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Porpoising: An expert’s take on an issue which is a pain for Formula One drivers

Cars are bouncing up and down on their suspension at high speed.

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton

Formula One’s ruling body, the FIA, has vowed to eliminate or reduce porpoising – the phenomenon when cars bounce up and down on their suspension at high speed – on the advice of its doctors.

Ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix, the PA news agency spoke to Gemma Fisher – the first Human Performance Consultant Osteopath within F1 – to hear the impact porpoising is having on the grid’s 20 drivers.

Here are her thoughts:

“I should start by saying that teams are not doing this intentionally. It is by no means ideal from an aerodynamic perspective, never mind a driver performance perspective. But certainly it is a problem that needs addressing.

“Lewis Hamilton’s back problems in Baku shows that this cannot continue, and look how early on in the season drivers have reported symptoms.

“Because of patient-doctor confidentially, we don’t broadcast everything that drivers talk to us about. But there are more than just the vocal ones in the pit-lane who are experience pain. Some drivers might not want to let fellow competitors know they are struggling.

“Porpoising is a very specific phenomenon and the huge loads which are going through the driver is exacerbating that even further.

“As humans, we are meant to be upright, moving and mobile. But we are putting drivers into a restrictive, fixed position and then moving them at significant speed. A human’s internal organs are not supposed to be moving at 200mph, and then suddenly stop under braking.

“Load is applied to the front of the disc which sends pressure towards the back of the disc. Over time, a driver can stress those fibres within the discs. They become stretched and damaged, and when force is applied the nucleus from the centre of the disc is pushed to the damaged areas.

“This is not a one-off event. The problem with porpoising is the frequencies and the oscillations. That is what is creating the damage, causing micro-trauma, and it is that stage when problems and symptoms appear.

“There are soft-tissue connections from the base of the skull which surround the brain. Fluids within the structure help with the shock-absorbing mechanism so the brain can take impact. Without sounding too dramatic this is another area we are now having to consider, like concussion and head trauma in football and rugby.

“Then there is also the risk of exacerbating previous injuries. We are pushing for more and more races in F1, and there is not as much time to heal and recover.

“The drivers are super-fit and fantastic machines when you put them into a car. But ultimately they are still humans, and their physiological processes are exactly the same as ours.

“One of the key aspects is how we use our knowledge and skills to help the drivers recover. We recommended therapies such as acupuncture as well as infrared technology embedded within our clothing which actively helps recovery, too.

“We also suggest ice baths and cryotherapy, and monitor a driver’s genetic profile to look at areas where they are predisposed to certain injuries. Being informed ahead of time and armed with that information is helpful, and the most proactive way to be able to deal with this.

“Hamilton might be 37 but he is not over the hill yet. However, the spine does start to degenerate with age and you naturally start to have some decline. He will have been doing all the right things to look after his general health to prevent that.

“But porpoising also shows the power of the mind, and the psychology of pain on your mental status. The difference in Lewis’ mindset, demeanour, and how present his pain was when the car performance was not there – compared to when he finished on the podium at the last race in Canada – was an interesting one. He was skipping around in Montreal.

“One thing that gets forgotten is the mental and psychological performance versus the physical. Obviously, it was not the sole factor behind Lewis’ change in mood, but you simply cannot compartmentalise the body either.”

Gemma Fisher is a consultant for KYMIRA, the technology brand specialising in infrared performance apparel.

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