Formula One has a long history of novel engineering tricks, all of them in the pursuit of faster lap times and an edge over the competition. The F1 YouTube channel even put together a super informative video not too long ago detailing teams’ innovations of the past, which is worth your time if you haven’t seen it already.
If you’ve been paying attention to pre-season testing this year, then you’ve surely heard about Mercedes’ trick steering system, allowing its drivers to adjust the toe of the front wheels on the fly. Mercedes has named it DAS, an acronym for Dual Axis Steering. Many obvious engineering tricks and innovations of the past get banned right away, as teams around the paddock complain and moan to FIA officials. In this case, the FIA has deemed Mercedes’ DAS system legal for the 2020 F1 season but illegal from 2021 and onward, according to Motorsport. Consider our eyebrows raised. The rules for 2021 state the following:
“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.”
Let’s explain exactly what’s going on with the DAS system as best we can. Mercedes won’t give away its secrets, but plenty of folks have already given their two cents on how it works and the advantages Mercedes will gain. The system’s controls look simple, as the alignment of the front wheels is adjusted by the driver pulling and pushing on the steering column — it’s fairly obvious after watching the cockpit view of Lewis Hamilton doing this on camera (above). When Hamilton pulls the steering wheel closer to his body, the wheels move into a straight position, but pushing back in returns them to their traditional toe-out position. The effects are best explained by ex-F1 driver Jolyon Palmer in the video.
To sum that video above up, the three main advantages come in tire wear, tire temperature control and top speed. We can’t know what kind of a speed advantage it gives Mercedes at this point in testing, but the more straight position of the wheels and tires has the possibility of reducing drag. F1’s official DAS explanation article goes into even further detail as to why Mercedes would deploy this system.
Toe-out is advantageous in the corners, because the car feels more stable on turn-in. However, the angle of the tires causes uneven heating of the tires, making the inner portion of the tread hotter than the rest of the tire. Running with the front tires upright and straight will make sure the whole tire tread heats up more evenly.
If it works as intended during the season, Mercedes could see better tire wear, better heating of its tires and maybe a slight top speed advantage on the tracks with longer straightaways. Every other team needs to decide if they want to scramble and develop their own version of the DAS system or fight for the FIA to outlaw it. The crown has belonged to Mercedes for a long stretch in F1, and this new development just makes it that much tougher for other teams to take it away. The Australian Grand Prix weekend is only three weeks away, so time is not the competition’s friend right now.
Update: Racefans.net reports that Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto says it wouldn’t be able to introduce a DAS system until mid-season. “I have no idea if it would be worthwhile or not,” Binotto said, “but it’s certainly longer than that. It’s an entire concept design, producing homologation, just to be safe. So if it is, I think it can be like mid-season, not earlier.”