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Formula 1 ‘Porpoising’ Explained

Let’s talk airflow, downforce, ground effect, and what makes a fast car go its fastest. Welcome to Formula 101!

The most compelling battle in Formula 1 this year isn’t Charles Leclerc vs. Max Verstappen or Ferrari vs. Red Bull — it’s automotive engineering vs. the laws of physics.

In this 2022 F1 World Championship campaign, even the best wheelmen in the fastest cars aren’t immune to the scourge known as “porpoising.” Basically, it’s what’s happening when you see a driver’s head bobbing up and down conspicuously and repeatedly while his vehicle screams down the track. This phenomenon is unwelcome and very much an obstacle to success. And we’re going to get to the bottom of it.

It’s time for what Boardroom likes to call Formula 101. Today’s knowledge download: What is porpoising, anyway, and why is it a significant issue in auto racing?

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What is Porpoising, by Definition?

To build the perfect racing car is to master ground effect, which refers to the several phenomena that generate downforce, which is exactly what it sounds like — in a car, that specifically means directing force toward the road via the tires in order to maximize speed and traction.

When these principles aren’t all working in harmony as intended, one of the unfortunate results includes porpoising, whose name comes from the idea of a porpoise diving into the sea and then resurfacing over and over. Both car and driver unmistakably bounce up and down, and it’s especially visible along straights.

What Causes Porpoising in an F1 Car?

A key component of ground effect in Formula 1 is the use of wind tunnels built into the underbody of the car, also known as Venturi tunnels. The airflow through these spaces must be uninterrupted for the desired benefits to be realized properly.

When airflow is alternatingly obstructed and resumed at a rapid rate due to inefficient design or vehicle damage, it produces that noticeable bouncing effect that drives racing teams crazy — and can produce a serious impact on who wins championships and who’s forced to go back to the drawing board.

What Role is Porpoising Playing this Year in Formula 1?

Lewis Hamilton, a seven-time F1 world champion and the face of Mercedes‘ highly decorated team, has consistently pointed to porpoising issues with his No. 44 car in 2022. Earlier this month, he called it “the worst characteristic I have experienced in a car.”

Meanwhile, Scuderia Ferrari’s cars have displayed perhaps the most obviously visible instances of porpoising on the track this year via Charles Leclerc and teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.

The laws of physics are immutable — porpoising keeps a car from going as fast as it could otherwise go. But as things stand, Ferrari are No. 1 in the Constructor’s Championship standings as of this writing and Leclerc is No. 1 in the Driver’s Championship race. (Right behind the Monesgasque? Mercedes’ George Russell, who’s ostensibly driving the exact same car as Hamilton.)

It may be that the biggest prizes in global auto racing will come down to which team’s engineers can figure out how to keep the porpoising at bay the longest, as eradicating it entirely might just prove to be impossible given constraints related to timeframe, labor, and budget.

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