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F1 'flexi floor' row explained: How the debate around Red Bull could affect the 2022 Formula One season – iNews

Individual races and even entire seasons in Formula One can be decided by margins so small that they are imperceptible to most spectators bar the most experienced of technical experts.
Thousandths of a second in qualifying, inches of white paint defining the track limits, and degradation of tyre rubber by the millimetre can make or break the careers of some of the world’s most talented young athletes, while being essentially impossible for those watching at home or at the track to truly discern in the moment.
All elite level sport is defined by minute improvements over extended periods of time, but the level of technology in F1 means that those improvements are often hidden from view of the spectator, and frequently the subject of intense public politicking.
Now, another typically imperceptible and fairly rudimentary piece of technology can be added to the list of imperceptible things making all the difference in F1: a wooden plank on the floor of the cars.
F1 underwent its biggest technical regulation change in a generation over the course of the winter, with the sport returning to ground effect aerodynamics for the first time since the 1980s. All 10 teams were forced to redesign their machinery from scratch, bringing to an end Mercedes’ eight-year dominance as the fastest team on the grid, and allowing other squads including Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Haas to move up the field.
The name “ground effect” was coined because the aerodynamic theory of the design is to use the car’s floor to generate downforce, which essentially sucks the car to the tarmac and allows it to travel faster around the circuit. All teams have created intricate floor concepts designed to guide air underneath the car in the most efficient manner.
The changes were made in order to allow cars to follow one another more closely, in turn meaning drivers could battle one another more frequently and the overall racing spectacle would be improved. So far, despite the field still being spread out so much that only a couple of teams are capable of challenging for victory, the new regulations have been having the desired effect.
Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc have engaged in tactical tussles for the lead in a number of races, switching positions back-and-forth with higher frequency than typical of recent F1 seasons, while the most recent race in Austria saw five different cars battling for ninth-place across the course of an entire lap, racing that would have been virtually impossible in the previous iteration of an F1 car.
The return to ground effect has also had a negative impact though. Some team’s cars having been bouncing up and down violently at high speed on long straights, with the air underneath the car being pushed back-and-forth too intensely for the vehicle to handle.
That leads to intense vibrations being sent up driver’s spines, and means their heads can be seen ricocheting wildly in the cockpit. A plethora of drivers have reported serious back pain caused by the issue, known as “porpoising”, and some have voiced concerns about potential long-term neurological damage.
All F1 cars are required to have a long, thin plank of wood running the length of their floors which helps absorb shocks. The plank has titanium attached at either end, which is what produces the sparks underneath the cars as they race around circuits.
The wooden plank is permitted to flex up to two millimetres while the car is being driven, and motorsport governing body the FIA monitors this on three different points along the plank. There are suspicions, though, that some teams have floors which are capable of flexing up to six millimetres, and they are allowing this to happen in order to improve the performance of their cars.
That extra flexing is alleged to take place on points of the plank which are not monitored by the FIA, and could help to explain why some teams suffer from porpoising much less than others. While these teams may not technically be in breach of the rules from a legal standpoint, they would certainly be going against the spirit and intention of the regulations.
The key players in the row are the most recently successful and wealthy Formula 1 teams: Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes.
While the Red Bull and Ferrari have won every single race between them so far this season, and have faced little issue with porpoising, Mercedes have been unable to challenge for victories; drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell have been too busy worrying about the extremely intense bouncing in their W13 car.
Recently, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has accused Red Bull and Ferrari of allowing their floors to flex too far. “I think so,” Wolff said when asked by Sky Sports whether some teams were circumventing the rules in Austria. “I haven’t been able to squeeze the skids of certain teams. We are looking at our competitors.”
Wolff’s Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner, meanwhile, was damning in response to questions about whether his team was breaking the rules. “That’s total rubbish,” exclaimed Horner. “Absolutely no issues or concerns on our floor.”
Both Red Bull and Ferrari insist that their floors are entirely legal.
Various drivers demanded that the FIA step in in order to protect their health and safety after this year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where many suffered intense back pain because of porpoising. Hamilton was filmed struggling to step out of his car at the end of the race.
Subsequently, the FIA issued a technical directive ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix designed to limit how much any car was allowed to bounce. But it proved impossible to implement and the governing body has been working on an update since then.
Now, it is planning to introduce a new directive ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August which is designed to bring extra flexing to an end. Mercedes support the directive, but parts of it are opposed by Red Bull and Ferrari.
“Probably I would have wished that it comes a little bit earlier,” said Wolff. “But it is what it is. In Spa we won’t see that [extra flexing] anymore.”
Horner, meanwhile, said: “The technical directive is obviously focused on the bouncing and the porpoising which certain cars have struggled with. Is it the duty of the competitor to make sure their car is safe? Or is it the duty of the FIA to ensure that the competitor runs their car safely?”
If Mercedes’ suspicions are true and Red Bull and Ferrari have indeed been allowing their floors to flex beyond the limits set by the FIA, then the new technical directive for the race at Spa-Francorchamps could stop them from being able to do that and have a negative impact on their overall performance.
That would bring any team which has been remaining within the limit all along closer towards both frontrunners, but to what extent the gap would shorten cannot be ascertained until the directive has been implemented.
There remains of course the distinct possibility that Red Bull and Ferrari have been doing nothing of the sort, and that their respective speed will be unaffected from Belgium onwards, meaning nobody else will likely be able to win a single race this season.
Whether big changes happen or the status quo remains, the flexi floor row is now becoming season-defining for every team in F1.
All rights reserved. © 2021 Associated Newspapers Limited.

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