Formula One preseason testing is well underway, and so are all the rumors. This time around, those rumors center around Mercedes, which appears to have developed a neat little steering trick to create more toe by pushing or pulling on the steering wheel.
Here’s a quick little video of what we’re talking about:
When Hamilton pulled the steering wheel toward himself, Motorsport.com noted that a message reading “steering mode” popped up on the steering wheel screen. (In the above video, the screen reads “marker.” This is because Hamilton has set a marker so the team will be able to more easily analyze data.)
F1 is known for pushing the boundaries of racing technology, but this is truly something else. This steering mode appears to be totally customizable, dictated by the driver so that it’s there on some laps while not present at all on others.
F1 guru Craig Scarborough put out a number of tweets and also, conveniently, a video explaining what we’re probably looking at here.
On the straights, Hamilton pulls his steering wheel back and turns the wheels in toward each other just slightly. Before braking, he pushes it forward again.
Scarbs notes that, if the system works the way he thinks it does, pulling the steering wheel back would straighten out the front wheels, making the car faster on the straights, before pushing the steering back as the car brakes for a corner, pushing the wheels out for better handling. It all has to do with what’s called toe.
As Scarborough explains, most F1 cars have their tires toed out just a little bit—but having the ability to orient them back to center again is a really good thing for the aerodynamics. Straighter tires makes for a better flow of air washing over the car, thus reducing tire drag. The result? A little extra boost in straight line speed.
Straight line speed was Merc’s big downfall last year. (Not that you can really say that a team who dominated the championship had much of a “downfall.”) The team really shined in slow speed corners (in part thanks to doing tricks with how the suspension interacts with the steering), but that emphasis on cornering had a slight impact in straight-line speed, an area where Ferrari often had a leg up. Basically, Mercedes is trying to get the best of both worlds: retaining its cornering speed while also improving its performance on straights.
In the past, Mercedes’s nose would drop or rise in concert with certain steering angles. If Hamilton were to take a ninety-degree corner, for example, the car’s nose would drop lower than it would were he to take a long, swooping corner. Basically, it sounds like Mercedes is trying for a vaguely similar sort of situation here, correcting its problems via changes in suspension.
With the steering wheel connected to the steering rack that then goes out to the front tires, manipulating the wheel seems to be moving the whole entire steering assembly—which will then change the toe of the front tires.
Is it legal? That’s where things get sticky. Scarbs notes in the video above that while suspension is tightly regulated, steering is not. Here’s some of the suspension rules straight from the FIA Formula 1 technical regulations:
10.2.2 Any powered device which is capable of altering the configuration or affecting the performance of any part of any suspension system is forbidden.
10.2.3 No adjustment may be made to any suspension system while the car is in motion.
The only wiggle room there is that the steering wheel is not a “powered device,” as power steering is banned in F1. The regulations on steering only get a few lines in the technical regulations, actually. Meanwhile, the section on suspension covers a page and a half.
Now, internet F1 superfan AxisOfOversteer was quick to point out that fuzzy interpretations of what you can and can’t do with suspension have happened in the past. And they got political very, very quickly:
That said, Mercedes has claimed that the FIA is fully aware of its dual-axis steering system, as per Autosport. Does that mean that the FIA is okay with it? We don’t know quite yet, but it sounds like it. Mercedes’s technical chief James Allison says that the system fully complies with all the regulations, that the team had worked closely with the FIA to make sure everything was kosher.
The whole situation is honestly kind of awesome. It’s been quite a while since I was this stoked about a new tech in F1—but this is the kind of thing that could actually change the whole scope of the sport as we know it.