The safety of drivers has become political this season.
New aerodynamic regulations were introduced at the beginning of the year that were intended to allow the cars to follow more closely and aid overtaking, making the races more exciting.
A side effect is porpoising, a violent up-and-down movement caused by the stalling of airflow beneath the cars, which can also be affected by bouncing when they strike the ground repeatedly.
That has been tough on drivers. Pierre Gasly of AlphaTauri said he feared he would “end up with a cane at 30 years old” if changes were not made.
“It is not healthy, that is for sure,” he said. “With literally no suspension, it is going through your spine. At the end of the day, my team is saying we can compromise the setup or compromise my health for performance.”
Mercedes has been affected more than other teams and wants the regulations, and thus the cars, changed for safety reasons. Its driver Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time champion, was in so much back pain during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix last month because of the bouncing 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 the safest. There is no need for us to have long-term injuries, so we just need to work closely with the FIA,” Hamilton said about the sport’s governing body, “and not take it lightly, which I don’t think they are, and continue to pursue it.”
Mercedes is third and Hamilton sixth in the championship battles ahead of the British Grand Prix on Sunday. Red Bull and Ferrari, which are first and second in the title hunt, have not been as badly impacted and, not surprisingly, do not want changes.
“The political maneuvering that has been going on does not consider what is at the core of this topic,” said Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal.
“That is, since the beginning of the season, race drivers have been complaining about pain in driving these cars,” he said. “Back pain, blurred vision — we are talking about microconcussions.”
Wolff said he had heard almost every driver complain and a solution was required.
“This is a joint problem that we are having in Formula 1,” he said. “It is a design issue, and a fundamental design issue, that needs to be solved.”
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said after the race in Azerbaijan that the Mercedes drivers were being insincere about their level of pain.
“What is the easiest thing to do?” Horner said. “Complain from a safety point of view, but each team has a choice.
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“If it was a genuine safety concern across the whole grid, then it is something that should be looked at, but if it is only affecting isolated people or teams, then that is something that the team should potentially deal with.”
At the last race in Canada on June 19, the bouncing was less pronounced, and, in fact, Hamilton placed third, only the second time he has finished on the podium this year. The bouncing is dependent on the bumpiness of a track surface, and the track was less bumpy than at Azerbaijan.
Wolff said that his reasons for calling for change were genuine and that the FIA should intervene.
“Team principals trying to manipulate what is being said in order to keep the competitive advantage and trying to play political games when the FIA tries to come up with a quick solution to at least put the cars in a better situation is disingenuous,” he said. .
“The cars are stiff or the cars bounce, it doesn’t matter what you call it. We have long-term effects we can’t judge, but at any time, this is a safety risk, and coming up with little manipulations in the background” or briefing the drivers on what to say “is just pitiful.”
Before racing in Canada, Hamilton had cryotherapy treatment and acupuncture because of his back pain.
“I cannot stress how important health is for us,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got an amazing sport, but safety has to be paramount.”
Dr. Adrian Casey, a past president of the British Association of Spine Surgeons, said the drivers were at risk of injury if the problem is not addressed.
“Obviously, Lewis and the other racing drivers are very strong athletes,” Casey said in an interview. But having these repetitive forces, where you see them bouncing up and down, is not going to do any good for anybody’s back. The risk is they will either tear or slip a disc.
“As they are elite athletes, worth millions, paid millions, then it would be foolhardy of Formula 1 not to be looking after them, and ostensibly, it seems like they will have to change something.” He said the bouncing could also result in brain damage “from repeated trauma, like Muhammad Ali and other boxers.”
“It’s uncharted territory,” Casey said, “but it strikes me as unnecessary uncharted territory. There is a duty of care involved here.”
Max Verstappen of Red Bull, the reigning champion who is leading the standings this season, said there were risks with any sport.
“You can always judge and ask, ‘Is what we do the safest thing?’ No, but we are willing to take risks,” he said. “That’s our sport. That’s what I love to do.
“Sure, the porpoising we have at the moment is not nice, and I don’t think it’s correct, but some teams are able to handle this a lot better than others, so it is possible to get rid of it, and I don “I don’t think we have to overdramatize what is happening at the moment.”
Verstappen said the bouncing of the cars was “a bit too much,” but he felt the ingenuity of the engineers within each team would solve the problem.
Horner said Formula 1 had some of the brightest engineering talents in the world. “I doubt we will be sitting here next year talking about the bouncing, even if the regulations are left alone.”
Before the Canadian Grand Prix, the FIA intervened. It said that “following consultation with its doctors and in the interests of the safety of the drivers,” it would be seeking ways for the teams to “make the necessary adjustments to reduce or eliminate” porpoising.
The changes were detailed in a technical directive. The documents are issued throughout the season to provide guidance to the teams on technical matters.
The FIA suggested a solution that the teams said was not enforceable and which required a change to the rules.
Mercedes was the only team that had a change in place for the practice sessions on Friday in Canada, adding a metal support between the floor and chassis, but it was removed before Sunday’s race.
The FIA is continuing to look into the bouncing issue.
“Potential health and safety issues for the drivers have been identified, which is why we are taking action to analyze and understand the extent of the problem and we are working together with the teams to find a solution,” a spokesperson said. “This analysis is ongoing.”
Mattia Binotto, the team principal of Ferrari, said the sport needed to find a solution.
“Porpoising is something we need to tackle for the future, and we may need to do that through technical changes,” he said.
“In Canada, the porpoising was not such an issue. It’s track-related. As the cars are developed, this will develop as well.”
Horner said the rules should not change this year. If there are continued problems, the FIA can always stop a team’s cars from competing.
“You can’t suddenly change technical regulations halfway through a season,” he said. “If a car is dangerous, a team shouldn’t field it. It has that choice or the FIA, if they feel an individual car is dangerous, they always have a black flag at their disposal.”