day, my team says we can either compromise setup or compromise my health for performance.”
Mercedes has been affected more than other teams and wants the regulations, and therefore the cars, to change for safety reasons. Its driver Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time champion, suffered so much back pain during last month’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix from rebounding that he had to be helped from his car after the race.
“We want to do our job, put on a great show and race in the safest way. We don’t need to have long-term injuries, so we just need to work closely with the FIA,” Hamilton said of the sport’s governing body, “and not take it lightly, which I don’t think we will, and continue to chasing him.”
Mercedes is third and Hamilton sixth in the championship battles ahead of the British Grand Prix on Sunday. Red Bull and Ferrari, who are first and second in the title hunt, have not been affected as much and, unsurprisingly, do not want any changes.
“The political maneuvering that has been going on doesn’t take into account what the core of this issue is,” said Toto Wolff, Mercedes team principal.
“I mean, since the beginning of the season, racing drivers have been complaining about the pain of driving these cars,” he said. “Back pain, blurred vision: we’re talking about microconcussions.”
Wolff said he had heard complaints from nearly every driver and a solution was required.
“This is a joint problem that we are having in Formula 1,” he said. “It’s a design problem, and a fundamental design problem, that needs to be solved.”
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said after the Azerbaijan race that the Mercedes drivers were not being truthful about their level of pain.
“What is the easiest thing to do?” Horner said. “Complain from a security point of view, but every team has a choice.
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“If it was a genuine safety concern across the grid then that’s something that should be looked at, but if it’s just affecting isolated individuals or teams then that’s something the team should deal with.”
At the last race in Canada on June 19, the rebound was less pronounced and in fact Hamilton finished third, only the second time he has finished on the podium this year. The rebound depends on how bumpy the track surface is, and the track was less bumpy than in Azerbaijan.
Wolff said his reasons for asking for a change were genuine and that the FIA should intervene.
“Team managers trying to manipulate what is said to maintain competitive advantage and trying to play political games when the FIA tries to find a quick fix to at least put the cars in a better position is disingenuous,” he said. .
“Cars are stiff or bouncy, it doesn’t matter what you call it. We have long-term effects that we can’t judge, but at any time, this is a security risk, and doing small manipulations in the background” or informing drivers what to say “is just unfortunate”.
Prior to competing in Canada, Hamilton received cryotherapy and acupuncture treatment for her back pain.
“I can’t stress enough how important health is to us,” Hamilton said. “We have an amazing sport, but safety has to be paramount.”
Dr. Adrian Casey, former president of the British Association of Spinal Surgeons, said drivers were at risk of injury if the problem was not fixed.
“Obviously Lewis and the other race drivers are very strong athletes,” Casey said in an interview. “But having these repetitive forces, where you see them bouncing up and down, isn’t going to do anybody’s back any good. The risk is that they break or slip a disc.
“As they are elite athletes, worth millions, paying millions, then it would be reckless for Formula 1 not to look after them and apparently it looks like they will have to change something. He said ricochet could also result in brain damage “from repeated trauma, like Muhammad Ali and other boxers.”
“It’s uncharted territory,” Casey said, “but it seems like unnecessary uncharted territory to me. There is a duty of care involved here.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the defending champion who leads the standings this season, said there were risks in any sport.
“You can always judge and ask, ‘Is what we’re doing the safest thing to do?’ No, but we are willing to take risks,” she said. “That is our sport. That’s what I love to do.
“Sure, the porpoise we have right now is not a nice one, and I don’t think it’s right, but some teams can handle this a lot better than others, so it’s possible to get rid of it, and I can’t. I don’t think we have to overly dramatize what’s going on right now.”
Verstappen said the bouncing of the cars was “too much” but felt the ingenuity of the engineers within each team would solve the problem.
Horner said that Formula 1 had some of the brightest engineering talent in the world. “I doubt we’ll be sitting here next year talking about rebound, even if the regulations are left alone.”
Before the Canadian Grand Prix, the FIA intervened. He said that “after consultation with his doctors and in the interest of the safety of the drivers,” he would seek ways for crews to “make any necessary adjustments to reduce or eliminate” the porpoise.
The changes were detailed in a technical directive. Documents are issued throughout the season to provide guidance to teams on technical issues.
The FIA suggested a solution which the teams said was not applicable and required a rule change.
Mercedes was the only team to have a change for Friday’s practice sessions in Canada, adding a metal bracket between the floor and the chassis, but it was removed before Sunday’s race.
The FIA continues to investigate the ricochet problem.
“Potential health and safety issues for drivers have been identified, so we are taking steps to analyze and understand the scope of the problem and are working together with teams to find a solution,” a spokesperson said. “This analysis is ongoing.”
Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said the sport needed to find a solution.
“The porpoise is something that we need to address in the future, and maybe we need to do it through technical changes,” he said.
“In Canada, the porpoise was not such a big problem. It is related to the track. As cars develop, this will also develop.”
Horner said the rules shouldn’t change this year. If problems persist, the FIA can always stop a team’s cars from competing.
“You can’t suddenly change the technical regulations in the middle of the season,” he said. “If a car is dangerous, a team shouldn’t line it up. You have that option or the FIA, if you feel an individual car is dangerous, you always have a black flag at your disposal.