Formula 1 big-wigs are going to meet in Austria today, and a significant part of their agenda will be devoted to planks. Yes, F1 is going to debate bits of wood…
Specifically, this discussion will be about how these bits of wood are mounted underneath F1 cars and how much the mountings used to fit these bits of wood are allowed to bend.
All F1 cars run narrow wooden planks mounted underneath their floors to prevent the cars from running too low to the ground, which could cause them to suddenly lose all their downforce – potentially leading to a crash.
They’ve been mandated in F1 since 1994, following the accident that killed Ayrton Senna at Imola. These narrow wooden planks are fitted underneath every car on the grid, and if they wear away too much, cars can be excluded from races.
The safety issue has returned this season because the new 2022 F1 cars need to run as low to the ground as possible to get their aerodynamics to work properly. They also have to run very stiff suspension for the same reason.
This has led to a very rough ride over bumps and kerbs, which has led some drivers – including George Russell and Carlos Sainz – to question the potential impact on drivers’ long-term health. F1 cars are very stiff anyway, and because of the way the drivers are positioned in their cars, vibrations from striking bumps and kerbs travel through their spines, which can lead to injury.
The FIA has now stepped in, developing a new system to measure and limit how much current F1 cars can and are allowed to bounce.
This process began in Canada, the race immediately after Baku – where Lewis Hamilton said the bouncing of his Mercedes was so bad he might not be physically able to drive in Montreal. His Mercedes team was criticised for reacting to the FIA’s plans by adding a part to the car to give extra stiffness and support to its floor. Rivals said this part was not allowed by the current rules as written and threatened to protest, so Mercedes took it off.
Ferrari and Red Bull also began criticising the FIA for interfering with the competition, essentially arguing that Mercedes was the only team seriously troubled by this bouncing and that Mercedes should fix its own car rather than relying on the FIA to tweak the rules.
In the course of its investigations into how to limit the bouncing of current F1 cars, the FIA began to suspect that some cars – said to be the Ferrari and the Red Bull – have found ways to make their mountings for these planks – known as ‘skid blocks’ – bend more than the rules were intended to allow.
Mercedes said it was ‘shocked’ to learn of this, feeling its engineering team had missed an opportunity to make the W13 faster. Mercedes’ main problem this season has been the need to run the car so high off the ground to stop the bouncing that it loses too much downforce. Extra flexibility in the skid blocks would allow the car to run lower to the ground without wearing away the plank to an illegal level.
The FIA now plans to tighten up these rules, starting at the Belgian Grand Prix. The amount of bouncing will be measured using sensors as the cars are being driven, and teams will have three races to get the situation under control before they are considered to be breaking the rules.
Red Bull is particularly unhappy because it feels the FIA is trying to change the rules mid-season (and probably because Red Bull knows this change will help Mercedes). The FIA feels it has to act because not doing so would continue to put drivers’ safety at risk – particularly on very bumpy circuits.
Whoever thought, in such a high-tech motorsport, that the way old-fashioned bits of wood are fitted to F1 cars would cause such uproar…