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What Is Porpoising In F1? (Explained In Simple Terms)

The 2022 rule changes were revolutionary, and they changed the way Formula 1 cars look and perform dramatically. Drivers had to adapt and learn how to drive these cars, but it also presented a challenge for the engineers. One challenge is what is known as porpoising.

Porpoising in F1 is when the ground effect, responsible for much of the car’s downforce, effectively sucks the car into the tarmac on a straight. When the car gets too close to the ground, the airflow under the car stalls, and the suspension essentially pushes the car back up, in a repeating cycle.

Porpoising is a new problem that the current teams have not had to deal with before, which forced the engineers to work overtime to solve the problem. Some teams were worse affected by porpoising than others, and below we take a closer look at what exactly porpoising means in F1.

What Is The Ground Effect In F1?

The 2022 rule changes mean that Formula 1 cars now use the ground effect to produce a lot of their downforce, rather than relying solely on the various wings and other downforce generating components on the body of the car. This was done in an attempt to limit the “dirty air” coming off the backs of the cars, making it tough for cars to follow each other.

In the past cars would only produce over body downforce. This means that the cars would be as low to the ground as possible, which created a high pressure difference above and below the wings and other downforce components. This pressure difference, with high pressure on the top of the car and low pressure on the bottom, effectively pushes the cars down into the track.

Venturi Tunnels

However, the cars are no longer as reliant on over body downforce. A lot of the air is now forced underneath the car into Venturi tunnels. The very simple explanation is that these Venturi tunnels accelerate air under the car, leading to an area of low pressure, creating a pressure difference above and below the car, effectively sucking the car to the ground.

This is known as the ground effect. Ground effect was first used in F1 in the 1970s. However, it was banned for being too dangerous. Engineers have a better understanding of how it works now, and so it was implemented in 2022 in a much safer way than it was back then. However, one consequence of the ground effect is a phenomenon known as porpoising.

What Does Porpoising Mean In F1?

Porpoising in F1 refers to the bouncing effect of the cars as they travel at high speeds on the straights. The cars bounce as a result of the ground effect sucking the car so low to the ground that the airflow stalls underneath, before the suspension quickly pushes the car back up.

The term “porpoising” was first coined in the late 1970s by Mario Andretti, but it was used once again during the Barcelona and Bahrain pre-season tests in 2022 to describe what the cars were doing on the straights. Just like a porpoise that jumps through the water while it swims, the Formula 1 cars were bouncing up and down while on the straight in a similar manner.

How Does Porpoising Happen?

As the air passes through the Venturi tunnels in the floor of an F1 car, the suspension becomes loaded and the car is sucked into the ground, due to the large pressure difference above and below the car. The air exits through diffusers at the back of the car, helping to effectively suck more air underneath the car, and therefore creating more downforce.

Once the car reaches a certain speed on the straights, the car is effectively generating so much downforce through the ground effect that the car gets very low to the ground, and it may even touch it.

Stalling Diffuser

When the car gets too low to the ground, no more air can be sucked underneath the car, and the air begins to stall at the edge of the diffuser. Stalling here basically means the high-pressure air above the diffuser and the low-pressure air below it separate so much that the downforce effect disappears.

This then leads to air becoming trapped in the Venturi tunnels as the diffuser stops doing its job. When the air becomes trapped underneath the car, the pressure difference rapidly decreases, and the car basically loses most of its downforce. The suspension then unloads, lifting the car up rapidly, as the suspension is very stiff and wants to almost snap back into its normal resting position.

Once the car lifts up the air escapes. However, once the air has left the Venturi tunnels more air can then flow through them once again. This creates downforce, which loads the suspension again and sucks the car into the ground. This happens rapidly over and over again in a repeating cycle, leading to the bouncing effect known as porpoising.

How Can F1 Teams Combat Porpoising?

The cause of the porpoising issue is the floor of the car, and teams don’t want to change the floor too much as they risk losing some of the ground effect and therefore downforce through the corners. The simple answer to porpoising is to raise the entire car up from the ground by altering the ride height.

By raising the ride height of the car, air is less likely to become trapped underneath the car in the Venturi tunnels (as there is just more space for it to flow underneath the car), leading to the stalling of the diffuser. This significantly reduces the porpoising effect.

However, there is a huge trade-off to raising an F1 car’s ride height. In order for the ground effect to be as effective as possible, the cars need to be as low as possible to the ground in order to trap the air and create a vacuum, sucking the car to the ground, allowing it to take corners at high speeds.

When raising the ride height of the car, teams will lose some of this downforce and therefore will also lose some of their cornering speed. But raising the ride height also raises the car’s center of gravity, affecting its balance in the corners. The key is finding a balance between minimizing porpoising but keeping as much downforce on the car as possible.

Active Suspension

One sure way to solve porpoising is by using active suspension. Active suspension is a system that was first used in F1 in 1983 to combat – you guessed it – porpoising. It was an incredibly clever system that could automatically raise and lower the ride height of the car while the car was out on track. It was used to maximum effect in the early 1990s, before being banned.

Active suspension would automatically, via electronics and various sensors, adjust the car’s ride height in different ways to maximize the grip of all four tires at any given moment. However, when it was first used in the early 80s to combat porpoising, it was simply designed to prevent the stalling of air under the car that led to the up and down movement.

Active suspension was banned in 1994 as it was deemed too dangerous and was effectively a driver aid, seemingly taking away from the skill aspect of the sport. However, active suspension would immediately solve F1 teams’ porpoising issues were it brought back, but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

How Does Porpoising Affect F1 Lap Times?

Porpoising can negatively affect F1 lap times if it is not managed effectively. As the cars tend to porpoise on the long straights, they suffer in terms of their top speed. If they were to porpoise through the corners, it could cause the car to become very unstable, which could lead to a crash.

With the violent bouncing on the straights, F1 cars may struggle to reach their true top speed. Porpoising naturally slows the car down on the straights as the car will not be able to run as smoothly as possible. As the air underneath the car loads and unloads the suspension, the top speed of the car will suffer.

While porpoising does seem to only be an issue at the very high speeds towards the end of straights, if it were to occur through very high speed corners, it would not just affect lap times. It could also make the car so unstable that the driver could struggle to keep it on the circuit.

Does Porpoising Damage The Car?

Porpoising can not only cause the car to struggle with top speed and lap times, but it can also damage the car if the porpoising becomes too violent. With the violent bouncing, there is a risk of the floor of the car hitting the tarmac too hard and getting damaged.

This is a more serious problem than it was in the past as the floor is crucial to the performance of the car through the Venturi tunnels. With a damaged floor, the car’s ground effect would suffer massively. This means that the car would lose a huge amount of downforce when cornering. This would not only affect lap times, but it would become dangerous too.

Is Porpoising Uncomfortable For F1 Drivers?

Porpoising is uncomfortable for F1 drivers when they have to deal with it for extended periods of time. Many drivers reported that the porpoising effect is difficult to cope with when the car is going 190 miler per hour down the straight, and in the past it gave drivers headaches.

Charles Leclerc compared the porpoising effect to ‘turbulence on an aircraft’ and said that it does make him feel ‘a little bit ill.’ Judging from the front facing onboard cameras it’s clear that porpoising is very uncomfortable for the driver, especially if they have to complete a full race distance with porpoising on every long straight.

Final Thoughts

Porpoising in F1 is the up and down bouncing movement of the car at high speeds. Porpoising occurs as the car is sucked towards the ground as a result of massive amounts of downforce, before springing back up as it loses downforce when it gets too close to the ground, with the cycle repeating.