BARCELONA • The Formula One season has yet to begin, but Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes may have already stolen a race-winning march on their rivals.
The six-time world champion was on the second day of testing in Barcelona using an innovative "dual-axis steering" system.
On-board camera footage on Thursday showed Hamilton moving the steering wheel towards him as he entered a straight, changing the angle of the front wheels, before pushing the steering wheel away from him at the next corner.
F1 cars are traditionally set up with the front wheels slightly angled to help cornering.
In a video interview with F1's website, former Renault driver Jolyon Palmer said the Silver Arrows' "trombone" device enables Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas to change the toe of their front tyres at certain points of the track.
They can use it to pinch in the tyres towards each other for more "snappiness" or against each other for "greater stability".
Also, it allows them to get more heat into their tyres, important in races like Shanghai or Baku where there are long straights, making tyre warm-up especially difficult.
A reduction in tyre scrubbing due to a more even temperature could result in a higher top speed, and possibly less friction and drag down the straight, says Palmer, who also called the device "a genius trick that may or may not be in the rules".
However, Mercedes insisted on Thursday it fell within F1's stringent technical rules, with technical director James Allison saying: "We've spoken to them (the FIA, F1's governing body). The rules are clear about what's permitted on steering systems.
"We're pretty confident that it matches those requirements."
According to Allison, the innovation "introduces an extra dimension for steering which we hope will be useful", but he avoided elaborating on its potential benefits.
Hamilton, who is aiming to equal Michael Schumacher's record of seven world titles, enthused over the new technical development.
"For me, it's really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and that's down to the great minds in the team and so, hopefully, that'll work to our benefit," he said on Thursday. "I've only tried it this morning.
"We're trying to get on top of it, but safety wise, no problem and the FIA are OK with the project."
While it remains to be seen if the steering system can make Mercedes' W11 car quicker, it has already taken their rivals, including Ferrari, by surprise.
An intrigued Sebastian Vettel said: "It looks interesting. I guess the fact that they are running with it means that it is legal. For sure, it was a novelty for us to see.
"It is an innovation and we will see whether it is something everyone has to pick up on or not."
The Scuderia driver, however, felt the device would unlikely be the difference between winning or losing a race, although he admitted "maybe I am underestimating it".
Palmer observed Hamilton and Bottas have to operate it by pulling the wheel towards them, which was "an unnatural thing to do", especially at around 285 to 320kmh and it would take them time to get used to the "weird" action.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN