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The Many Buttons and Dials on an F1 Steering Wheel

Drivers Have to Memorize Everything


Some of the drivers study how to do it in a textbook, others from photographs, while still others do it whenever they have a spare moment. Lewis Hamilton likes to fool around with it blindfolded, while his friend Nico Rosberg says he does it with a dummy model while jogging.

By whatever method, one of the modern Formula 1 driver's biggest technical challenges - especially early in the season or when they move to a new team - is to learn by heart the positions, buttons and lights on their complicated steering wheels.

Evolving from a simple wooden guide to turn the wheels, the steering wheel has become a tool to regulate everything from the car's wings to its brakes to engine settings and even the driver's drinking bottle.

''In the past, it was just a steering wheel; now it is a computer,'' said Jarno Trulli, a driver for the Caterham team. ''You drive the car and you have a computer on the steering wheel and you need to know exactly what's going on and where to put your hands in order to improve your car's handling, with several different settings and switches.''

All the drivers say, however, that learning how to use the steering wheel does not require any special skills. It is just part of the evolving job of a Formula 1 driver today.

''It's like you guys,'' said Mark Webber, the Red Bull driver, referring to journalists and pointing to the voice recorder on the table in front of him. ''You used to have to write shorthand, but now you have these things.''

Still, a recorder usually requires only the pressing of two or three buttons. A Formula 1 steering wheel, however, is the most complicated car steering wheel in the world. It is also much smaller than a road car's steering wheel, as it requires less turning action at high-speed to have the same effect, and the cockpit of the racing car is so small. But the small size does not make for easy navigation of the buttons, lights, switches and LCD screen.

It also has paddle shifts for the gears, and at high speed a driver has little time to look down at the wheel. He must therefore memorize which button is where and how to adjust it in the appropriate manner.

''Looking down is difficult,'' Trulli said. ''It's all about knowing where to put the hands straight away. You don't have the time to look and choose; you have to know in advance where to put your hands.''

Most of the drivers say that they have occasionally pressed the wrong button. Most often it involves the button that limits the speed of the car down the pit lane - which is the last thing they want to do while on track during a race - or failing to hit that button while in the pits, which results in a speeding fine.

Romain Grosjean, who drives for the Lotus team, said that the steering wheel was the most difficult aspect to learn in a Formula 1 car. He has also raced in the world touring car championship, in which he said the steering wheel was just a steering wheel, not to be compared to the Formula 1 wheel.

''In F1, on the wheel you have the differential, the front wing, the fuel mixtures, the change of the engine revs, the gearshift,'' Grosjean said. ''That's a lot of factors to modify and amuse yourself with, and to learn how to use it takes time - to understand that touching this button will do this thing in this part of the corner at this moment with the car.''

The driver's job is also both helped and complicated by his radio communication with the engineer, who relays orders throughout the race on which buttons to use based on how the engineer sees the car reacting.

''The most important things the driver can control from the cockpit are the differential settings, the brake balance and the front wing angle,'' said Alan Permane, an engineer for the Lotus team. ''As the fuel load comes down and the tires lose performance, the driver can change all these parameters to improve the balance and handling of the car.''

Because it is so complicated, however, the engineers try to limit the amount of information that goes, for instance, on the LCD screen.

''We can put pretty much whatever information we want on the steering wheel display,'' said Mark Slade, the the former chief race engineer for Vitaly Petrov the former driver for the Renault team. ''But we try not to overload the driver with issues relating to the health of the car, such as temperatures and pressures. The most critical information they want is their lap times, so we store their fastest time and the readout gives them a continuous update of their current lap relative to their best.''

On average, drivers tweak the differential every five laps or so, but there are some buttons that are used at every corner. Learning the steering wheel is also complicated by the fact that each team designs and builds its own steering wheel, and the drivers do not have a great deal of input over how it is laid out - apart from the shape of the grip or the style of the rubber of the grip. But while steering wheels are becoming like computer games, drivers still say that it is of no advantage to be good at playing video games.

''I don't feel that computer games help,'' the driver Heikki Kovalainen said. ''It is still very different. I've got used to it as part of the job and I think anyone who drives this car will get use to them eventually. It is not the same as a computer game.''

For Trulli, the drivers have not changed over the years, just the technology.

''No, it's not a different driver; it's a different era,'' Trulli said. ''This is a Formula 1 car just like one was 20 years ago. It's just a matter of keeping up to date yourself. I don't think 20 years ago they were able to run the 100 meters in under 10 seconds; nowadays they are very close always to 9.7, 9.8.''

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