FIA in shock rule change that could make Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes even worse

·5 min read
Lewis Hamilton arrives in the paddock at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal - AFP
Lewis Hamilton arrives in the paddock at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal - AFP

In a move that threatens to make a struggling Lewis Hamilton even less competitive, the FIA is to compel teams to reduce “porpoising” – the violent up-and-down motion to which many of this season’s cars are prone – on safety grounds.

Just four days after Hamilton needed to be helped out of his Mercedes with back pain caused by the issue, the global governing body has decided to impose a strict limit on “vertical oscillations”, warning that any teams who exceed it face being penalised.

Except far from helping the seven-time world champion, this ruling is only likely to disadvantage him further. While Mercedes had sought an edict that all cars needed to be raised further from the ground to protect drivers’ backs, this technical directive will most severely affect those teams who are experiencing the greatest problems with porpoising.

Nobody is suffering more on this front than Hamilton, whose car was described by team principal Toto Wolff last weekend as a “s---box”. For Mercedes, who have won the constructors’ championship eight years in succession, their only solution to comply with the FIA’s diktat is to increase the ride height, a response almost certain to make Hamilton and George Russell go slower.

Hamilton, who has dismissed his own prospects of the title this year, already trails Max Verstappen by 88 points after eight of 22 races. While Mercedes have looked in recent races to run their cars lower to the track for maximum speed, they now risk being leapfrogged in F1’s midfield by Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo, who have shown less conspicuous porpoising issues.

Red Bull, having had no such difficulties at all, stand to gain from the FIA’s decision. While they already have the edge in reliability over Ferrari and Mercedes, they are now poised to gain an extra edge in raw pace, too, even though Christian Horner had strongly objected to the prospect of the rules being tweaked midway through the campaign. The alarm over safety, he insisted, was “only affecting isolated people or teams”.

The title leaders received no advance warning of the move. Horner, who was in the air en route to this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix when the FIA’s statement was released, had argued fiercely that his team – whose cars have shown the least susceptibility to porpoising – should not be punished simply for interpreting the rules better than their rivals.

Several drivers, including McLaren’s Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari, lobbied race director Niels Wittich in Azerbaijan to intervene but were thwarted by the FIA rule requiring at least eight of the 10 teams to vote in favour of any reworking of the rules. But the FIA has acted regardless, citing an overwhelming imperative to protect the drivers’ safety.

The sight of Hamilton doubled up in agony as he exited the cockpit in Baku has forced the hand of the FIA, which has grown increasingly concerned by multiple reports of back problems among drivers. The sport’s regulator, which warned repeatedly under former president Jean Todt that it would accept no short-cuts on safety, also has worries that the physical distress arising from porpoising could result in “significant consequences” due to a lapse in concentration.

Lewis Hamilton has to be helped from his car - GETTY IMAGES
Lewis Hamilton has to be helped from his car - GETTY IMAGES

After consulting with doctors, the FIA explained that it had felt compelled to respond because “in a sport where the competitors are routinely driving at speeds of 300km/h (186mph), it is considered that all of a driver’s concentration needs to be focused on that task, and that excessive fatigue or pain experienced by a driver could have significant consequences should it result in a loss of concentration”.

Starting here in Montreal, teams will be obliged to conduct closer scrutiny of the planks and skids underneath the cars, both in terms of their design and their observed wear. The FIA will also define a metric – the precise mathematical formula of which is still to be determined – for an “acceptable limit of vertical oscillations”.

Mercedes suffered severely from the bouncing problems in Baku, with Hamilton as physically troubled as any point in his 15-year F1 career and chief strategist James Vowles acknowledging post-race that the team had pushed the drivers too far. “We are putting them in significant discomfort,” he said. “We simply can’t do that again.”

Daniel Ricciardo, similarly shaken in his McLaren, reflected: “The compression, you’re sore and you feel you’re getting squeezed. It’s also the frequency. This shaking of the brain and the spine, I don’t think it’s good, long term.”

At every practice session here in Canada, the FIA will gather telemetry data in an attempt to understand the full impact of porpoising. Using this information, it will set a limit that prevents the type of gruelling ordeal sustained by Hamilton and Ricciardo.

Ultimately, this is only a short-term fix, with many drivers urging tweaks to the rulebook that eliminates the risk of porpoising for the latest generation of F1 cars. This could be accomplished through a return to active suspension, which has been banned in the sport since 1994. Without such suspension tools, Hamilton’s ambitions of returning to the front of the grid are in danger of growing more remote than ever.