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Why an F1 steering wheel has more buttons than a fighter jet

June 11, 2013

No form of auto racing demands more from its participants than Formula 1, where the top teams will spend more than $250 million a year to run 19 races. Everything about the cars and the drivers requires a level of engineering and concentration unique in the world, and nothing illustrates the challenges better than the steering wheels — a confusing, carbon-fiber chunk of buttons, levers and LEDs. It's like playing a Mozart piano concerto at 200 mph.

Each steering wheel is custom-made to each teams' specifications, and thanks to the electronics can cost as much as $50,000 apiece. Because Formula 1 has fewer limits on technology than other forms of racing, the driver has the ability to customize far more of the car's controls — from how it delivers the power coming out of a corner to how rich the engine runs. To save every ounce of weight, the steering wheel also doubles as a message center from the pit crew and the race marshals, and in the modern F1 era holds the paddles for controlling the transmission as well.

A few even control when the driver can get a drink through his helmet.

This graphic was made by the Sauber F1 team to detail the 30-odd buttons and knobs an F1 driver has to master while at speed, including when and how to use KERS, the hybrid boost system which delivers an extra 80 hp for a few seconds but which can only be deployed for a limited time per lap. There's also a system in addition to the radio (which other teams can listen to) which lets the driver tell the pits what changes to make on the next stop, an essential tool when most F1 teams finish a pit stop in three seconds or less.

Our Alex Lloyd, who's spent time behind the wheel of an F1 car, says "Simply driving a Formula One car, with the incredible power-to-weight ratio and g-forces akin to a fighter jet, remains tough enough. But when you add the relentless adjustments to things like the diff settings, engine mapping, as well as utilizing the KERS and DRS systems at the most opportune times, and, of course, constantly communicating with the team, it's like trying to drive to work while juggling balls of fire. One slip in concentration can prove costly."

As this shot from a recent demonstration between Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton and F1 legend of the '50s Sir Stirling Moss shows, it's not just the buttons that make the wheels different: As F1 cars have grown smaller, the wheels have shrunk to the size of video-game controllers, and about half the size of a regular car's. The F1 car's steering ratios are also so quick that the wheel can't turn a full rotation, so teams have cut off the top and bottom, leaving only small cutouts for the drivers to grasp. In the modern era, even the world's best racers have to deal with a lot more distracted driving.

Top, bottom photo: Getty Images