Since the start of free practice in Barcelona, most single-seaters have been bothered by porpoises, a phenomenon that makes cars bounce and drivers tremble in their cockpits. RMC Sport explains the goal in four questions (in English), a few days before the start of the new F1 season.
“I think it’s an important topic of conversation today, but I imagine as the season progresses teams will understand it more and more and it will become less of an issue and a topic of discussion.” Simple pre-season question or real concern? Valtteri Bottas launches the debate on porpoises.
Where do porpoises come from?
The word porpoises is not yet in the dictionary. The expression derived from the English “purpoising” has made a comeback in the paddock during free practice for the new Formula 1 season, after the appearance of “bouncing” cars on the tarmac of Barcelona or Sakhir. Let’s try to define this phenomenon and measure its consequences, a few days before the first eradication of the fires of the year in Bahrain, this weekend.
Initially known to describe the phenomenon that affects airplane wings, the phrase evokes memories among the youngest, as it was used, according to F1 itself, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. At that time, the wheels of single-seaters came off the road like a dragster. 40 years later, the vocabulary of Formula 1 is finding the porpoise again and if the last weekend of pre-season testing in Bahrain has limited the phenomenon somewhat, it has not completely disappeared and could once again play a role at the first Grand Prix .
Coupled with the new regulations that have come into effect for this season and the redesign of all the contours of the discipline, porpoises could not be anticipated by the teams. “Most of us underestimated the problem,” Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto admitted recently. However, the funny images of cars rising on the track have been succeeding for several weeks now.
How to explain this phenomenon? Simply put, the new single-seaters are sucked to the ground by the return of ground effect in a straight line (and thus at full speed): the flat bottom provides a powerful draft but the lack of space under the single-seater prevents ingress, and the sky rises. The car is then pushed to the ground, a separation of the air flows causes it to rise quickly. This repetitive motion causes these small rebounds.
Are pilots concerned?
The paddock is shared. Some, like Valtteri Bottas, don’t seem to care anymore, viewing it primarily as “no problem at all for comfort or reliability”. But during free practice, the new Alfa Romeo driver revised his judgment and considers this phenomenon “a bit tricky”, making his position “not very comfortable”. For the Finn, this could “affect the braking” and change the steering of the single-seater, even if it remains “no problem” for Max Verstappen.
In terms of performance, the damage seems quite limited, even if Lewis Hamilton touts better management of porpoises from other teams, likely to justify the performance below. His teammate Russell also downplayed the phenomenon for a while: “It’s not about comfort for me, as long as the performance is there”. But the young Mercedes rookie finally admits that “the rebound affects our ability to put the car in the right ‘window'”.
“We have a lot of work to do between now and next week to better understand the car.” The Mercedes clan remains confident in its responsiveness, as does technical director Andrew Shovlin noting “a little progress in the rebounds”. “All the problems we had in Barcelona now seem to be behind us,” said Bottas. But porpoises can continue to do damage.
What are the consequences?
“It’s like turbulence in an airplane,” said Charles Leclerc, who said it made “a little sick”, while Lance Stroll also underlined an effect that “shakes the brain a little”. If the pilots don’t seem particularly shocked despite the rather impressive images of agitated cockpits, cornering grip problems could be much more dramatic, as Bottas points out. As a reminder, only two test weekends were organized before the start of hostilities: at the end of February in Barcelona and until this Sunday in Sakhir.
Comfort doesn’t seem to obsess the pilots, but these repeated shocks can eventually cause health problems, especially in the back. But the consequences should not only directly affect athletes. Indeed, the Catalanya circuit seemed scarred by this phenomenon, according to Motor Inside’s shared photo. The cars could also suffer as a hole in an Alfa Romeo was seen during a private test in Fiorano, the specialized media also reports.
Do solutions exist?
The Italian team is not alone in seeing this concern a thing of the past. “We had this problem in Barcelona. We managed to solve it with some solutions, but not quite yet,” Leclerc said on Saturday. Information confirmed by Binotto: “We made some changes to work on this”. Ferrari and Red Bull have indeed modified their floor between Barcelona and Bahrain, according to Racing News 365, reducing harbor porpoises on their single-seaters.
For the other teams, several existing solutions are running into the phenomenon of FIA bans. The last one, that of the installation of a hydraulic system on the suspensions, dates exactly from this season. In order to know what changes to make, the teams must first decide on their priority: the comfort of their drivers or the improvement of their performance. The season hasn’t started yet and the aerodynamics revolution is already in full swing in the paddock.