Mercedes’s Formula 1 team chief designer John Owen has acknowledged that the team was surprised to find that its dual axis steering (DAS) system was legal when developing it, and believes the reaction shows the importance of innovation within the sport.
DAS was first seen during pre-season testing, when onboard footage captured Lewis Hamilton moving the steering wheel closer towards him on a straight, changing the toe of the front wheels. The FIA has so far declared the system legal — although a rival team could challenge it at an event — for this season but outlawed it for 2021 onward, and Owen admits it was unusual to find the regulations permitted it during development.
“Innovation is almost that there’s no new ideas, there’s only old ideas,” Owen said. “But there’s different collections of ideas that make a new concept or something different.
“The DAS system was born out of the ashes of something else, something that we tried — something that I think we’d actually raced on the car a couple of years ago — that sort of worked but didn’t really deliver all the promise that we had in it. So that was sort of put to one side as something we’d tried that didn’t perhaps live up to our expectations.
“There are many other things like that that are out there within the team and within peoples’ minds, things and projects that people remember. And then there are also specific issues that might be coming through on the car performance side, things that we need to fix and need dealing with.
“So the DAS system was really, ‘Well, what about if you could do something like this, what do the rules say?’ and the rules effectively didn’t stop it. So we thought that was unusual and surprising, and then you get into it more and more and say, ‘Well, how would I stop it?’
“Then you take the opposite approach and you say, ‘I’m now going to stop someone from having this; what would I do and what would my arguments be?’ Then you build a system where you’ve thought about what someone else’s arguments would be and you’ve made it so that it doesn’t effectively trip up on any of those.
“I think we’ve seen with the DAS system already that there’s a lot of immediate reaction that it must not be within the rules, but the more people look at it the more they sort of say, ‘Darn, oh yeah, OK, maybe it is in the rules! Why haven’t we seen it before?’ And now there’s a desperate panic to try and find a reason why it shouldn’t be within the rules and that’s sort of Formula 1 in general.”
Owen believes flexibility within the regulations would allow more obvious innovation to the naked eye that could benefit F1 as a whole.
“If you had more open rules, people would say look at the innovation. They look back to the 1970s, maybe when cars had six wheels instead of four and some cars had fans on them. The thing about that is that’s just very visual innovation – it’s about diversity, the cars look really diverse in the way they appear.
“You’ll find that actually, there’s a huge amount of diversity between the various cars, it’s just in a scale that people don’t really see. A lot of it’s under the bodywork, a lot of it is the subtlety and the little details of the bodywork. And they are really, really different — there’s a lot of innovations. It’s not so much in your face as having six wheels.
“What the DAS system proved was there’s definitely a craving in Formula 1 still for that sort of innovation — something where suddenly the driver’s moving the steering wheel differently to what everyone else is and something’s happening we didn’t expect.
“We do (want to be able to see the innovation) and that’s perhaps what’s lacking — that visual innovation that people can talk about and get excited about.
“There’s lots of things on the 2020 Mercedes that are great innovations — none of which we really want to talk about because they’re our important competitive advantage — but there is one of them that’s obviously so visual and is talked about a lot, and I think the sport would be better if there were a lot more of those sorts of talking points. It would bring a lot more interest into the sport.”