The new Formula One season is less than a day old, but Red Bull is already planning to question the legality of Mercedes' car via the sport's governing body, the FIA.
Mercedes caught the attention of the F1 paddock in testing earlier this year when it ran a novel steering system that not only steers the wheels, but also changes their alignment. It is operated by moving the steering wheel back and is referred to by the team as dual-axis steering, or simply DAS.
The system, which has already been outlawed in the 2021 regulations, was used again by Mercedes in the opening practice session for this weekend's Austrian Grand Prix, reigniting the debate over its legality. It appeared as though the Mercedes drivers were using it to condition the front tyres on their warm-up laps rather than during a fast lap, suggesting it is linked to controlling the temperature of the front tyres.
"First of all, it is a very clever system, and so all credit to the ingenuity behind it," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "I think the fundamental question for us is, does it comply with the regulations?
"In what is, fundamentally, a grey area, obviously we do want clarity on it, as it does have an impact regarding the rest of this year. It's something outlawed for next year, so the question is, is it right for this year? They're the questions we'll be asking of the FIA through the necessary channels."
Horner later clarified to Sky Sports that Red Bull is considering lodging a protest on Friday to get any questions answered before qualifying and the race. If DAS is found illegal after practice, it would simply result in Mercedes not using the system for the rest of the season, whereas a successful protest after the race would likely result in disqualification subject to appeal.
The grey area appears to centre on whether DAS is viewed as a steering system or a suspension device. F1 regulations prevent teams from making suspension setup changes from the moment the car leaves the pits for the first time in qualifying to the start of the race and are designed to stop teams from having a qualifying-spec car and a race-spec car.
Toe angle (essentially the alignment of the front wheels, which DAS changes) is included as part of the suspension settings the teams must lodge with the FIA before leaving the pits for qualifying, and a change to that could be perceived to be against the regulations. However, Mercedes will likely argue that DAS simply changes the angle of the wheels via the steering wheel, which is legal within the regulations.
"Clarification is always good," team principal Toto Wolff said. "We think we are on the right side [of the regulations]. There was a lot of talking and exchange with the FIA [before introducing it to the car]; that's why we have it on the car. So we will both bring our arguments forward then we'll see."
Asked if he was concerned that running the system would risk a protest that could in turn make for an ugly situation at F1's first race back after a four-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, Wolff said he trusted Red Bull would make the right decision.
"I think again what you would expect, all teams are pretty much aware we are in a sensitive situation with going racing, it's the first race. And I think on one side it's fair enough to seek clarification; on the other side, we are aware we don't want to end up with a big debate on Sunday night," Wolff said. "I think Christian is going to take the right actions. Controversy and different judgement on engineer innovation has always been a part of F1, it's to be expected in a way, and it is part of the racing."