Mercedes surprises with innovative Dual Axis Steering system
Onboard images from the first day of testing at Barcelona have revealed that Mercedes' new W11 features a steering wheel assembly that moves forward and backward - apart from the obvious rotational movement to steer into corners.
The recording, coming from an onboard shot of F1TV, shows how Lewis Hamilton's steering wheel moves towards him when coming on a straight, and forward again when nearing a corner.
As Mercedes have meanwhile confirmed this is an additional way for the driver to control the steering, and given that we can see the front wheels change position as the driver moves the steering wheel back and forward, it is clear that this new way of steering input changes the toe of the front wheels.
Now, regularly speaking, a racing car's front wheels are set-up in such a way that they toe-out slightly, meaning they are pointing outward by a few milimeters to improve handling in the corners.
However, this isn't typically something that is needed on a straight line, first of all because wheels pointing slightly outward will rub the tarmac harder, increasing their temperature and increasing wear. And let's not forget the aerodynamic impact, as perfectly aligned front wheels will reduce the drag created by them, simply because their frontal surface will be reduced.
How it works exactly is still secret, and not visible from any images, but the most likely explanation is that the backward movement of the steering wheel means backward movement of the steering rack. This movement would then pull the steering rods so that the wheels will come closer together at their fronts, thereby reducing toe-out.
Asked about the system, Mercedes Technical Director James Allison didn't want to divulge on the system too much, but revealed the team internally calls it the "Dual Axis Steering" wheel.
"It's an innovative system that we have brought to the car today. It's just an idea we've had, and it gives the driver an extra dimension of control on the steering system.
"We hope it will bring us an advantage this season. What this definitely is, is an example of how this team is always pushing to find new ways to make our cars faster and quicker."
It's clear that both drivers are comfortable with it, so they have tested it in simulation, so it is extremely likely the system is intended to stay on the car for the actual races as well. James Allison's statement confirms that this is not a test-only system.
This leads us to the question of legality, as one can imagine that protests about this being a device that influences aerodynamics don't seem that far away. Mercedes itself however is adamant it's legal, as the FIA has been informed beforehand, and the team considers it additional steering input.
He just mentioned also that the system was definitely legal as they have been in talks with FIA for quite some time... Interesting times.