Reliable control over the car is key to the safety and performance of the Formula 1 drivers who have no time and concentration to waste over complicated and scattered gauges. Almost all of the racing cars’ controls are thus designed to fit onto the steering wheel, allowing easy access throughout the race. As engineers constantly refine the control systems, car companies are looking to adopt some of the Formula 1 technology into the design of safer road cars.
Because Formula 1 cars grew ever smaller over the decades, the cockpit space dwindled and most of the controls gradually moved to the steering wheel. This allowed the optimal use of the available space and brought the controls closer to the driver’s hands. The gear-changing paddles were the first to find their place in the back of the steering wheel. Currently, the typical Formula 1 steering wheel incorporates over 20 control buttons and is designed to turn to a maximum of three quarters of a turn, allowing drivers to keep their stable grip at all times.
There is no wonder then that Mercedes AMG Petronas Chief Engineer Andrew Shovlin calls the steering wheel “the nerve centre” of the Formula 1 cars. However, steering wheels are not all the same. Formula 1 team engineers tailor the control systems of the car according to the specific needs of their drivers. Mercedes Formula 1 drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg both have their personalized controls, which include button working in “on-and-off” modes. The controls include the buttons controlling the system for kinetic energy recovery (KERS), the oil tanks for the engines, the drag-reduction systems, wet- and dry-driving tyres, as well as the radio and drink bottles.
While the various controls may make the steering wheel seem as too complicated, its functionality increases the drivers’ chance for winning the race. Once they learn the controls by heart, drivers can easily navigate their fingers over the steering wheel without having to take their eyes off the road, and without risking unwanted moves around the cockpit.
The same reliable steering wheel technology now appeals to commercial car companies who are currently looking into borrowing some of the Formula 1 control systems and adapting them for mass use. Although road cars will never enter the Formula 1 circuits and their drivers will not reach the speed of the Grand Prix racers, the sophisticated steering wheel controls will help driving safer, as keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel is important when it comes to everyday driving, too. Super cars manufactured by Ferrari and McLaren now incorporate some of the controls used in the Formula 1 cars. However, engineers still have a long way to go until similar systems are adapted to mass production.