Ushering in what may be another year of Mercedes dominance, the Silver Arrows showed up to pre-season testing with a new apparatus that raised a few eyebrows. The most dominant team in the hybrid-turbo era fitted their W11 with a bizarre steering system which allows the driver to control the alignment of the front axle with a push or pull of the steering wheel. This Dual-Axis Steering, or DAS, may change the game in a major way.
How Is It Operated?
DAS is a refreshingly simple term for a relatively simple innovation — simple by Formula 1 standards, anyway. It has to be relatively simple to use since it seems that adjusting a telescoping wheel at 180 miles an hour could lead to a snatched tire or a dropped wheel. However, the stroke of the wheel along the steering column is relatively short and obviously the wheel is heavily weighted, which makes it more manageable than some might imagine.
Like most F1 inventions, it’s shrouded in some secrecy. Mercedes engineers are reluctant to go into detail on how the wheel functions precisely — which might be an issue with the FIA — but we can clearly see the front wheels toeing in as Lewis Hamilton moves the steering wheel along the column like a trombone slide.
Why the Extra Movement?
Formula 1 cars tend to align the front axle with some toe-out. This splaying of the fronts delays the loading of the front tires as the car turns into a corner, which softens the weight transfer to the rear. An abrupt shift to the rear, combined with the immediate torque of the hybrid-turbo power unit, makes the car quite unstable on entry.
However, the downside of this much toe-out is tire wear. Running more toe-out has the downside of heating the inside shoulder of the tire much faster than the rest of the tire surface. By reducing the toe-out, bringing the tire upright on the straight, and distributing the weight evenly over the contact patch, Mercedes can ensure the tire wears more evenly — a significant benefit along some of the straights at Formula 1’s fastest tracks like Shanghai and Monza.
There are other benefits. A toe-less tire scrubs less, which means better acceleration. Additionally, the ability to control scrub gives drivers another option to heat the front tires prior to a qualifying session or on a formation lap. Best of all, this alignment isn’t static — Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas can revert the settings to those which aid cornering when the time comes.
As Hamilton brakes for the following corner, he pushes the steering wheel forward to regain the toe-out which makes the car more predictable on turn-in. With strong cornering performance, better control over the heating of the tire, and reduced tire wear, this system should give the W11 a little extra performance over the course of the race — provided it’s accepted as legal.
Suspension or Steering?
This steering system is just one of many facets on the W11. But, being one of the most obvious, it’s already under inspection. Though Mercedes are confident in the legality of the system, as they developed the system in close contact with the FIA, its status is still in question.
Like so many innovations in the top-tier motorsport, it could be deemed illegal depending on the way it’s classified. If DAS is judged as part of car’s suspension setup, it could conflict with F1’s Parc Fermé rules, which state the car’s suspension setup cannot be changed once it leaves the pits for qualifying to the start of the race. “No adjustment may be made to any suspension system while the car is in motion,” states Article 10.2.3 of F1’s Technical Regulations. Every team logs suspension settings with the officials prior to leaving the pits to prevent teams from building cars specifically for races or for qualifying sessions; the modern F1 car must be versatile enough to do both.
If it’s determined to be part of the steering system, it should be fine according to the current regs. Article 10.4.1 of the technical regulations says: “Any steering system which permits the re-alignment of more than two wheels is not permitted.” As DAS only affects the toe of the front wheels, it’s in full compliance.
Not that it hasn’t prevented others from putting this obvious advantage under heavy scrutiny. Adrian Newey has said that the “driver isn’t steering the car when he pushes or pulls the wheel,” and that “there must be aerodynamic reasons” for developing this system. Aerodynamics and clever interpretations of the regulations — perhaps the two biggest determinants of success in this sport.
What’s certain is the system will be banned for 2021 under a new “loophole-closing” rule. A new provision in the 2021 rules, Article 10.5.2, states: “The realignment of the steered wheels, as defined by the position of the inboard attachment of the relevant suspensions members that remain a fixed distance from each other, must be uniquely defined by a monotonic function of the rotational position of a single steering wheel.”
So, it seems that DAS is a new tool at the Mercedes drivers’ disposal for the following season only. The outrageous resources available for development in Formula1 are constrained by ever-tightening regulations. It’s an imperfect way to strike some sort of balance, but considering all the factors (and money) involved, it’s not terrible.
Will This Top-Tier Tech Trickle Down?
Fortunately, grassroots racing does not suffer from the same sort of political involvement, but money doesn’t exactly flow-in from the multinationals to fund a father-son team manning a Miata. Along the lower rungs of the racing ladder, we cannot expect to see drivers adjusting their alignment from the cockpit anytime soon.
That said, onboard rollbar adjustment is an occasional sight at club events, as are in-car boost controllers, self-adjusting throttle bodies, paddle shifters, pushrod suspension, and active wings. These innovations are all the products of the best minds in motorsport, many of whom work for big teams like Mercedes. And their creativity fuels the rest of the bright minds in the racing pyramid. Now, many of the inventions pioneered at higher levels of racing are accessible to the working man, but it takes time to mass-produce, refine, and make them semi-sensible purchases for the weekend racer. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for inspiration.