Driver safety has become political this season.
New aerodynamic regulations were introduced at the start of the year, intended to allow cars to follow more closely and to make overtaking easier, making racing more exciting.
A side effect is porpoising, a violent up and down motion caused by airflow blockage under cars, which can also be affected by bouncing when they hit the ground repeatedly.
It was difficult for the drivers. AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly said he feared he would “find himself with a cane at 30” if changes were not made.
“It’s not healthy, that’s for sure,” he said. “With literally no suspension it goes through your spine. Ultimately my team says we can compromise the setup or compromise my health for the performance.
Mercedes have been affected more than other teams and want the regulations, and therefore the cars, to be changed for safety reasons. Its driver Lewis Hamilton, a seven-time champion, suffered so much back pain at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix last month from rebounds that he had to be rescued from his car after the race.
“We want to do our job, put on a great show and race in the safest way. It’s not necessary for us to have long-term injuries, so we just have to work closely with the FIA,” Hamilton said of the sport’s governing body, “and not take it easy. lightly, which I don’t think they are, and keep chasing it. »
Mercedes are third and Hamilton sixth in championship battles ahead of Sunday’s British Grand Prix. Red Bull and Ferrari, who are first and second in the title chase, haven’t been hit as hard and, unsurprisingly, don’t want any changes.
“The political maneuverings that have taken place do not take into account what is at the heart of this subject,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.
“That is to say, since the start of the season, racing drivers have been complaining about the pain behind the wheel of these cars,” he said. “Back pain, blurred vision – we’re talking about micro concussions.”
Wolff said he heard almost every driver complaining and that a solution was needed.
“It’s a common problem we encounter in Formula 1,” he said. “It’s a design problem, and a fundamental design problem, that needs to be fixed.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the race in Azerbaijan that the Mercedes drivers were insincere about their level of pain.
“What’s the easiest thing to do?” Horner said. “Complaining from a safety point of view, but each team has a choice.
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“If this was a real network-wide security issue, then it’s something that should be looked into, but if it’s only affecting isolated people or teams, then it’s something the team should potentially 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. Rebound depends on bumps in the track surface, and the track was less bumpy than in Azerbaijan.
Wolff said his reasons for calling for the change were genuine and that the FIA should intervene.
“Team principals trying to manipulate what is being said in order to maintain the competitive edge and trying to play political games when the FIA tries to find a quick fix to at least put the cars in a better situation are dishonest,” he said. .
“Cars are stiff or cars are bouncing, whatever you call it. We have long-term effects that we can’t judge, but anytime it’s a safety risk, and come up with small manipulations in the background” or telling drivers what to say “is just pitiful.
Prior to racing in Canada, Hamilton underwent cryotherapy and acupuncture treatment for his back pain.
“I can’t stress 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 Spine Surgeons, said drivers risked injury if the problem was not addressed.
“Obviously Lewis and the other race drivers are very good athletes,” Casey said in an interview. “But having these repetitive forces, where you see them bouncing up and down, won’t do anyone’s back any good. The risk is that they rip or slip a disc.
“As they are elite athletes, worth millions, paid millions, it would be reckless for Formula 1 not to look after them, and apparently it looks like they will have to change something. .” He added that rebounds can also lead to brain damage “due to repeated trauma, like Muhammad Ali and other boxers”.
“It’s uncharted territory,” Casey said, “but it seems like unnecessary uncharted territory to me. There’s a duty of care there.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the defending champion who leads the standings this season, said there are risks with any sport.
“You can always judge and ask, ‘Is what we’re doing the safest thing?’ No, but we are ready to take risks,” he said. “It’s our sport. That’s what I like to do.
“Of course the porpoising we have at the moment is not nice, and I don’t think it’s right, but some teams are able to handle that much better than others, so it’s possible to get rid of it, and I don’t think we have to over-dramatize what’s going on right now.
Verstappen said the bouncing of the cars was “a little too much”, but he felt the ingenuity of each team’s engineers would solve the problem.
Horner said Formula 1 has some of the brightest engineering talent in the world. “I doubt we’ll be sitting here next year talking about the rebound, even if 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 pilot safety” he would seek ways for teams to “make the necessary adjustments to reduce or eliminate” porpoising.
The changes have been detailed in a technical directive. Documents are released throughout the season to guide teams on technical issues.
The FIA suggested a solution which the teams said was not workable and required a rule change.
Mercedes was the only team to implement a change for Friday’s practice sessions in Canada, adding metal support between the floor and the chassis, but it was removed ahead of Sunday’s race.
The FIA continues to address the issue of rebounds.
“Potential health and safety issues for pilots have been identified, which is why we are taking steps to analyze and understand the extent of the problem and are working with the teams to find a solution,” said a porter. speech. “This analysis is ongoing.”
Mattia Binotto, Ferrari team principal, said the sport needed to find a solution.
“Porpoising is something we need to address for the future, and maybe we need to do that through engineering changes,” he said.
“In Canada, porpoising was not such a problem. It’s track related. As cars are developed, this will also develop.
Horner said the rules are not expected to change this year. If there are persistent problems, the FIA can always prevent a team’s cars from competing.
“You cannot suddenly change the technical regulations in the middle of a season,” he said. “If a car is dangerous, a team should not field it. She has that choice or the FIA, if she thinks an individual car is dangerous, she always has a black flag at her disposal.”