Changing the rules to ensure that Formula 1 cars cannot suffer from porpoises and that reaching the bottom is in principle similar to introducing a corona, McLaren technical director James Key believes.
New technical rules that went into effect this year focused more on ground effect, created cars that run low and stiff to maximize performance, and unleashed the aerodynamic effect of intense vertical oscillations but also inherently poor ride quality.
Although some of the cars were not exposed to porpoises, drivers from nearly every team complained of the cars’ physical discomfort in the worst conditions and the most serious concerns related to the potential long-term damage to the brain and spine.
The FIA has decided to intervene with a short-term action in the 2022 season and rule changes for 2023 that aim to eliminate the possibility of porpoise by raising the height of the floor edge and shaving the underfloor diffuser.
Some teams are holding back due to the performance and cost of a raft of changes and the delayed nature of it, and this is a very sensitive time during car development in 2023.
Key thinks the FIA has now decided this is an important safety issue, he can’t just change his mind and thinks it would be a bad thing for the governing body if he didn’t do something “which is [the issue] It still exists in 2023.”
That’s a similar argument when a halo-shaped cockpit protection device was controversially imposed for the 2018 season, in part out of fear of what the consequences would be if the FIA bends to the pressure, delays it, and has a serious accident.
Key admitted that the halo was a “kind of strange parallel” to draw because it was a “completely different project” and “an order of magnitude different” in terms of driver safety.
“But there were a lot of naysayers at the time,” he said.
“You remember all the comments ‘It looks awful, it’s not Formula 1.'” All of that stuff.
And he was like, ‘Well, why on earth not? There is definitely danger there. And now look a few years later we got it, how grateful we are, seeing some things happen on the right track.
“That’s a whole different order of magnitude, it’s a lot lower than that. But it’s kind of a similar thing.
“So, let’s go and fix it. On the grounds that it has risks, it does not bring anything to the sport.”
“Investigating a cost cap actually costs money, which we can do without. It’s a simple consideration, but it’s true.
“Why don’t you just do the logical thing – for safety reasons, because that’s the main concern – and just get rid of it?”
The FIA can force changes if they relate to safety issues and has relied heavily on concerns about porpoises digging into the bottom, especially after drivers suffered severe problems at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
This, and the conclusion of the FIA medical team that the new generation of cars could have serious long-term consequences for drivers, is believed to be the reason why FIA President Mohamed bin Sulayem intervened and prompted his organization to commit to action.
While the porpoise problem hasn’t existed in recent races, and teams have continued to get a better handle on tackling the problem themselves, this is partly due to the tracks that have been used.
The FIA’s technical department believes that the expected downward strength gains in 2023 will exacerbate the problem again.
“If you have safety concerns, you can’t take a step back and actually say it’s not an issue anymore,” Key said.
“It is very difficult to simulate and predict porpoises,” he said.
“We’re kind of aware of those ways to get rid of him. But it can come back quickly if you add certain types of development or increase your bottom power.
“So instead of taking that risk, I think from the FIA’s point of view it makes more sense to just try to remove the problem completely, but also to show that we are taking it seriously and doing something about it after the concerns some of the drivers have raised.
“I’m not saying it would be negligent not to, but you have to be careful here.
“You can’t just assume that teams will do it. And it might not be everyone’s priority.
“Every team will have an opinion, depending on whether they have a problem with the porpoises or where they are in the tournament.
“We don’t imagine, in particular, we have a development plan that works well. But we still think it’s a good idea.
“So, we don’t have an agenda here. It’s more than a good case, in fact, we can all do without this. We don’t want it to get worse again. We don’t want anyone to get hurt by it.”
“Given the simple steps, that you can try to mitigate, I think the best thing to do is by far the best thing to do is to rely on all these brilliant people, whose priority is not to look out for porpoises every day, to try and fix them.”