Whilst the Mercedes F1 team is extremely confident about the use of its new Dual Axis Steering (DAS) system from the weekend of the Australian Grand Prix, Red Bull and Helmut Marko are watching and waiting for every opportunity to prevent the new device from being fully homologated by the FIA.
Most of the major players in Formula One have made no secret of their admiration for the ingenuity shown by Mercedes over the last few months.
The only person who has reacted differently is Red Bull’s Head of Driver Development, Dr. Helmut Marko. Dr. Marko believes that the new system, however ingenious, is totally out of line with the FIA technical regulations.
In an interview, the Austrian said that he and his team would be following the case very closely.
“In my opinion, if you move the steering and the toe, you are affecting the contact surface of the tyre with the ground.
“Even if it is tiny, there will be a change in any case and it will also affect the height of the car.
“And in this very specific case, if the height moves, even if it’s very slight, it’s totally forbidden. Because this is similar to active suspension.
“This concept of Mercedes has a lot of similarities with this kind of device and as I said before, it’s forbidden because it will obviously benefit the driver.
“We are going to observe all this carefully and also discuss it with the FIA so that there are no grey areas.” concludes Marko.
What is Mercedes F1 ‘DAS’ system?
Mercedes call it DAS ‘Dual Axis Steering’. Since yesterday, there is much onboard footage during testing showing Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas visibly pulling and pushing on the steering column of the W11 causing the angle of the wheels to change, called toe-in or toe-out.
Toe can also be used to alter a vehicle’s handling traits. Increased toe-in (pointing inwards at the front) will typically result in reduced oversteer, help steady the car and enhance high-speed stability. Increased toe-out (pointing outwards at the front) will typically result in reduced understeer, helping free up the car, especially during initial turn-in while entering a corner.
Having the wheels toe straight also improves the aerodynamics and straight line speed of the car.
The most likely reason for this system is tyre temperature management, in other words designed to preserve tyre life, or to help warm the tyres. This would be inline with Mercedes past design philosophy so it’s a logical conclusion.
The other thing to keep in mind is this may not be the only gadget or innovation on the W11, just the most visible one. Aerodynamically speaking I would be concerned that the device is also adjusting the front ride height, changing how high the front wing is off the ground which is huge in terms of aerodynamic gains.
The concept is clever in it’s simplicity. Pulling/Pushing on the Steering wheel causes a build up of hydraulic pressure which pushes suspension components closer to together or further apart.
A number of people have suggested that the device may be entirely mechanical in nature. Pulling the steering wheel would cause the two track rod parts to come closer in the center where they join the wheel. This would be simpler to implement, and be in less of a grey area for the rules.
— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) February 20, 2020
What will the other F1 teams do?
The big teams like Ferrari, Red Bull, and McLaren are fully aware of what Mercedes are doing and the gadget’s advantages probably already making proof of concept versions of it back at base.
Assuming there isn’t a baked-in component in the chassis tub the teams will probably implement there own versions of this gadget within a month or two.
The problem with this is developing such gadgets usually becomes X leads to Y. Mercedes uses this gadget to alter the Wheel Toe angle, but since it’s deemed legal to move the steering column McLaren then decide to use that effect to alter the wheel camber, and Renault start adjusting the front ride height or whatever.
This is not the first time Mercedes had a trick Formula 1 suspension
People are quick to talk about the Mercedes engines as their big advantage during the Turbo-hybrid era, but Mercedes have been running trick suspension setups this whole time.
Mercedes ran a very well developed version of FRIC suspension (Front and Rear Interconnected) since at least 2013. This system developed by Renault (then Lotus) allowed fluid transfer between the front + rear of the car. Using the cars tendency to lean forward under breaking and lean backwards under acceleration to generate hydraulic pressure that would be used to keep the ride height level. The Mercedes system was so good that it effectively mimicked the benefits of Active Suspension and was subsequently banned.
Similarly last year during the Monaco GP the teams took notice of a strange steering angle on Hamilton and Bottas’ cars. When they turned the steering to full lock the suspension members would deliberately kink causing the front wing to lower to the ground in the corners to generate more downforce. A trick that most of the teams have since copied.
One of the key factors of car performance in this era has been to extract the maximum out of the often temperamental Pirelli tires. Mercedes have proven to be the masters of this, and in the few races that they have gotten this wrong the team has suffered greatly. (Austrian GP 2019 for example)
In addition to using trick suspension setups to help maximize the tire performance, Mercedes have also been caught using trick wheel rims and break drum pre-heaters to increase the heat in the tires and manipulate the tire pressures. It’s believed that Mercedes (and other teams too to be fair) where deliberately overheating the tires during pre-race conditions so that the tire pressure would drop below what was legally allowed during the races.
Lewis Hamilton and James Allison talk about DAS + graphics explanation
Mercedes were also the first to pioneer the use of thermal imaging cameras on the cars. In 2017 Mercedes teamed up with Qualcomm to produced thermal imaging cameras that would wirelessly deliver real-time tire temperature data back to the team so that they could better understand the tire performance and degradation in testing. Now they all do it.
Working the black magic of tire management is nothing knew. Ferrari used this trick to fantastic results in the early 2000’s taking advantage of bespoke Bridgestone tires. Banning tire changes for 2005 crippled Ferrari’s performance and allowed the Renault’s to take over. It should be no surprise then that Mercedes took this development route given the team was effectively setup by Brawn and Schumacher before the arrival of Wolfe and Hamilton.
Key former members of the Mercedes team were Aldo Costa and Paddy Lowe, both of which are known for being genius’ in terms of suspension design. Lowe in particular is considered to have been the mastermind behind the infamous Active Suspension on the 90’s Williams. Both were also hired by Brawn before he left the team.
The team also hired James Allison, formerly at Ferrari and more importantly Lotus/Renault (during the FRIC days)
Lowe has since left Mercedes to join Williams, but left the team during the disastrous 2019 season and is currently assumed to be on gardening leave.
Costa meanwhile has joined Dallara as of 2020.
On the Straights the steering wheel pulls the whole assembly backwards creating zero toe and more straight line speed. This might in turn affect the push rod on upright (pou) setup altering ride height as well, for an aero effect.
— Craig Scarborough (@ScarbsTech) February 20, 2020
Is Mercedes F1 suspension trickery legal?
That is actually yet to be determined.
You need to realize that the teams don’t develop their cars entirely in a vacuum. The teams work with the FIA throughout the design process to ensure that their gadgets are legal, otherwise they would risk having them banned as soon as they showed up to a track.
James Allison saying “The FIA has deemed it legal” means that the FIA inspectors have so far deemed the device to be within the rules, but that may change.
The FIA can ban a device over the course of a season for 3 reasons. Officially because it’s been deemed illegal, or unsafe, and unofficially for political reasons.
On safety grounds the device may prove to be dangerous. If for example Lewis accidentally tears the steering wheel off during a race due to the device then the device will probably get banned. This is highly unlikely though. What’s more likely is that as the bigger teams like Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault, and McLaren scramble to design their own version of DAS there is the possibility of doing it in a dangerous way. If an accident happens on say the Renault because of DAS then the gadget could get banned for everyone, because having it legal means that the teams will keep trying to implement it.
The technical regulations say:
10.2 Suspension geometry:
10.2.1 With the steering wheel fixed, the position of each wheel centre and the orientation of its rotation axis must be completely and uniquely defined by a function of its principally vertical suspension travel, save only for the effects of reasonable compliance which does not intentionally provide further degrees of freedom.
10.2.2 Any powered device which is capable of altering the configuration or affecting the performance of any part of any suspension system is forbidden.
10.2.3 No adjustment may be made to any suspension system while the car is in motion.
One particular example pointed out was in Ferrari’s attempt to copy the F-Duct they passed the actuator valve in such a way that Alonso had to take his hand off the steering wheel to block it (activate it). The FIA then ruled the device too dangerous and banned it. Although the basic concept was developed into today’s DRS.
In terms of legality it’s up for debate. The way it works in F1 is that the rules are intentionally vague. The rulebook includes catchalls like “movable aerodynamic device” for a reason, because the teams keep coming up with clever ways to get around the rules. By having a vague regulation like that the FIA has grounds to ban clever interpretations of the rules.
What will likely happen is A. The likes of say Ferrari try to copy the device, when they realize they can’t or it will be too difficult then move onto B. which is to protest the legality of the DAS device. Ferrari then go to the FIA court to plead their case and will argue that DAS counts as a movable aerodynamic device and the FIA will decide then and there whether or not to ban it.
A real world precedent of this is the Renault tuned Mass Damper from 2006. A mass damper is a basically a sprung weight mounted in the cars noise cone that dampens out the bouncing caused by the car running over bumps. Ferrari protested this device and got it banned under grounds that it was a movable aerodynamic device… despite it not physically touching any air flow.
So to summarize the Ferrari playbook is:
A. Try to copy it
B. If you can’t get it to work get it banned
Another thing to consider is politics. Brawn has been highly vocal about wanting to close loopholes in the rules starting in 2021 in order to prevent another double-diffuser debacle (ironic given that the team bearing his name won a championship doing exactly that) so Brawn may push the FIA to ban the device on similar grounds.
If the device proves to be a huge advantage, and the other teams can’t catch up, it may also get banned for political reasons as the other teams will protest and the fans have been complaining incessantly about Mercedes domination. My point is there’s always more going on behind the scene’s in F1 than meets the eye, and the rules are hardly black + white.
Renault scrambling to figure out what’s going on with Mercedes steering
Mercedes F1 suspension already banned by FIA for 2021
Mercedes DAS system already made illegal for next year in 2021 regulations.
We’ve already learned that Mercedes sought clarification about their system from the FIA, and that they didn’t find anything wrong with it, but it appears that the rules published for 2021 has already banned such a system. No doubt spurred on by the clarification by Mercedes.
There, under section 10.5.2 we can find this from the published rules;
10.5.2 The re-alignment 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.
Clearly the FIA has already changed the technical regulations for 2021 to make sure nobody can use it next season.