In Formula 1, Formula1

The cars of
Formula One
are marvels of engineering that push the boundaries of speed and performance. But to handle this incredible machine, the driver needs a sophisticated interface: the F1 steering wheel. These high-tech jewels are more than just a way to steer the car. Packed with buttons, selectors and displays, the steering wheel allows the rider to control an incredible range of functions. In this blog post, we will dive into the world of F1 steering wheels, exploring their features and the astronomical costs associated with them.

A symphony of controls

At first glance, an F1 steering wheel might seem overwhelming, looking more like the cabin of a spaceship than a car. But each button, lever and selector switch has a specific purpose, crucial to optimizing the car’s performance and giving the driver an edge on the track. Here are some of the key functions controlled by the F1 steering wheel, plus of course the gearbox and clutches, which are controlled via paddles on the back of the steering wheel:

  • Powertrain controls: the driver can adjust engine settings using the steering wheel, controlling factors such as power output and fuel delivery.
  • Brake distribution: this allows the rider to optimize the distribution of braking force between the front and rear wheels, maximizing stopping power and stability.
  • Differential distribution: the differential influences the distribution of power between the left and right rear wheels. The driver can use the steering wheel to adjust this distribution, optimizing handling in corners.
  • Energy recovery: modern F1 cars capture energy from braking and use it to give the car a temporary power boost. The pilot controls this energy recovery system (ERS) through the steering wheel.
  • Radio communication: the driver can communicate with the pit team using buttons on the steering wheel, relaying vital information and receiving strategic updates.
  • Hydration system: staying hydrated is critical during a grueling race. Drivers can activate the hydration system via the steering wheel, making sure they stay focused and give it their all.
  • Pit Lane Speed Limiter: This button ensures that the driver respects the pit lane speed limit, avoiding penalties.
  • Strategic adjustments: the steering wheel can also have buttons to control launch control and other strategic settings that can give the driver an advantage at particular stages of the race.

The 2021 Alpine Steering Wheel at the Circuit of the Americas.

Important materials

F1 steering wheels must also be lightweight and incredibly durable. Every gram counts in Formula One, so materials such as carbon fiber are used extensively for the steering wheel itself. Buttons and switches are made of high-quality materials that can withstand the extreme heat, vibration, and G-forces experienced during a race.

The high cost of high technology

Complexity and the use of state-of-the-art materials come at a cost. Although exact prices are closely guarded secrets from F1 teams, estimates suggest that an F1 steering wheel can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 or more. This high cost is due to several factors:

  • Advanced technology: the constant development of new technologies and materials to create lighter and more functional steering wheels drives up the price.
  • Customization: F1 steering wheels are customized to suit each driver’s preferences, with button layout and ergonomics tailored to their individual needs.
  • Limited production: with only a handful of teams competing in F1, the production run for these steering wheels is tiny, further increasing the cost per unit.

The vital connection between pilot and machine

The F1 steering wheel is more than just an expensive steering device; it is the vital link between driver and car. By giving the driver intuitive control over a multitude of functions, the steering wheel allows him or her to extract maximum performance from the car. The multitude of controls represent the pinnacle of racing technology, a complex symphony of buttons working in concert to achieve outstanding performance on the track. Each steering wheel is a masterpiece of engineering, designed to perfectly suit the specific needs of its driver and car.

Typically, in a normal season, each driver has between three and five steering wheels to use during the year, should they break down, fail or prove defective. Each of these specimens is customized on the rider’s grip, preferences, and ergonomics, as well as, of course, having endless customization possibilities for what is shown on the display.

A continuous evolution

F1 steering wheel technology is constantly evolving, with engineers and designers constantly working to improve functionality, ergonomics and performance. New materials, new technologies and new ideas are constantly being introduced, pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

Long gone are the years of the essential, linear steering wheels of Senna, Mansell and Prost (not to mention even earlier examples). One only has to go and look at a few images taken from Senna’s 1988 McLaren MP4/4 to see a completely different object from the ones we are used to today. First of all, the shape: completely round, with three spokes and absolutely no levers for the gearshift and clutch (the gearshift lever was on the right side of the cockpit, and one hand had to be removed from the steering wheel to operate it). Then the absolute lack of buttons and buttons, except for the Radio button and the Boost button, which is the Turbo pressure selector, forerunner of the modern DRS.

A fascinating window into the world of F1

For racing fans, F1 steering wheels offer a fascinating window into the world of this highly competitive sport. These complex devices represent the intersection of man and machine, where the skill and reaction of the pilot are combined with the power and precision of cutting-edge technology. Perhaps partly because of this, these objects have always had a special appeal in the imagination and fantasy of every fan.

Today’s steering wheels, distant relatives of the round objects of the 1970s and 1980s, are now a concentration of technology and customization: each one is unique, molded to the hands and habits of the driver, and encloses an infinity of controls to command even the most precise of adjustments. The costs of these items are necessarily stellar, up to $100,000, and their production very limited.

Wielding one, now as then, represents a dream that is difficult to quantify.

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Silvia Schweiger
Silvia Schweiger
Associate Director, Executive Marketing and Commercial at RTR Sports Marketing, a London-based sports marketing company specializing in motorsport for over 25 years.
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