Why A Four-Decade Old Problem Has Re-Emerged In Formula One

One of the most fascinating aspects of Formula One as well as other motorsport disciplines is the sheer scale of its evolution and the change in the technology and terminology used to discuss it.

However, one term that has surprisingly re-entered the F1 lexicon after 40 years is the term ‘porpoising’, which has recently re-emerged for the first time since 1982 as a concern for driver comfort, performance and safety.

The connection between the cars of 1982 and 2022, when motorsport gears, engine technology, aerodynamics and nearly every other element has been changed and refined, is the reintroduction of ground-effect aerodynamics.

The ground effect exploits Bernoulli’s principle of fluid dynamics by using a combination of shaped undersides, bodywork side skirts and low suspensions to effectively suck cars to the ground, allowing them to race at unbelievable speeds.

However, if this ground effect is interrupted for any reason, the ground effect is reversed, with the car suddenly shooting up. The result of this is that on straights a car will bounce up and down rapidly and quite violently, particularly when running on stiffer tyres and stiffer suspensions.

The reason why it is called porpoising is that when racing it looks similar to the marine mammal of the same name, who swims close to the water’s surface in fast, rocking motions.

For race drivers, however, the effect is particularly unpleasant, causing motion sickness and blurred vision, which made it one of the reasons why ground effect aerodynamics were banned on safety grounds, alongside its catastrophic effects when the effect was disturbed on less smooth tracks.

With ground effect returning in 2022 as a way to improve aerodynamic grip without the ‘dirty air’ issue found with the more elaborate wings and aerodynamic devices used in the past 15 years, many teams have found the porpoising issue return again.

The issue is that it is very difficult to test off of the track itself because even the stiffest rolling road setup used in a wind tunnel is more flexible than solid tarmac.

As the season gets ever closer, it remains to be seen how many adjustments will be made to the cars to fix the problem, or whether porpoising will become an issue for drivers to tolerate as they enter a new era of Formula One.

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