Mercedes driver George Russell believes it is only a matter of time before the characteristics of the latest generation of Formula 1 cars lead to a major accident.
F1 has introduced new rules this year to better track cars and improve the racing spectacle. To maximize the performance of the new set of regulations, teams drive their cars close to the ground with rigid suspension to improve the efficiency of the floor’s aerodynamics.
This has had a major impact on the cars’ handling and in some cases has led to an aerodynamic phenomenon known as porpoises, where the car bounces on its suspension as the airflow under the car stops momentarily and then starts to gain downforce again.
The porpoise, also known as bouncing, can be caused by driving the car too low to the ground, but also by a bumpy road surface such as in the streets of Baku during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend. It has been a cause of concern for several drivers since the start of the season and Russell believes it could be potentially dangerous.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before we see a major incident,” he said. “Many of us can barely keep the car in a straight line over these bumps and we’re going through the last two corners at 300km/h [in Baku] and we’re going down and you can see on the tarmac how close the cars get to the ground.
“It’s just unnecessary with the technology we have in the current environment, it just seems unnecessary that we’re driving a Formula 1 car more than 200mph millimeters off the ground and it’s a recipe for disaster. I don’t really know what the future will be holds, but I don’t think we can keep this up for three years or however long these regulations are in place.”
Russell’s Mercedes team has struggled with porpoises more than most people, which has had a knock-on effect on his car’s performance. However, he insists that his opinion is not based on a desire to improve his competitive chances, but is instead due to genuine safety concerns.
“I mean, for what it’s worth, we’re not that big of a fan of it” [regulation change] as a team because with every race we do we learn more and more about the car and any changes will limit that learning. So it’s not that we want it to change, it’s clearly a security limitation.
“The top three teams are also in the same position, Ferrari and Red Bull, well Ferrari more than Red Bull, you can clearly see they’re really struggling with that. Nobody is doing it for performance improvement, it’s for safety reasons.
“I can barely see the braking zone because I’m bouncing so much. You’re going through those last two corners [in Baku]you’ve got walls around you, and you’re going 200 mph and the car is bouncing up and down on the floor — it’s not a very comfortable position to be in. As a group, we need a little rethinking.
“It feels absolutely dangerous. It just feels unnecessary. You’re skating on the track and when you hit the ground, the bonds aren’t that strong with the ground, so it’s only a matter of time before we see anything.”
F1 has insisted that teams can counteract the bounce by adopting a higher ride height and has pointed out that it had expressed its own concerns about the issue last year before proposed rule changes were blocked by the teams. It also points out that not all teams are affected by porpoises.
If the sport’s governing body, the FIA, believes the bounce is a real safety issue, it could make changes without a majority agreement between the teams, although this seems unlikely at the moment.