FIA sticks to guns on F1 ‘bouncing’ rule change despite top teams’ objections

The mathematics may appear impenetrable but Formula One’s purpose in imposing a new rule mid-season could not be more clear. This weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix the FIA has explicitly shown it will not tolerate a risk of long-term head trauma to its drivers.

Its decision has not been popular with some teams as the knock-on from what was imposed for safety reasons may yet also have an effect on the competitive order. The results will be seen this weekend at Spa-Francorchamps but should not detract from what has been a steadfast commitment to put driver safety first.

The issue that has dominated the season is that of cars “porpoising” and bouncing on the track under the new regulations. With the cars using ground effect for downforce and running as low to the ground as possible with very stiff setups, two fundamental problems emerged. Porpoising is a violent, vertical jarring caused by a stall in the aerodynamics; the similar but different issue of bouncing is caused by the low ride heights smashing the car into the ground over uneven track surfaces.

The porpoising has been largely eliminated but the bouncing remains and drivers spoke out, fearing for the potential ill effects on health. After a particularly brutal weekend at Baku some insisted the problem could not be allowed to continue.

The FIA reacted with two parts of a new technical directive which come into play this weekend. The first is the use of an “oscillation metric”, an algorithm that measures the jarring and sets a threshold beyond which teams cannot go. The second is a tightening of the rules on the rigidity of the floor, to prevent ride heights that are too low.

Both Ferrari and Red Bull are believed to have been exploiting a loophole in the rules that allowed an element of flexibility in their floor, while Mercedes did not. Levelling this playing field may peg the leaders back a little.

Red Bull and Ferrari, of course, objected but the FIA has stuck to its guns. Nikolas Tombazis is the FIA’s poacher-turned-gamekeeper leading their efforts. The Greek worked with Benetton, McLaren and Ferrari as an aerodynamicist and is now the head of the FIA’s single-seater technical department. He has been unequivocal in Belgium as to how imperative the rule change was.

“There are short-term effects, situations like we had in Baku, that cannot be repeated but there are also long-term effects,” he said. “We have had quite a lot of sports that have ignored alarm bells ringing and have paid very dearly. We did not want to be in such a position. Our concern was high and we discussed it with medical experts.”

The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, read the conclusions of the FIA’s medical reports, which he insisted laid out the situation starkly. “The FIA commissioned medical work on the porpoising,” he said. “The summary of the doctors is that a frequency of 1-2Hz, sustained over a few minutes, can lead to brain damage. We have 6-7Hz over several hours.”

The FIA’s metric is designed to limit the potential for that damage but, much as it looks like a fiendishly complex piece of maths, its implementation is relatively straightforward. The cars are fitted with an accelerometer which registers all vertical impacts over 3G, indicating the car has heavy oscillation or that it has hit the ground. In the equation the force is converted into a value of energy and sets the limit of the energy that cannot be exceeded for every 100km.

Objections were expected as Tombazis admits but, given it was a safety issue, the agreement of the teams was not required and doing nothing was not an option the FIA was willing to consider. If its efforts have indeed finally put paid to the issues, the sport will move on to the next technical battleground having seen off a genuine danger with some swiftly applied science.

“It would have been a surprise if they had not made objections,” said Tombazis. “F1 is extremely competitive by nature, everything that is passed as a regulation is always naturally first judged by: ‘Does it benefit us more than it benefits them?’ But we can’t just not do something because somebody will criticise us.”

The title rivals Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc will start the race from the rear end of the grid after taking power unit parts beyond their allocation. Six drivers in total have full grid penalties and been relegated to the back; their final starting positions will be decided by their places in qualifying.

On the track in practice Carlos Sainz was quickest for Ferrari in a rain-interrupted first hour. In the second session Verstappen showed immense pace to top the timesheets. The Red Bull driver was a full eight‑tenths up on Ferrari’s Leclerc in second. Hamilton and Russell were sixth and eighth for Mercedes, struggling to warm up their tyres in the cool temperatures.