Der, die, das – as any student of German knows, the language relies on a trio of complex definitive grammatical articles, which in turn denote the “gender” of the noun, with the first signifying a “masculine” object, the second “feminine” and the third (neuter).
The cunning innovation allows drivers to adjust the toe of their front wheels, either inwards or outwards, while on the move by simply pushing the steering system away (outwards) or towards themselves (inwards).
During turn-in, toe-out geometry provides more front end ‘bite’; the downside, though, is that on straights the inner edges of front tyres get punished in terms of both heat and wear over a race distance. However, during qualifying sessions or after tyre changes, there is much to be gained by heating the rubber as quickly and accurately as possible, and so an element of toe-in is useful during out-laps.
However, neutral “toe” reduces frontal area and thus drag on straights as only the forward face is presented to the air while also making for cooler tyres, with toe-in creating greater stability during straight-line travel.
DAS therefore could offer Mercedes’ drivers the best option to suit their circumstances. “I think they have the freedom to do [anything] they want when they have the system on the car, they can decide what they want, how to use it,” said Pirelli’s head of car racing Mario Isola said when asked about the system by RaceFans. “The final target is to optimise the usage of the tyres as well as the balance of the car. That may sound stupid, but it’s logical.”
Logic notwithstanding, with any new-fangled F1 developments there are inevitably questions over legality. DAS is no different.
Various F1 figures have suggested that the system breaches F1’s parc ferme regulations, which state that “a competitor may not modify any part on the car or make changes to the set-up of the suspension whilst the car is being held under parc ferme conditions.”
Which it is not, of course, while being out on track. But equally, teams need to ensure the legality of their cars at all times. The crux of the matter is whether DAS constitutes a steering or suspension device.
During an FIA media conference convened shortly after DAS made its debut on day two in Barcelona, Mercedes technical director James Allison said its existence “isn’t news to the FIA; it’s something we’ve been talking to them about for some time.” Lewis Hamilton, who had just been spotted using it, insisted: “The FIA are OK with the project,” adding there were no safety concerns, which, frankly, is to be expected from Mercedes or any team.
After the end of day three Isola put any tyre-related safety suspicions beyond doubt when he stated that [Pirelli] regularly “analyse tyres from every team to understand the levels of stress, and there is nothing unusual from Mercedes so the system is… not creating an issue.” Thus, there are no concerns on that front.
Which is all well and good, but none of the above makes DAS definitively legal: The governing body can offer opinions of legality; but the stewards hand down verdicts, and they are, of course, only called upon to rule during competitions, which testing sessions are not. Indeed, without stretching a point, a number of data-gathering devices used during testing (and practice sessions) would breach F1’s regulations if used in a race.
By the same token, Pirelli could offer its findings only where they relate to the structural integrity of tyres that have been subjected to the geometric variations provided by DAS. What about safety concerns relating to the operational aspects of DAS?
“I think from the FIA perspective, at the end of the day, safety is our number one element,” FIA race director and F1 safety delegate Michael Masi said during an FIA media conference.
“So there’s no questions regarding the safety side of it. Rest assured that is the highest priority from our side.”
Tellingly, none of the nine opposition teams homed in on safety questions as they often have with other innovations. The distinct impression lingered that those who harboured doubts about DAS did so over the question of legality or the costs of replication and development time required for what would be, at most, a single season – assuming DAS is outlawed for 2021, as most believe it will be.
That said, a number of technical directors are concerned that the hurriedly inserted Article 10.5 of the 2021 technical regulations – which defines ‘steering’ – is not sufficiently explicit and may require clarification ahead of the regulatory deadline. That deadline is not yet defined as it hinges on a revised governance process, which in turn requires an agreement with the teams (aka the Concorde Agreement) to be signed. Thus, there is still time to draft amendments.
Mercedes’ rivals expect the cost and time implications involved in duplicating DAS will be considerable. Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto opined that for his team, copying the system “will certainly be longer than the first grand prix in Melbourne.”
“It is a first-concept design, production, homologation [process], it has to be safe,” he said. “If it is to be made it can’t be before mid-season.”
If Ferrari, with arguably the best facilities and biggest budget in the sport, cannot see its way clear to developing a workable DAS system in four or so months, what chance the smaller teams managing to do so before or if it is banned?
“For sure a midfield team is not going to invest resources to figure something out like this because you have got issues which give us more return for the investment,” said Guenther Steiner of budget outfit Haas. McLaren’s Andreas Seidl maintained that “where we are right now, there are other areas we have to focus on where we can make bigger steps than trying to copy another system from Mercedes.”
All of which is unequivocal: Admiration for Mercedes for the innovation, even if admitted somewhat grudgingly and with reservations about the costs incurred. Fans appear to be similarly impressed with it as well. And therein lies a lesson for the sport.
Over the years F1 carved itself a niche as an innovative motorsport category. Indeed, at one stage the most pioneering and ground-breaking of all. However as standardisation bit in the name of ‘cost saving’ – for which read ‘profits for commercial rights holders’ – so F1’s pioneering spirit became dampened.
Such philosophies kill innovation, and already Ross Brawn, managing director of motorsport for Liberty, is intent on closing off so-called loopholes through the to-be-confirmed governance process alluded to above, which will reduce the time and unanimity currently required to outlaw innovations.
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“The governance in the past has been the teams have to all agree to make a change. We’re pushing through governance where we can make changes much more on short notice than at the present time,” Brawn said recently.
Under the revised process he hopes to circumvent the unanimity clause, thus making it possible to ban a device if all teams bar the innovator agree to it. Thus this could occur almost immediately.
Perversely, often the same fan voices that cry out for technical advances in F1 decry domination by one or other team. The lesson is clear: over the ages the most reliable weapon of domination in F1 has been constant innovation. It worked for Lotus (mostly), for McLaren (regularly), for Ferrari (sporadically), for Red Bull (occasionally) and, increasingly, for Mercedes.
Kill innovation, though, and F1 stares F2 straight in the face, then flinches.
Seidl expressed it best: “First of all, hats off to Mercedes for this kind of invention which is great to see in Formula 1. Hats off also for all the publicity they created for Mercedes.” Unsaid was that DAS generated enormous publicity for F1 at a time when the sport is increasingly coming under threat from categories such as Formula E for other reasons, yet these prescribe (mostly) standard chassis.
All of which begs the question: would innovations even be possible under the budget cap? Consider the costs and specialist knowledge required to conceive, design, develop and operate such a system, which combines a variety of engineering disciplines in a compact, user-friendly and safe package.
For starters, it is doubtful whether DAS, which relies heavily on aircraft-style control systems – such as joysticks or yoke as found in aircraft, which operate directionally for turning and on forward/backward axes (nose up/down) – could have been honed to F1 levels of perfection without input from aviation experts. Indeed, the term “dual axis system” is applied in aviation terminology.
It should come as no surprise then to note Mercedes’ technical director James Allison is the son of RAF air chief marshal Sir John Allison KCB CBE, a keen vintage aircraft collector and pilot who was at one stage director of operations and strategy for Jaguar Racing (now Red Bull) and once crash-landed a Messerschmitt during a demonstration flip. His son planned to qualify as a military pilot before colour blindness blocked that career path, leading him to switch to aerodynamics.
Like his father, Allison restores and pilots flies historic aircraft – they have undertaken joint projects – and is thus fully au fait with aviation systems. One can just imagine the discussion:
Engineer: James, we have this wonderful idea to adjust toe on the fly, but don’t know how to control it.
Allison, scribbling on a sheet of paper: This is how dual axis control works on the vintage Auster my dad and I rebuilt. See if you can make that work for W11. But we need to have it up and running perfectly for the 2020 tests to ensure we have it for the entire year before it gets banned. If you need to know more, call my mate Joe at the RAF.
Valtteri Bottas revealed he first heard of DAS “nearly one year ago” and it the project likely began well before then. Mercedes surely threw the weight of its considerable resources behind DAS over an extended period.
Intriguingly Mercedes’ 2019 reserve driver Esteban Ocon, who logged huge hours in their simulator last year, mentioned earlier this month than his new team Renault had agreed with Mercedes what engineering secrets would not follow him to Enstone.
“You have to be professional always, not give [away] all the secrets. The engineers, they all have to [take] a year out before coming back to another team, it’s not the case for a driver. But I still take things a lot. Within limits, I took stuff here, which both teams agreed.” Note that “within limits”.
Quizzed about Mercedes’ new device last week Ocon went into full ‘charm and disarm’ mode. “I designed the whole thing! It was all me,” he joked.
“I don’t know much about the details, but for sure I think most of the teams on the grid and all the teams I think are either going to look into it and see if we can create the same things.” How much is “much”, you have to wonder.
Furthermore, given the importance of the device, development timescale and the looming budget cap – plus, of course, Mercedes’s burning ambition of dominating every season under F1’s current regulations which expire this year – all indications are that the team allocated more than a single backroom boffin to DAS. Indeed, probably a dedicated DAS project team.
It’s likely Mercedes’ F1 team consulted colleagues at parent company Daimler and/or at MBTech, an engineering consultancy for the automotive, aeronautics and space sectors. (Incidentally, MBTech provides engineering input for the team’s principal partner Ineos, currently developing the Grenadier, a Land Rover Defender-type 4×4 utility vehicle.)
Somehow one cannot imagine a Haas or Williams having access to such resources to develop DAS (or having the funding to pay therefore). While 2021’s restrictive financial regulations will severely reduce the headcount and resources – from simulator testing through CFD and wind tunnel studies to inter-group transfers and consultancy services – required for such projects.
In short, it is doubtful whether DAS would have seen the light of day under 2021’s budget cap, particularly as teams will in future carefully evaluate the chances of such innovations being banned after a single season. Why throw resources at short-term projects when resources are restricted?
There, in a nutshell, lies F1’s future conundrum: After the imposition of budget caps F1’s 70-year tradition of spirited innovation will likely be kicked into touch by increasingly restrictive regulations, thereby destroying a major element of F1’s DNA, one nurtured over a period of 70 years.
Thus, DAS should be savoured not only for what it is, namely the product of some extremely bright minds backed by massive resources, but also for all it signifies: F1’s final stab at innovation before financial regulations erode the pioneering spirit of what was once a highly technical sport. ‘DAS’ is likely to be that definitive article after which comes ‘die’…
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