The steering wheel of an F1 car is the main interface for the driver to control the car, other than the throttle and brake pedals. With such technologically advanced cars, you may be wondering how exactly an F1 steering wheel works.
The steering wheel of an F1 car is custom-made from lightweight materials and is highly customizable depending on the driver. In addition to the gear shift and clutch paddles, more than 20 buttons and switches allow the driver to make adjustments to brake and engine settings while driving.
There is a lot of technology contained on the steering wheel of an F1 car, and there are many considerations that go into their design and construction. In the article below, we’ll take some time to understand how an F1 steering wheel works and why they are so complex.
What Is On An F1 Steering Wheel?
An F1 steering wheel contains most of the driver’s controls for the car. The most obvious function of the steering wheel is that the driver uses it to steer the car. However, the driver also uses it to change gears via clutch and gear shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel.
The steering wheel also has a small LCD display screen (although some teams place the screen on the car body rather than the wheel). This screen displays various messages and the conditions of the car. There is a line of LED lights to indicate engine revs, which helps the driver to judge their ideal gear shift points. Additional LEDs indicate the flags being waved on track, if any.
The steering wheel also has several buttons and scroll wheels and their sheer number is the most visually striking aspect of the steering wheel. These buttons are used to activate different functions as varied as engaging the pit speed limiter to having a drink. The scroll wheels are also for various adjustments, such as brake balance between front and rear axles.
How Many Buttons Are There On An F1 Steering Wheel?
The number of buttons on an F1 steering wheel varies by team. For example, the Mercedes steering wheel in 2019 had 25 buttons and switches. In fact, there are so many buttons on an F1 steering wheel that they need to be carefully designed so a driver does not accidentally activate one of them.
Designers use buttons from aircraft that have a clear positive click feedback when pressed and raised ridges for safety around those that could be bumped by mistake. The position of these ridges may even change according to the track and how the driver is anticipated to use the wheel on that circuit.
What Are All The Buttons On An F1 Steering Wheel?
The buttons on the front of an F1 steering wheel cover several categories. A handful of buttons and dials control the brake balance of the car. They also adjust the brake migration (how the balance changes with how hard the brake pedal is pressed) and the amount of engine braking, along with DRS.
Then there are a few buttons that control the “diff,” which is the torque difference between the two rear wheels. This makes a difference in corners, but the settings can be different for the entry, apex and exit of a corner. There are also at least two rotary switches to select different modes. One will usually be for the different power unit modes, such as the amount of energy harvesting.
Another rotary switch is used to select the “strat” mode (short for strategy). This switches between whole families of settings across all systems, according to the overall situation that the car is in: Warm up, qualifying, tire saving, etc.
There are various buttons for single, miscellaneous functions, such as to talk to the team over the radio, or to activate Drag Reduction System (lifting the flap in the rear wing to gain a speed advantage on straights to overtake). There is also a button to activate the drink pump for the driver’s hydration and one to engage the pit lane speed limiter.
Over and above all these functions, the gear shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel are used the most. A driver can use these paddles to shift gears more than 50 times during a lap.
What Are F1 Steering Wheels Made Of?
F1 steering wheels are mostly made of carbon fiber. As with every other component in the car, the steering wheel needs to be as light as possible to keep the car to the minimum weight allowed. Although the bulk of the steering wheel is carbon fiber, other materials are used in small amounts.
Mercedes listed fiberglass, titanium, silicon, and copper as some additional materials that are used in the manufacturing of their F1 steering wheel. Fiberglass and titanium are likely used in the structural components. Silicon would be used for the buttons, and copper in the electronics. Gold is another likely material, as it’s often used as a good conductor in high-end electronic connections.
Why Are F1 Steering Wheels Detachable?
F1 steering wheels are detachable so the driver can get in and out of the car. The cockpits in F1 cars are cramped and focused on optimizing the packaging of all components, including the driver. This means that there is minimum space available for maneuvering in and out of the cockpit.
While racing, the steering wheel is one of the few non-safety components of the car that sits inside the driver’s survival cell, for obvious reasons. The driver needs to handle and control the steering wheel comfortably throughout the race. However, this means that the wheel sits very close to the driver and prevents their exit from the car.
When watching F1, you will notice the only time the steering wheel is removed is when the driver is either getting in or out of the car. This is particularly noticeable when a driver has an accident and stops out on track. They must first remove the steering wheel, then get out of their seat, and then replace the wheel.
The technical regulations of F1 are very specific about how quickly a driver must be able to get out of the car (7 seconds) and replace the steering wheel (12 seconds in total). This is a key safety consideration because in the case of a fire, the driver must be able to exit the car quickly.
Why Are F1 Steering Wheels Not Round?
F1 steering wheels are not round because they are far more responsive than the average road car and don’t usually rotate much more than 180 degrees in either direction. Even through hairpins on the circuit, the driver’s hands will stay in the same place on the steering wheel around the turn.
In road cars, the steering wheels are circular to allow more than one full rotation of the wheel by hand-over-hand turning. This shifting of hand positions during a rotation is not necessary in an F1 car, due to the limited rotation of the wheel. Therefore, an F1 wheel does not need to be round, but can rather be shaped to reduce the space it takes up in the cockpit.
The driver’s hands will not shift along the steering wheel. It’s only necessary for each hand to hold the steering wheel in a single place, no matter which corners of the track they’re taking. The shift paddles also need to be at the driver’s fingertips at all times.
Why Are F1 Steering Wheels Secret?
F1 steering wheels are secret because teams don’t want others to see their technology. Each team is prepared to go to great lengths to protect any innovation that may secure some gain for them. It should be no surprise then that there are aspects of each team’s steering wheel that are kept secret.
The back of the steering wheel in particular seems to be the most secretive, which is where the gear shift paddles and the clutch paddle (for starts) sit. The teams also prefer not to give away details of all the buttons on the steering wheel, particularly some of their engine modes.
However, as the sport aims to provide more access and interest to the fans, it’s becoming harder for the teams to hide their secrets. For instance, the Mercedes DAS system (explained further below) was spotted almost immediately due to there being live video from the cockpit during winter testing, which was historically not the case.
A new camera angle that has become regular in 2022 is the “helmet cam,” where a camera imbedded in the lining of the driver’s helmet captures the closest view possible to what the driver is seeing. This camera angle has made it much easier to see what is displayed on a driver’s steering wheel, and what adjustments are made while driving.
Why Are F1 Steering Wheels So Expensive?
F1 steering wheels are so expensive (costing $36,000 to $50,000) because they are engineered to be precise and incredibly strong while remaining as light as possible, like most other parts of the car. This makes them expensive to manufacture, due to the materials used and the building methods.
Each steering wheel is handmade, and a team will ideally produce fewer than ten for a season. Mercedes said recently that a steering wheel takes over six weeks to make, with 80 hours of assembly time. Each driver uses three to four steering wheels a season, sometimes with specific wheels for specific tracks.
The steering wheels use switches that are made for fighter aircraft because the requirements in an F1 car are very similar: High vibration, large temperature variation, and a “pilot” wearing gloves with their focus elsewhere. These high-specification parts add to the cost.
All these factors mean that a steering wheel for an F1 car costs between $36,000 to $50,000 to make. In isolation, this sounds like an insane price to pay, but in the context of an F1 team’s budget, it’s a small price to pay for maximizing a driver’s efficiency out on track.
How Involved Are F1 Drivers In The Steering Wheel Design?
Each F1 driver is intimately involved in the steering wheel design. Considering they need to operate the buttons on it at speeds of over 200 mph while judging their braking point and entry into the next corner, it makes sense that teams try their best to give each driver a say in design.
The overall concept and frame will generally be done mainly by the engineers. The drivers have the most input on the grips on each side of the wheel, and the size and placement of the paddles on the back of the wheel. It’s crucial that it’s easy and comfortable to use the wheel for almost two straight hours with gloved hands.
The placement, function and color of the buttons are other areas where drivers get to choose what suits them particularly. The mapping of the modes of each rotary switch can also be driver-specific. The better the feel a driver has for the steering wheel, the better they will be able to race.
F1 Regulations For Steering Wheels Explained
F1 steering wheels are closely regulated, mostly for safety reasons. Regulations ensure a driver can exit the car quickly and minimize the risk of injury if a driver’s head were to hit the steering wheel. As such, the position of the steering wheel and any protrusion from it is regulated. The steering wheel is also rigorously impact-tested for driver safety.
The clutch paddle on the back of the steering wheel is heavily regulated as well because it’s a key aspect of a driver’s success in the race starts, and thus prime opportunity for gaining an advantage.
An interesting challenge to the technical regulations occurred in 2020, when Mercedes introduced a revolutionary steering system named Dual Axis Steering (DAS). This allowed a further movement of the steering wheel – to be pushed into or pulled out from the steering column.
This action changed the alignment of the front wheels, which would allow more even warming of the tires across their width. The tires could be straight for the straights but could then be adjusted to be slightly “toe-out” for the corners. The legality of the system was questioned, but Mercedes was allowed to run it during the 2020 season. However, it was banned for the 2021 season onwards.
How Have F1 Steering Wheels Changed?
F1 steering wheels have changed in many ways over the years. They weren’t always small, rectangular, and covered in buttons. Back in the 1950s, the steering wheels of the cars were large and circular. The larger the diameter of the wheel, the less force was required by the driver to turn the wheel.
As electronics began to be included in the technology of F1 cars, one or two buttons were added to the steering wheel for the driver to use. These were originally limited to only a few functions, like the radio and the speed limiter for the pits.
The materials of the wheels began to change, too. Rather than the steel frame with the wooden grips of the 50s, lighter materials were used with fabric grips to allow a firmer hold. As carbon fiber was discovered as a key material in F1 for its high strength and low weight, it made sense to apply this to every possible component.
As interfaces with electronics and machines change, it can be expected that an F1 steering wheel will continue to change as well. Over the last decade, the screens have been getting larger, with more information displayed for the driver to clearly see. Who knows which innovation will next appear in F1’s steering wheels?
F1 steering wheels utilize incredibly complex, cutting-edge technology. They allow a driver to adjust the settings of various systems on the car as they like in real time. F1 steering wheels have much smaller rotation angles than those in road cars, and can feature 20+ buttons and switches.