In Formula 1, the action takes place not just on the race track but also on the paddock. While the teams and drivers persistently fight for every second’s gain on track, there is an equally cutthroat nature in the way teams go about clawing at each other outside the track to gain any kind of competitive edge over their rivals- and this can take the form of lobbying, accusations, allegations, appeals to the FIA for any perceived wrongdoings, wars-of-words between the teams- you name it!
Last year, the fiery battles in the paddock broke all boundaries of civility as Mercedes, who won the Constructors’, and Red Bull, whose Max Verstappen took the individual crown of Lewis Hamilton’s head, traded blow after blow like two frenzied professional boxers. Fans weren’t complaining though, and speculation has been rife as to when the niceties, that are usually the norm in the early phase of the season, will disappear as teams start feeling the pressure of getting results now that the new season is well and truly underway.
And it has commenced!
And it is the Mercedes AMG Petronas team, the 7-times consecutive Constructors Champions from 2014-2021, who have shown their cards in a bid to arrest their mediocre season and gain some respite.
It has been well documented that the new W13 car designed by Mercedes has widely missed the mark, by Mercedes’ elite standards. Formula 1 teams had to design their cars from scratch in preparation for the 2022 season, as the FIA came up with a new set of rules and technical requirements for the cars. Mercedes has ended up building a car that appears very competitive- in theory, but in the hard realities of the real world, has performed poorly, with the car experiencing a lot of bouncing as it drives along very long straights as well as when it approaches corners. This has left drivers, particularly Hamilton, complaining over the radio about the difficulty in handling the cars, as well as pain and soreness.
This bouncing, or porpoising as it is often called, has left Mercedes struggling this season, and after the last 2 street races at Monaco and Azerbaijan where this phenomenon appeared to be worse than ever, the voices have started growing that something needs to be done to change the status quo.
The lower a team runs the car for performance gains, the more profound the ‘porpoising’ effect can become. However, the bumpy Baku City Circuit appears to be amplifying the problem. This has, for the first time, led to calls for change.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before we see a major incident,” George Russell of Mercedes, and the current Director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, claimed after qualifying P5 for the Azerbaijan GP.
“It’s a recipe for disaster. So I don’t really know what the future holds. But I don’t think we can sustain this for three years, or however long these regulations are enforced for.”
“I can barely see the braking zone because I’m bouncing around so much and you get around that last corner, you have walls either side of you doing almost 200 miles an hour, and the car is bouncing up and down on the floor.
“It’s not a very comfortable position to be in, so as a group we need a bit of a rethink. It’s definitely dangerous.”
Clearly, Russell and Mercedes want the FIA to look into the regulations and offer a way out for their bouncing cars.
Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz, who has had a Lukewarm season so far in comparison to his teammate Charles Leclerc, also seems to be in this camp, after he raised concerns about the long term health implications on F1 drivers being exposed to this violent bouncing.
However, Red Bull Team Principal was having absolutely none of it, claiming that believes rival team chiefs have deliberately encouraged their drivers to make a meal about the ride quality of the 2022 cars.
Red Bull, whose cars seem to be largely impervious to this violent bouncing, have raced away into a healthy lead in both championships, and when Horner was asked what he would’ve said to his drivers had the Red Bulls been suffering like the Mercedes is, he said bluntly: “I’d tell them to bitch as much as they could on the radio, and make as big an issue out of it as they possibly could. It’s part of the game.”
Asked if that’s indeed what was happening over the weekend in the paddock, replied: “Of course it is. I mean, look, you can see it’s uncomfortable – but there are remedies to that. But it’s to the detriment of the car’s performance.
“What’s the easiest thing to do is to complain from a safety point of view – but each team has a choice.”
He continued: “I think if it was a genuine safety concern across the whole grid, then it’s something that should be looked at. But if it’s only affecting isolated people or teams, that’s something that that team should potentially deal with.”
Speaking to F1 TV in the post-race show, McLaren’s Lando Norris seems to agree with Horner. Lando said: “It is what you have to deal with, it’s the trade of trying to gain performance. We can quite easily go lower, and gain performance but have more porpoising.
“But we just think where we are at is the correct amount.
Speaking about Mercedes’ grievances, he added, “I’m sure the Mercedes can have a much stiffer floor and raise the ride height and it would be much nicer for them.But they obviously just don’t want to lose performance. I don’t think it’s anything to complain about, it’s just people need to find a way of fixing it themselves.”
Thus, there are other voices, equally strong, in the paddock that clearly believe that safety and the amount of bouncing is a team choice, and not something the regulations need to look into, particularly as other teams have found a way to build cars that have largely tamed this phenomenon. The argument is strong that any team suffering from bouncing has the option to raise the ride height of their cars and thus sacrifice performance for driver safety.
In any case, this paddock battle has only just started getting heated up, and it is definitely not the last we are going to hear about this as the 2022 F1 season rumbles on!