Will the FIA listen to F1 drivers over long-term health fears?

Should the FIA step in and adjust the Formula 1 technical rules so that drivers take less of a physical pounding than they currently do?

Will the FIA listen to F1 drivers over long-term health fears?
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That was the view of a number of drivers who joined in a debate on the matter in Friday’s regular briefing in Azerbaijan.

Previously Carlos Sainz and George Russell had been the main voices warning of potential long-term neck and back issues, a legacy of the very obvious porpoising and bouncing issues that their cars have experienced this season. Most of their colleagues, essentially those whose cars were not suffering badly, had kept fairly quiet – at least in public.

After the first day’s running on the bumpy Baku track, many others were given a taster of what the Mercedes and Ferrari drivers have been dealing with all year. Suddenly the conversation involved more drivers, and many more opinions.

It was a little different back in Barcelona last month when Sainz gave an eloquent description of his concerns, and few of his colleagues showed much support.

“I'm already feeling it,” he said on the Thursday before his home race. “I don't need expert advice to know that 10 years like this it's going to be tough, and you're going to need to work a lot in mobility, flexibility. I'm going to need to invest in health, overall body health.”

He also admitted that it was a difficult subject for F1 drivers to open up about: “It's probably a question that I think as drivers we don't like talking [about] much because we don't like sounding, say, weak.

“I'm strong, I'm very fit, I consider myself one of the fittest drivers, and I've never struggled in an F1 race at all. But it's more long term and for the benefit of all of us that maybe we should put it out there to talk about, and see what options do we have.”

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari

Photo by: Ferrari

Asked then if the FIA would have to get involved, he replied: “It will get to a point that when if we decide to go in certain directions the FIA needs to get involved for sure. Let's see in the future.

“It's still very early days. It was pretty much a thought that I've been having in the first five races, when I've been suffering with porpoising and this situation, that I've never ever really even brought up in a meeting yet.

“I was probably thinking out loud, and it's something very, very young in my head, and I still need to maybe talk to other drivers that I know that have struggled, like George [Russell] or others, who are struggling with the same phenomenon. We need to pretty much sit together and see what we can offer or propose.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: FIA Pool

In the following day’s FIA press conferences other drivers were asked if like Sainz they had any concerns about back and neck issues. Some joked about it, and the default setting for most was it’s a problem for some teams, and not us.

Max Verstappen’s view was typical: “I think it's very simple. If you just raise your rear ride height, you will not have it, but you lose performance. So if he just raises his rear ride height, it will be fine.

“It's just a give and take. I mean, it's not nice, but I know there's more lap time in it by running it lower, so you run it low, even if it's not comfortable.”

Lewis Hamilton also shrugged off any suggestion of back issues and said he had no problems. As Sainz suggested it was Hamilton’s Mercedes team mate and GPDA director Russell who was most sympathetic.

“When you’re going down the straight at over 200mph and you're smashing up and down on the ground, sure, you wouldn't choose to have it that way,” said Russell. “And the cars are obviously extremely rigid, and they're not meant to be a comfortable ride.”

George Russell, Mercedes W13, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18

George Russell, Mercedes W13, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

It wasn’t a talking point for the rest of the Barcelona weekend once action got underway, perhaps a consequence of a smooth surface that helped even Mercedes to dial out its porpoising issues. Nor was it much of an issue in Monaco, where the slow speeds were a factor.

In Baku, necks and backs became one of the big stories of the weekend after the first day on track, as more and more drivers referenced the pounding they were taking. Russell spoke out early in the weekend, and this time he was joined by Hamilton.

Indeed, in Friday’s drivers’ briefing those present did what Sainz had suggested in Spain and had a lengthy talk with the FIA on the matter.

"Yesterday, I suffered a lot with this,” the Ferrari driver said on Saturday when Motorsport.com asked about the discussion. “And I had for some reason I had a car or a floor that was porpoising and bottoming a lot more than the other car with the same set-up. And it was, for some reason, very, very painful.

“And it was a bit of chaos in the car going on. But I saw others also struggling around the track. And I think it got to a point where in the drivers' briefing, we all looked at each other and said, we need to do something. Because it's okay, one race, but can we do 10 more years like this?

“I doubt it. So we kindly asked the FIA to look into, to not say listen to the teams too much, and to listen to us, that we're saying that it's getting to a point where we are struggling, all of us, to handle this."

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari F1-75

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari F1-75

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Sainz’s suggestion not to listen to the teams was intriguing. In other words, he and others knew full well that this would quickly become a political discussion, with those teams not suffering from porpoising accusing rivals of seeking a rule change for performance benefit. He also steered the focus from rideheight to general ride quality.

“We just need something smarter on the suspension or in the way the cars are being run,” he continued. “Where the FIA controls a bit better the possibility of the teams to run that stiff, that hard, that kind of ride that you see on the straights.

“I'm pretty sure if you ask two or three engineers down the paddock, they will know the answer, and what can be done to limit this and regulate it. We just need the FIA to act soon, as soon as possible, because if not, it's going to start accumulating.

"You can say is it necessary to F1 to have 20 drivers at the end of each race with back issues? My personal opinion is that with the technology that there is nowadays why do we need to carry this painful situation into into our careers, when you can put a really easy solution to it?

“So it's more a matter of is it really worth it? Like, is it necessary when there's possibly a very easy solution to put in place? I don't think so. I think it's not necessary and we should all, teams included, think about the driver health.”

Baku was a wake-up call of sorts for some drivers who hadn’t really recognised the issue as applicable to themselves, or at least wouldn’t do so in public, and are now coming round to it.

“I think everyone has their own their own opinion, but also their own interests,” said Sainz. “And then there's things that you say to the media and things that you say behind the media, because you want to have an image, or you don't want to want to have an image.”

“That's why when my colleagues comment in the media I try not to take too much conclusions and I talked to them privately.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, Mohammed bin Sulayem, President, FIA, on the grid in Baku

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, Mohammed bin Sulayem, President, FIA, on the grid in Baku

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Having been unconcerned in Barcelona, Hamilton was the highest profile voice to emerge over the Baku weekend, and after the race it was clear that the former World Champion was genuinely struggling – and that he’d made a big effort just to get to the flag.

“I've been doing cryotherapy,” he said after the race. “And when you go in there for four minutes, it's bloody cold, and you just have to go internal, and say you can, it's the same sort of thing, you know, just kind of quieten down and just grinning with it.

“I have to I have to think of all the people that rely on me to get those points. So that's really what I was focused on. But this is definitely the worst. For me. I haven't had it this bad this year.

“All the drivers together are discussing it in the drivers' briefing. And ultimately, I think none of us want to continue having this bouncing for the next four years of this regulation. So I'm sure the teams will be working at it.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, in Parc Ferme

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

The fact that Hamilton and Russell were so vocal on the subject and were widely quoted has inevitably led to suggestions on social media that this was part of a ploy to change regulations that don’t suit Mercedes.

However, not only have other drivers now spoken out – as Sainz suggested earlier they’ve noted that it’s not necessarily about porpoising – but also the general harshness of the ride of the 2022 cars.

“I think none of us want to sound like divas or we complain that the cars are too hard to drive,” said Alpine’s Esteban Ocon. “But we need to realise that it's not healthy going into the future.

“Not the porpoising necessarily, I think it's the stiffness of the cars in general, which are big hits on the long, straight, and we can't prepare our body for that. So yeah, there's going to be some sore part of our body tomorrow.

“I think it's something that the FIA is going to look at probably in the future, and it's something that we will support.”

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Ocon’s countryman Pierre Gasly, who joked when asked in Barcelona that Sainz “had to work out more”, was another who was very vocal on the subject after the Baku race.

“It's not healthy, that's for sure,” said the AlphaTauri driver. “I’ve had a physio session before and after every session, just because my [spinal] discs are suffering from it. You have literally no suspension. It just hits going through your spine.

“The team is asking me, 'OK, we can compromise the set-up?’, and I'm compromising my health for the performance. And I'll always do it, because I'm a driver and I always go for the fastest car I can. But I don't think FIA should put us in a corner where you got to deal between health and performance.

“That's the tricky part of it, and clearly not sustainable. So that's what we discussed at the drivers’ briefing and kind of alerted them on this problem, and try to ask them to find solutions to save us from ending up with a cane at 30 years old.”

McLaren has avoiding porpoising issues more effectively than most, but even the MCL36’s drivers took a pounding in Baku. It was literally an eye opener for Daniel Ricciardo.

“I dread to feel what the others felt because honestly, today was bad,” the Australian said after the flag. “I really struggled.

“And just it's painful, but I guess like unnatural, it's literally like someone's bouncing you like that like pro basketball player when they get the ball really low and dribble. Being professionally dribbled by Stephen Curry, or something.

“So it's definitely not good. And it's not normal. And I think we do need to do something, especially if George and Lewis, for example, I know they've had so much bad porpoising, if they're feeling it worse, which they probably are, I can't imagine what they're feeling, because it was painful.”

“The compression, you're sore and you feel you're kind of getting squeezed. But also getting out of the car, I'm not exaggerating, I just felt like shook. So just like a bit rattled. It doesn't feel like it's not a normal thing.

“I think it also the frequency. It's this kind of shaking of the brain and the spine, I don't think is good, long term. I know George has been very vocal about it. Obviously, they've suffered a lot. And I 100% sympathise with him.”

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Ricciardo agreed that it wasn’t always easy for drivers to admit to health issues: “It's not about being tired. You feel fatigued because you've been knocked around. I mean, we can be macho, if we want. We all finished the race. So yeah, we can do it, we can stick it through.

“But it could be one of those things that in two years’ time we find that, ‘Oh, this has been bad for the brain or whatever, or the spine.’ So it's one of those ones where we don't want to be naive or ignorant and just tough it out when there could be some kind of long-term damage.”

Some teams are well aware that drivers cannot take such consistent punishment.

“On this occasion, though we pushed the package and our drivers too far,” Mercedes head of strategy James Vowles said this week. “We are putting them into significant discomfort and we simply can’t do that again.

“Our drivers are not the only ones suffering, you will see in the media a number of comments from a number of drivers who are equally in discomfort and pain. And we have a responsibility now to make sure that this doesn’t carry on.”

Inevitably, those teams who are happy with their cars as they are are not keen to see any changes.

“They can always stick a thicker plank on the car if they wanted,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner. “The easiest thing is obviously to raise the car. So a team has the choice to do that.

“You have a choice where you run your car, don't you? You should never run a car that's unsafe. But I think that's more for the technical guys. Because certain cars have issues.

“And there's some cars that have very few issues. So it would seem unfair to penalise the ones that have done a decent job, versus the ones that have perhaps missed the target slightly.

“I think if there's a genuine safety concern across the whole grid then it's something that should be looked it. But if it's only affecting isolated people or teams, then that's something that that team should potentially deal with.”

Sparks kick up from Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18

Sparks kick up from Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

What happens next remains to be seen. The FIA is now fully aware of the concerns of the drivers, but technical regulations cannot be changed easily within the season without the full support of the teams, unless this can be accepted as a safety issue.

There could be some tweaks for 2023, but the challenge is that the harsh ride is an inherent characteristic of these ground effect cars, with their low profile tyres and stiff suspension. However, clearly something has to be done.

Back in Barcelona Russell made an intriguing analogy…

“I guess you can almost compare it to footballers,” said the Mercedes driver. “I don't know what era it was in, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s when they had the massively heavy footballs and there was research done and analysis done that there were health consequences for these chaps who were heading the ball, and things were changed.

“F1 is the centre of innovation, there's no reason why we can't find a scientific solution for this.”

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