Image Credit: Formula1.com
It’s that time of year when F1 teams dust down and head to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to begin preparations for the new season. Last year’s champions Mercedes AMG Petronas stunned their competition with a new piece of technology called Dual Axis Steering (DAS). But what everyone wants to know is: what is it? Is it safe and is it within the laws of the sport?
What is DAS?
DAS is a brand-new idea from Mercedes’ factory in Brackley which allows the driver to move their steering wheel both left and right, and forwards and outwards. The forwards and outwards part affects the relationship angle between the front tyres and the car – this is known in F1 jargon as ‘toe’. ‘Toe in’, is where the tyres are more parallel to the car and provides more optimum straight-line speeds but at a deficit to raw traction in the corners. ‘Toe out’ is where the tyres are angled away from the car, reducing the top speed potential but also providing more traction during cornering. DAS allows Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to adjust the ‘toe angle’ whilst driving around a track. Other drivers are stuck with fixed ‘toe’ adjustments throughout the race. But this is not the only advantage which other teams are fearing – rival teams are fearing that DAS could give Mercedes an advantage in tyre management.
Tyre management is an issue for any team in Formula 1 and has especially been so in recent years where Pirelli (who provide the tyres for the sport) have taken steps to increase tyre degradation by providing softer tyres at Grand Prix. This move has been made to increase drama during races, to great success. However, when added to the increasingly hot temperatures during the European Season through the summer months, tyre blistering has become a consistently problematic issue. Rival teams are fearing that DAS will allow Hamilton and Bottas to adjust the contact between the tyre and the track (as a result of the changing toe angle) and therefore, reducing the risk of blistering and extending the time the drivers can run on a set of tyres. DAS is potentially ground-breaking, pushing boundaries not only in how fast Mercedes can go around tracks but also in the duration of their tyres. No wonder rival teams are jealous!
Is DAS safe and is it legal?
On an episode of the podcast The Sports Blitz (where a wider debate can be found), the news broke that Formula 1’s governing body the FIA have banned Dual Axis Steering from the 2021 season onwards, therefore, confirming its legality for this season but not following the rule changes that will be implemented ahead of the highly anticipated 2021 season. As all followers of the sport know, safety is at the very core of Formula 1 in the modern era. Hence all fans have been naturally sceptical of DAS. Over a decade ago, McLaren-Mercedes introduced what became known as the ‘F Duct’ – a tube that ran through the car via the cockpit allowing air to flow through the car down the straights. However, it quickly was banned as it was realised that drivers had to remove one hand from their steering wheel to cover a gap in their cockpit to activate the full potential of the ‘F Duct’. Likewise, with DAS, sceptics have questioned whether moving the steering wheel in two directions along with gear changes, energy harvesting and deployment, DRS (Drag Reduction System), and often a radio message, is just simply too much for a driver to be in control of at speeds in excess of 180mph. The easy answer is, yes, it is too much. However, these are simply the demands on a modern F1 driver. The days of James Hunt and Niki Lauda where drivers drove around at high speeds on nothing more than a bomb on four wheels are long gone. Computers are the kings of the new F1, rather than nuts and bolts.
Dual Axis Steering, for now, will be a one season wonder of human ingenuity in Formula 1. It is a shame that the FIA have ruled that it will be outlawed from 2021, but this gives us fans the opportunity to be in awe of the staggering work that goes into the current crop of cars on the track in the final year of the Turbo-Hybrid Era.