June 18, 2024

‘Porpoising’ To Low Top Speeds: Mercedes and the F1 Title


While the team managed to get 7-time world champion Lewis Hamilton on the podium last week, there’s still plenty of pace to be found

With a completely out-of-the-box result in Formula 1’s first 2022 race last weekend, teams have been scrambling to match Ferrari’s blazing pace at Bahrain, as Sunday’s Abu Dhabi race draws closer.

Apart from Red Bull’s nightmare performance last week, several eyes seem drawn to the next fan favorites in line – Mercedes-AMG. While the team managed to get 7-time world champion Lewis Hamilton on the podium last week, there’s still plenty of pace to be found.

Like team boss Toto Wolff, many Mercedes fans have been adopting a sense of cautious optimism towards Mercedes’ performance this year. Let’s take a closer look at the issues currently faced by the Silver Arrows, how they measure up against current leaders Ferrari, and what solutions Wolff’s squad has in store for the upcoming races.

So, What On Earth Is Porpoising?

Mercedes Lewis Hamilton BahrainMercedes Lewis Hamilton Bahrain

While F1 has it’s fair share of buzzwords, one in particular has been making the rounds ever since 2022’s new-regulation racecars began testing and that is porpoising.

While the underlying aerodynamics can be quite complex, here’s how veteran F1 journalist Mark Hughes summarized the phenomenon:

“A violent bouncing on the suspension at high speeds is what the driver feels,” he explains. “The cause is an aerodynamic one, where either the leading edge of the floor, or perhaps the front wing, is pushed ever closer to the ground as the downforce acting upon it increases. The closer to the ground it gets, the more powerful the ground effect is, as the air rushes ever-faster through the shrinking gap.”

As the pressure difference continues to widen between the air above and below the car, it suddenly hits a peak, after which the air pressure is released. This causes the car’s suspension to bounce back and repeat the whole process – causing the characteristic ‘bouncing’ that’s been a literal pain in Hamilton’s backside – and a great source of memes all week long:

Apart from lowering stability, porpoising also makes it harder for the driver to ‘feel’ the wheels intuitively – something absolutely required if Mercedes is aiming for a world championship. 

Ferrari – who have spent considerably more effort on aero testing before the 2022 season, seems to have sorted the issue out much earlier than their rivals. Current leader Charles Leclerc confirmed as much back on 11th March, suggesting that while Ferrari faced porpoising issues during their Spain tests in February, these problems were ‘much better’ even before the Bahrain GP.

So, what’s Mercedes’ plan of action?

“How quickly each team can get on top of it,” explained Mercedes-AMG Chief Technical Officer James Allison, “is going to be quite important for what the pecking order in the sport will be. We were caught out by it quite badly.”

While Allison was scant on details – likely because he wasn’t interested in giving juicy information to rival teams – he hinted at a short-term plan that was earlier visited by Toto Wolff. The team boss, post-Bahrain, shared that a quick fix would be to simply raise the car’s suspension slightly. This would reduce the massive air pressure differences between the upper and lower sides of the car – at the cost of top speed. Which brings us to…

Has Mercedes’ Championship-Winning Engine Lost It?

Mercedes Lewis Hamilton BahrainMercedes Lewis Hamilton Bahrain

Looking back at the race, it’s clear that both Red Bull and Ferrari were able to power down the straights much better than the Mercedes cars – even the Ferrari-powered Haas piloted by Magnussen was giving Hamilton a run for his money on a few laps.

Both Allison and Wolff dismissed any notion that Ferrari and Red Bull had significantly stronger engines – with Wolff casually flipping a hand at suggestions of engine trouble:\

“We need to fine-tune the engine also – but that engine has won us eight championships and it’s going to continue to do a good job for us,” he said in a post-race comment.

Rather, the issue according to both CEO and CTO lies in the Mercedes W13’s drag coefficient – a common theme for most of Mercedes’ 2022 woes.

“We’re a bit over-winged, too much drag,” added Wolff, as Allison offered a deeper analysis.

“If you take a look at all the cars on the grid,” he explained, “you’ll notice that we were running the biggest rear wing.” Indeed Mercedes’ wings were considerably larger than their competitors – giving the car much-needed downforce, but seriously reducing its top speed potential – Wolff claimed that this made ‘half or two thirds’ of the difference in their reduced performance.

Ferrari, on the other hand, have showcased excellent pace throughout – but were still beaten on the straights by Red Bull’s unlucky engine. “It’s not superior, but it’s a good engine,” said driver Carlos Sainz. “Red Bull had more top speed than us, and nobody talks about the Honda engine.”

So, what can Mercedes do about this? Not much – atleast not immediately. Allison shared that while the wing was still necessary to maintian Mercedes’ current noncompetitive but stable racing, the team plans to speed things up soon.

With a bit of luck and in the coming races, we will rapidly improve our car. This will also allow us to drag some rear wing out and allow us to pick up some speed on the straights as a consequence.”

Formula 1 returns to the races this Sunday at the Yas Island Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

(Featured Image Credits: Mercedes_AMG)

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