The ever-shrinking lap times, cars getting faster and meaner, dependency on technology and the FIA’s stringent norms to provide a level playing field to all teams as far as possible are some of the many nuances that entail the pinnacle of motor racing ecosystem, the Formula1.Without a doubt it will be very safe to say that Formula 1 is the most evolved sport of our times. But, is it really a sport anymore?
Unlike in other sports where human skill and intervention take prominence, here in Formula 1, it is technology that takes precedence. Infact, I would not shy away from saying that Formula1 has completely transformed towards being a technology sport. Be it the six-wheeler Tyrell, Brabham’s Fan car, William’s active suspension or Brawn’s double diffuser, every year the teams put forth some new technological innovation with a conscious eye on the FIA rulebook.
The curtain raiser for season 2020’s debate has been Team Mercedes-AMG Petronas’ DAS or the Dual Axis Steering as termed by James Allison, Technical Director of the team. During the winter testing in the Catalunya circuit at Barcelona, six times world champion Lewis Hamilton was noticed making use of the novel DAS system deployed in his W11 machine. He was seen pulling and pushing the steering wheel while lapping the circuit resulting in changing the toe angle of the front wheels of his car.
The Dual-Axis Steering system allows the driver to pull back the steering to have a toe in setting and push it forward for a toe out. To put it in simpler words, the toe is the angle of the wheels relative to the perfect straightforward direction of the car.
A zero angle of toe refers to the wheels pointing straight up ahead, a positive angle of toe would have the wheels pointing towards the centerline of the car and the other way round if it is a negative angle of toe. So, the obvious derivatives of using the toe are, firstly, using zero toe or straightening the wheels on straight stretches of the circuit to increase speed and reduce tyre wear, which is pretty much the typical setup in all cars. Secondly, while cornering those chicanes at high speeds, pushing the toe out provides cornering stability resulting in reducing the time taken to negotiate those tight turns around the circuit.
Why get into such complex modifications in the car? Well, even a single millisecond can make or break the race for the driver and his team. Formula 1 teams invest filthy amounts in R&D to only seek better than optimum performance to save those critical milliseconds for securing their position at the pole on Saturday and the podium on Sunday, the race day.
During the Friday practice at the Austrian Grand Prix earlier this month, Red Bull Racing raised objections against the legality of DAS. Mercedes, which dominated practice with Hamilton fastest in both sessions, was running the system for the first time on a race weekend. Red Bull protested on the grounds that DAS breaches Article 3.8 of the FIA technical regulations, which prohibits moveable aerodynamic devices and Article 10.2.3, which forbids changes to any suspension system while the car is in motion.
I must say that the FIA took a much unanticipated stand by ruling it valid for the 2020 season, however, it has been shelved for the 2021 season. While Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admitted that it is a clever system but questioned its conformity with the regulations. FIA stewards clarified that DAS is part of the steering system, though not a conventional one. The issue of its legality can arise if its not part of the steering system. Anyhow, Formula1 has always been about inter-team competition & rivalry, disputes, controversies, and disruptive technologies right from the times of the legends like Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
All said and done, in Formula 1 it has a lot more to it than meets the eye. The sport has evolved much beyond actual racing. Technology intervention, according to me, is a must but to an extent that it does not supersede the human connect. Afterall, the real thrill is in spontaneity, the decision one makes in the rush of blood to conquer or to perish. With two races done, let’s see if DAS can get Mercedes the Constructor’s Trophy and Hamilton his seventh world championship this year.