Formula for success – steering wheel

Formula 1 drivers may be the stars in the cars but there is another super-brain in the cockpit - the steering wheel.

Without these cut-out, carbon fibre discs, modern F1 drivers would be rudderless.

Once described by racing legend Sir Stirling Moss as "merely the way of introducing a car to a corner," steering wheels have now evolved beyond this primary task.

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All of the drivers know their way around these wheels in the way that a concert pianist knows his way around a piano

James Allison Lotus F1 team technical director

Shrinking from a wooden-rimmed sphere, used by Moss when he made his F1 debut in 1951, to an aluminium plate with a padded surface, it's only in the last 20 years that steering wheels have become multi-functional driver aids.

"Steering wheel technology has just gone mad," Gary Anderson, a former F1 designer for Jordan, Stewart and Jaguar explains.

"It's a very, very high-performance computer now - the brain of the car."

The cerebral steering wheels consist of paddles on the rear to shift up and down gears and for clutch control at the start of a race.

On the front, the driver operates a colourful array of buttons, dials and switches.

The buttons activate devices such as the DRS (drag reduction system) overtaking aid, Kers (kinetic energy recovery system) power-boost, and even the drinks tube inside the drivers' helmet.

The driver can also communicate to his team through the radio and the pit-confirm buttons, for example.

Those conversations from the pit wall to the cockpit will affect how the driver uses the dials on the steering wheel to control many of the car's parameters, including fuel consumption, tyre and engine settings and the differential, which distributes engine power to the rear wheels and affects driveability.

Anderson illustrates: "You'll hear the team say on the radio 'go to red seven' and that means the driver turns the red knob to seven, which changes the differential set up."

The steering wheel also acts as a message centre for race control. For example, a button alerts drivers when the safety car has been deployed and further displays tell the driver what speed they have to maintain behind the safety car.

Finally, a row of lights at the driver's eye-line monitor the car's rev count, showing the optimum time to shift gear, as well as the car's current gear position.

"All of the drivers know their way around these wheels in the way that a concert pianist knows his way round a piano," says James Allison, technical director for the Lotus F1 team.

Spare wheel

Lewis Hamilton changed not four but five wheels during the 2012 Indian Grand Prix as McLaren also gave him a new steering wheel in the pits. It is unusual to see this happen but absolutely necessary if the wheel is malfunctioning as it controls so much information and communication. If the steering wheel stops working altogether then there is normally a mode to get the car safely back to the pits.

"But there's no doubt that the finger workload in the cockpit is higher now than it was a few years ago."

F1 drivers from 1950 to 2012 may be fundamentally cut from the same cloth but today's racers have to cope with the complexities of a modern steering wheel while driving at high speeds.

Former driver Robert Kubica, who was seriously injured in a rallying accident in 2010, may have made a winning return to rallying since his accident but the Pole is struggling to return to F1 simply because he doesn't have the flexibility in his right hand required to operate an F1 steering wheel.

It helps that many F1 drivers, like 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton, limber up their fingers by playing computer games.

In training, drivers also focus on hand-eye co-ordination by using Batak reaction boards, for example.

But could the demands of a modern steering wheel distract the drivers from their racing instincts?

"For someone like Michael Schumacher coming back it was a bit more difficult," comments Anderson.

"Even through his era in the 1990s the driver contributed a lot more to the car than they currently do. Michael likes to 'drive' the car but he would have had to catch up with technology [at Mercedes].

"Some of the younger drivers prefer to use the electronic control 100% and they believe in it.

"At the moment there is a reasonable balance between buying into new technology and still having racing drivers drive the cars."

Steering wheel technology is unlikely to advance further in the immediate future because the rulebook set out by the sport's governing body, the FIA, states that the driver "must drive the car alone and unaided".

Did you know?

The first buttons to appear on an F1 steering wheel were the neutral and the pit-to-car radio buttons. Now each team can choose the layout and design of their steering wheels but the electronic heart of the wheel - the ECU - is the same for all 12 teams.

It was for this reason that, traction control, which helps prevent wheelspin, was banned in 2008 and teams were ordered to use the same electronic control unit (ECU), which is manufactured by McLaren, to run their steering wheels.

Allison argues that steering wheel technology could be trimmed back further, even if it means tweaking the "alone and unaided" philosophy.

"It's my view that there is a lot of function on [the steering wheel] that would be better and sensibly automated," he says.

"For example, if a sensor has failed on the car we need to tell the car not to look at that sensor but we can't do that from the pits as it's against the rules and so the driver has to twiddle round to find which one of the 250 sensors is broken whilst looking at this screen, and driving round the lap."

Anderson also agrees that less could well be more when it comes to the future of steering wheel technology.

"I don't believe we'll see the steering wheel moving on as dramatically as we have done in the last 20 years," he adds.

"The reality of racing is that we still want to see a driver racing the car. He is the hero. He's the man we're all supporting."