F1's ground effect controls: Which loopholes will teams find this time?


The porpoising debate has led to an FIA directive mid-season – as Tony Dodgins writes, this isn't the first time teams have lobbied for rule changes

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1 driver

Hamilton in particular has been experiencing back pain from porpoising – he and the team are making their feelings known


I must admit to a certain sense of foreboding when, betwixt Azerbaijan and Canada, an email dropped to say that the FIA was taking mid-season action to counter the phenomenon of aerodynamic oscillations (‘porpoising’), in the interests of safety.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that Lewis Hamilton’s egress from his Mercedes cockpit in Baku was a performance to threaten Daniel Day-Lewis’s record-breaking three ‘best actor’ Oscar awards, but it might not be coincidence that the Brackley drivers, the ones most affected by porpoising since the return of ground effect aero this year, have been banging the drum loudest.

Historically in F1 of course, the only way to change technical regs during their period of stability, is to do so on safety grounds. The FIA’s statement went on to mention doctors, concerns about the impact on drivers’ health and the fact that not having full concentration due to pain and fatigue when driving at 200mph plus, could have serious consequences. Once that is down in black-and-white, the governing body has to do something. Because, heaven forbid, should they not, and a driver has an accident and blames it on those factors, they would presumably be open to negligence claims.

So, what are they going to do about it? First off, scrutinise the underbody car ‘planks’ and skids, in terms of their design and observed wear. Okay.

George Russell Mercedes F1 driver

George Russell has also been banging the drum on Mercedes’ behalf


Second, “Define a metric, based on the car’s vertical acceleration, that will give a quantitative limit for an acceptable level of vertical oscillations. The exact mathematical formula for this metric is still being analysed by the FIA, and the F1 teams have been invited to contribute to this process.” The FIA will also convene a technical meeting with the teams “to define measures that will reduce the propensity of cars to exhibit such phenomena in the medium term.”

Well, best of luck with all of that. The old story goes that one team boss thought it perfectly safe to turn up half an hour late for meetings because that’s how long the others argued about the kind of sandwiches they should have…

Consultation with the teams is all very laudable but normally quite useless because they all follow their own agendas. That became all too clear from the reactions in Montreal last weekend.

“There’s obviously a lot of mixed agendas here from different teams and drivers,” admitted George Russell. “We’ve heard it from Carlos [Sainz] at times, and Checo [Perez] and Max [Verstappen] earlier in the season, how bad it’s been. But now that their performance seems to be strong, they obviously don’t want changes because it can only hinder them. But it’s obviously a bit of a shame to see performance prioritised over safety.”

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Backing this up, Russell added, “In Baku, I could see my pit board but I couldn’t read it because I was bouncing around so much. I saw a video of Lance [Stroll] struggling to change the buttons on the steering wheel and you could visibly see how much the car was shaken around.

“Even for the teams suffering the least, it’s still an incredibly aggressive and bumpy ride. The FIA have access to all the vertical acceleration loads we’re going through, and it’s far beyond what you’d expect is safe to deal with. Bigger conversations are definitely needed moving forward.”

Then, predictably enough, a different view from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc: “I don’t completely agree. I feel like it’s the team’s responsibility to give me a car that’s okay to drive. Until now, I didn’t have any particular problems. Yes, it’s stiffer than last year’s car. Whether it’s undriveable or very hard on myself…I don’t think it is. We found solutions to make it better.”

It has been claimed that if Mercedes is having more serious issues, they simply need to run their car higher, at the cost of some performance.

Hamilton, however, claimed in Montreal, “In the last race [Baku] and previous races, we have raised the car and you still have bouncing. Porpoising is more about the flow structure underneath the car. We’ve run the car very high most of the season. It’s not until Barcelona that we started to be able to get it a little bit lower. We had no bouncing for the first time in Barcelona, except in the high-speed corners. And then it appeared again in Monaco and in Baku [both bumpier tracks], so we had to raise the car again. But even when we raise the car, it still bounces. And we can’t actually go any higher. We’re limited by the rear suspension now.”

Maz Verstappen Red Bull F1 driver

Verstappen understandably believes there should not be FIA intervention on porpoising matters

Red Bull

What does the reigning world champion and championship leader think?

“For me, regardless of whether it’s going to help us or work against us, these rule changes in the middle of the year, I don’t think are correct,” said Verstappen.

That is a view many would agree with but, once the FIA has played the safety joker, doing nothing is no longer an option.

Who knows what they will come up with. But let’s hope we’re not all sat idle at laptops well into Sunday evening waiting to find out who has been excluded for exceeding such and such a reading on the vertical accelerometer. History and experience tells you that this has the potential to all dissolve into a typical F1 fight. There has already been a tasty Montreal exchange between those old buddies Christian Horner and Toto Wolff.


We’ve been here before with ground effects and ride heights, over 40 years ago. It was even more political and almost blew the sport apart.

Back then, a skirt sealing the pioneering ground effect sidepod venturis was the means by which the then-small British constructors like Lotus, Williams, Brabham and McLaren were able still to take on the well-heeled manufacturer-backed, FISA-aligned teams (Renault, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo) who were all developing expensive turbo engines. The ‘grandees’ of course, wanted the skirts banned, or at least raised, putting the emphasis on engine power.

The squabble was used as a Trojan horse by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley in a battle to gain control of the sport versus dictatorial FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre. It precipitated the FISA / FOCA war in which Bernie / Max threatened to set up a rival championship, taking the teams with them. The Brits claimed that impromptu rule changes were unconstitutional and put their very existence at risk.

Nelson Piquet in Brabham, 1981 Brazilian GP

FISA/FOCA war resulted in action taken on ground effect cars in ’81 – resulting in hydraulic suspension solutions as seen on Brabham BT49C

Grand Prix Photo

The matter even made it all the way to the Houses of Parliament, where ‘The Future of Grand Prix Racing’ was the subject of a debate on December 19, 1980. In the presence of the Minister for Sport, Sir Hector Monro, the dispute was outlined by Jonathan Aitken, the conservative MP for Thanet East, later jailed for perjury. On a separate matter, I should add, to do with defending allegations about the provision of prostitutes for Saudi Arabian businessmen. Which all makes Boris’s couple of glasses of Chablis look a bit tame…

What happened? Well, the FIA forced through a minimum 6cm ride height and the skirts had to pass over a measuring block every time cars entered the pits. So the Brits, with Bernie’s design ace Gordon Murray leading the way, simply designed a hydraulic suspension system that lowered the car when it was on the track, then raised it up again to clear the measuring stick as it entered the pits. It was so effective that even Mexican journeyman pay driver Hector Rebaque was able to run second to Brabham team mate Nelson Piquet in Argentina, before his rotor arm broke!

Ho hum, here we go again. You can bet your last ha’penny that they’ll all be hard at work right now finding ways to cheat – sorry, re-interpret, the vertical accelerometer…