As if Formula 1 drivers didn’t already have their hands full with a steering wheel covered in buttons and switches, the Mercedes technical team have added a new function for the 2020 F1 season: ‘Dual Axis Steering’ or DAS.
It appears from testing that turning the steering wheel still turns the front wheels (as expected!) but, by moving the steering wheel towards them or away from them, a driver can alter the toe angle of the front wheels.
F1 cars typically run with a small degree of front wheel toe-out which helps stability and grip on initial turn-in to a corner. However, when the car is running straight ahead the toe-out means that the tyre scrubs along the track surface which increases tyre temperature causing excessive tyre wear. Mercedes’ innovative ‘Dual Axis Steering’ appears to be an attempt by their engineers to have the best of both worlds, a toe-out geometry when cornering for stability and grip and a more toe-neutral geometry when running straight to reduce wear.
The ultimate performance benefits for lap time have yet to be seen, but if the system reduces tyre wear, or helps the drivers to manage the front tyre temperatures more efficiently, then the overall race performance benefits could be significant.
Mercedes seem confident that the system is legal under the technical regulations, but it seems likely this will be challenged at some point, particularly if the system results in significant advantages.
It is likely that the push/pull of the wheel to actuate the system is to comply with technical regulation 10.2.1 which essentially states that, with the steering wheel fixed, the position of each wheel centre and the orientation rotation axis must not alter (beyond that caused by suspension travel and necessary compliance). The test will be technical regulation 10.2.3 which states that no adjustment may be made to any suspension system while the car is in motion. Although the technical details of the system are not yet known if seems likely that Mercedes will argue that steering of the wheels is allowed (in fact it is required) and that nothing in the regulations says that the wheels must be steered at the same time, or to the same degree, so ‘Dual Axis Steering’ is a steering system allowing the driver to have greater control over the steering of each wheel to a small degree and is not adjusting a suspension system.
This sort of innovative solution to a problem is exactly the sort of thing the patent system is able to protect, but patent rights are not typically something that is considered in F1 because of the fast moving and specialist nature of the sport and technology. Whether this system, or elements of it, could have applications outside F1, and could therefore merit Mercedes seeking patent protection, remains to be seen. If elements of the technology do filter down to road cars, it would join technology like active suspension and disc brakes that were first seen in race cars.
The race season will be the test of whether ‘Dual Axis Steering’ has real benefits. However, the drivers will have to get used to pushing/pulling on the wheel as they drive, as well as making brake bias adjustments, engine map adjustments and any number of other tweaks, all while racing with some of the best drivers in the world. Lots to think about, but no doubt they will be up to the challenge!