The modern Formula One steering wheel isn’t just a tool to keep the car on the track. It’s a laptop computer, controlling up to 250 different engine modes, sensors and settings via a bewildering array of buttons, switches, paddles and knobs. When did drivers find all this extra control at their fingertips?
“For most of my career I had one button on the steering, which was for the radio,” says Martin Brundle, who drove in F1 in the 1990s but got his chance to race Force India’s current car for a special feature with Sky Sports F1, set to be shown ahead of the British Grand Prix.
Rule changes and engineering advances have transformed the F1 steering wheel since Brundle retired: “In 2003 the regulations changed, stopping us engineers sitting in the garage and sending changes to the car,” explains Force India’s chief race engineer, Tom McCullough. Now the drivers make the changes themselves.
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With up to 30 different buttons, knobs and dials, the challenge for engineers today is what to leave out. At the end of each season, the team will examine every time a button has been pressed and decide whether it is really offering a performance advantage. None of the controls you see on the picture opposite are just along for the ride.
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“Every time you see a driver throwing a steer- ing wheel out of frustration it’s very costly and painful for us,” McCullough says. “The hardware is tens of thousands of pounds, plus the amount that goes into the design and development of the control system, the software that manages the car. I can’t imagine what the actual worth is.”
McCullough might want to know about this next admission before letting Brundle handle his treasured technological tiller again.
“I have thrown a steering wheel away once,” says Brundle. “It was a Zakspeed in 1987. I was having a really good race, but as I went out of the pits the right front wheel fell off. As it bounced off into the distance I was pretty angry; it was a difficult car in a difficult season. So I threw the steering wheel after the wheel and said, ‘Find that as well.’ And walked back to the pits.”
You can follow the 2015 F1 season all weekend on BBC2