The issue has been the subject of discussion in Formula 1 garages and paddocks since the start of the season and is a good illustration of the obsessive pursuit of innovation and technical performance that reigns there.
Motor enthusiasts have learned a new word this year: “porpoise.” Apparently, the term comes from aviation and refers to the “longitudinal, regular, low-frequency oscillations” with which airplanes are sometimes affected and which takes its name from the way porpoises swim. when they submerge and emerge successively on the surface. In F1 it’s a much more brutal thing that makes the car feel like the car is going too fast on a typical Quebec street, that is, bumpy and full of holes, shaking it up and down like a plum tree.
Here, the problem comes from a change in regulations that sought to encourage overtaking on the track by reducing the number and size of small and large fins that proliferated in cars and caused, in their grooves, significant turbulence. Engineers took this as a challenge to their creativity. If the airflow can no longer be used activated the cars to stick them to the ground as before, they said, we could use them under cars to create a suction effect.
We had this idea of a “ground effect” in the late 1970’s. passing air under cars and making it so difficult for them to drive that they ended up banned after a few years for safety reasons.
This time, we were going to get the ground effect through intelligent fin systems under the cars, thought our ingenious engineers. What they hadn’t anticipated was that their systems would hit the cars on the track so well that at high speeds they would run out of air to continue, causing the car until the airflow re-entered and returned. to get out of the car. . Played at high speed, this yo-yo movement causes bounces and bumps that hit machines and bodies, can blur vision and make quick turns dangerous.
“It’s only a matter of time before this causes a major incident,” Grand Prix Drivers Association President George Russell said last week. His compatriot and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton was unfortunate to see him at the end of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix last Sunday, as he had a lot of trouble getting out of his car due to his illness. back.
Pierre Bélanger is sympathetic to the drivers who fight with the porpoise, but also to the engineers who designed their cars during the low season without being able to test them on the track due to regulations and who now have to find a solution to the problem. . “Simulators and wind tunnels are not good for predicting things like porpoise. That’s why you have to go to the track,” said the mechanical engineering professor at the École de technologie supérieure in Montreal and a former engineer. of the British McLaren team from 2009 to 2013. “In the case of major changes like this year, it’s a bit of a surprise when you get to the start of the season.”
As for the impact its innovations could have on drivers, he admits that engineers don’t really think about it when designing a new car. “We are looking to develop the car faster, period. If this is to have an impact on your driving, we are told that they will be able to adapt.”
Pierre Bélanger recalls, for example, this system where the aerodynamic support of cars was based in part on their exhaust gases. “To get the maximum aerodynamic force, the pilots had to keep their foot on the accelerator when approaching the curves. Let’s just say it wasn’t very natural! But the case of the porpoise is probably different, he admits.
Engineering, Sport and Politics
Saying it fears for the safety of drivers, the International Automobile Federation (FIA) said it was considering imposing a “quantitative limit on the acceptable level of vertical oscillation” of the F1 chassis. Meanwhile, he said, he promised to monitor the scale of the problem more closely.
It is not the same for all stables. Mercedes’ big rival, the Red Bull team, for example, is doing much better and does not hide its annoyance at the calls for help from others. “If you ask all the engineers in the paddock how to solve this aerodynamic problem, they will tell you that it is enough to lift the floor of the car,” his star star and current world champion, the Belgian, told a press conference on Friday. . -Dutch Max Verstappen.
He is right, says Pierre Bélanger. However, Verstappen and Red Bull also know that lifting the floor of porpoise-fighting cars would also mean a loss of aerodynamic strength and therefore less performance. “All these discussions are not only technical and sporting, they are also political,” says the engineer. We want to protect the safety of drivers, but we also want to win. »
If you don’t get bored of these backstage games or the long hours of work during the racing seasons, the teacher admits that sometimes you feel a little pain thinking about your years in Formula 1 and your ability. of innovation. . “It is still exceptional that an engineer can finish developing a new piece on Tuesday and test it on the track on Friday. »
On Friday, at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, it was Max Verstappen who set the fastest times in the first two free practice sessions at the Gilles-Villeneuve circuit. The leader of the drivers’ championship after eight tests in a season of 22, however, will have to be wary of Ferrari, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. have signed up for the second and third time respectively in free practice. Mercedes drivers couldn’t do better than the 7th (Russell) and 13th (Hamilton).
The 10 teams and their 20 drivers will return to the track on Saturday for a third and final training session and qualifying for Sunday’s race.