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Secrets of an F1 Steering Wheel
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Secrets of an F1 Steering Wheel
Posted By: James Allen  |  19 May 2010   |  12:37 pm GMT  |  65 comments

When Rubens Barrichello threw his steering wheel out of the car in Monaco on Sunday, the electronics engineers and the accountants at Williams will have screamed. Those things are packed full of incredibly complex electronics and are expensive – over £40,000 a piece!

If you want to know more, I’ve done a behind the scenes video on the secrets contained in an F1 steering wheel and now seems like the perfect time to show it.

The drivers are very busy at the wheel nowadays during a Grand Prix. In addition to the clutch and gear change functions on the back of the wheel, there are many settings to change, to trim the car and look after the tyres.

I was surprised to learn how much a driver can do by adjusting the differential. There are three separate dials to adjust its behaviour on the corner entry, the mid corner and the corner exit.

So if a car is suffering from understeer, for example, he can trim the corner entry dial to help that. It is also in use during the race as a driver tries to manage his tyre wear, particularly on the super soft tyre here in Monaco.

The video also goes into the precise steps a driver takes when preparing for a race start. I found it fascinating and I hope you will too.

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65 Comments
  1. Joe Cowan says:

    That is amazing. The amount of work that went into that steering wheel beggars belief!!

  2. Rafael / Seville says:

    Hi James.
    I think it would be interesting if you can write something about the Williams season so far.
    It looks like Rubens was full of frustation when he threw the steering wheel.
    Cheers.
    Rafa.

      1. Nilesh says:

        Hi James,

        This will be asking for a lot but could you do a post on the HRT team in the near future too? I’m curious as to what is a true measure of their drivers’ performance this season. It’s hard to judge either of their performance since they’re both rookies in a completely new team. Also, I’ve heard a lot of negative things about the design of the car which makes it even harder to measure their drivers up against the rest of the new teams.

        It was interesting to see that Christian Klein lapped half a second faster in the car in practice. Was that due to his experience in setup or just the driver’s ability?

      2. Andy C says:

        It was mentioned on the BBC coverage that geoff willis is working as consultant and that hrt management had asked dallara when the next tech update would be. Dallara answered next year apparently so that sounds like a relationship that won’t last….

        James,
        am I right on that? I thought that was as I heard it.

      3. Sergio says:

        They are both getting well. Even Colin Kolles said that at autosport.com.
        B. Senna won the Monaco GP when in GP2 so they know their job.
        The Cosworth engines were having some degradation issues so all the teams running it put it in “practice mode” at the free practice sessions. Klein said that for some laps he ran it in “race mode” so that’s about 50 HP more, in his own estimates. Maybe that accounted for the time difference.
        But anyway, HRT performs in some sense so badly that half a second doesn’t mean much. Senna had some problem with his car in Monaco’s practice and Chandhok was very ahead of him then he solved it and got much ahead of Chandhok in the qualifying. So the car performance can vary (improve) a lot.

      4. phil says:

        Did I read something yesterday that suggested that Williams are looking at a Renault engine for next year now that the Renault engine is performing so well?

        They had a chance to do this last year but decided to go with Cosworth.

      5. Sergio says:

        That was dismissed today. Anyway, how long is Barri’s contract? Three years?
        That should be enough time to get Williams (and Cosworth) up to the front.

    1. Formula Zero says:

      And millions (probably billions) of people all around the world saw Rubens throwing it wherever he felt like except Damon Hill along with other race stewards. They must have been consuntrating on Schumacher making any mistake so that they can penalize him.

      1. Robert S says:

        i thought surely rubens should get a fine for throwing the steering wheel to! james do you know if he did??

        Also it shows how frustrated he must be getting in that team already

      2. Liam says:

        Maybe facing the wrong way on a 120mph apex had something to do with it? The stewards would have a hard time disproving his claims that he just wanted to get out of the car ASAP.

  3. MacG says:

    Completely off topic . . . how do the twitter feeds on your website work? Fantastic way of pooling lots of F1 snippets from different sources.

  4. Francisco says:

    Good Lord! In the name of God!
    These are the first two thoughts on my mind after watching the video.

    If you add into the equation the F-duct, radio communications, etc. I wonder how these guys can mantain concentration.

    Many thanks James for sharing this video with us.

    1. Stevie P says:

      So now we all know how Button struggled in Spain (Barcelona) with no read-out on the dash!

      It has become the Playstation * generation.

      * – other consoles are available ;-)

  5. alejandro says:

    Just brilliant James…. MORE MORE MORE!!! On a sidenote…. what was the deal with the ultra-secret “wing” button?

    1. James Allen says:

      Front wing adjuster, as most of the top teams have. You can adjust the angle by 6 degrees.

      1. Formula Zero says:

        I don’t quite understand why it costs so much though. Where is it exactly spent?

      2. Matthew says:

        You could mass produce them for much less I’m sure.

        They probably only produce 4 or a 5 a year so they are hand crafted. If you add up the human time that must go into the CAD design, carbon fibre bonding process etc. you can see why they are expensive, although I agree £40k seems rather excessive.

  6. DK says:

    OMG, it’s a dashboard rather then just a steering wheel.

    Another excellent piece, thank you James. The video answer some of the questions in my head seeing so many dials and button on the steering wheel.

    1. Trent says:

      It’s not so long ago I remember seeing a Benetton (1991 I think) of Schumachers that had a Casio wrist watch, with its band removed, stuck onto the steering wheel so the driver could tell how much time was left in the session! Things have advanced…

  7. CNSZU says:

    I was expecting a million wires sticking out the back of the wheel! If it has a quick release function, how do the electrical signals connect from the steering wheel to the chassis?

    1. SKWD says:

      I suspect that the whole shebang is multiplexed over a highly-resilient 1-wire bus – essentially a very fast, very fault-tolerant network connection. The steering wheel might couple using some form of slip ring, just as those on your road car might do. The wheel therefore will need quite a lot of processing power built in.

      Of course, they might be using RF (radio) communications, with the slip ring simply providing power to the wheel, although that has a plethora of potential interference problems in this sort of environment.

    2. jbstans says:

      Looking at the mounting on the back I would assume there are a ring of nubbins around where it attaches which fit in to the little holes on the back of the steering while which you can see in the video and I would imagine it’s all done through those.

  8. J. Potocki says:

    And to think this all being done at 180 mph never mind while racing other cars.
    Personally I have trouble walking and chewing gum so I’m double impressed.

  9. Toastiejoe says:

    Bring back manual gear changes, over-revving and manual clutches I say!

    1. Michael C says:

      absolutely!!

  10. chris green says:

    thanks james. – very informative vid.

  11. carretto says:

    It is appalling that you are concerned about the cost of the steering wheel and not that Barrichello gesture may have cost some other car damage or somebody else injury or life.
    barrichello throw the steering wheel on the track, knowing that other cars were coming forward and would have run over it.
    On light of what happened last year to Massa, Barrichello should have known better.

    1. James Allen says:

      We’ve been through that side of it in previous posts. This is about the wheel itself.

      1. Formula Zero says:

        I guess the outcome of Monaco grand prix is taking some time for a few people like us to sink in.

      2. Jack Strawb says:

        “I guess the outcome of Monaco grand prix is taking some time for a few people like us to sink in.”

        Would you like some cheese with your whine ?

        Schumacher broke the rules, and was caught doing so and
        penalized per the rules. If you don’t like that, maybe you should watch some other form of sport where cheating is
        accepted practice.

  12. Daniel Shires says:

    Hi James,

    Planet F1 are reporting the Monaco stewards were ‘too busy’ to investigate Rubens Barrichello’s actions after his accident on Sunday.

    Whether you agree or disagree with Rubens’ statement that he threw the steering wheel out of the car so he could get out quickly (I personally disagree), there can be no doubt that throwing it into the path of oncoming cars was a dangerous and ill thought out move. Personally I expect better from a driver of Rubens experience.

    But what are your feelings on the about the fact the stewards were ‘too busy’ because of the Schumacher incident? Barrichello’s accident happened in the middle of the race, whereas the Schumacher incident happened at the end.

    It just doesn’t tally up for me and is a very poor show by the stewards if, as the story says, it ‘fell by the wayside’.

    Would be good to know your thoughts.

  13. Horacio says:

    James, you found it fascinating and, yes, me too. I was impressed with the dial that control the engine behaviour according to the tire being used. Just amazing.
    Now, what is that button you were not supposed to ask about?

  14. Williams have a driver manual that all new drivers, even the ones who do the straight line aero testing on airfields have to be totally familiar with, they get tested on it before they driver the car. If they fail the test they are not allowed to drive.

  15. Sorry should have mentioned that this is a steering wheel functions manual and runs to over 100 pages.

  16. Bill Day says:

    I’ve always been in the “bring back the stick and the heel-and-toe” school — but today’s drivers are busier than the old-timers ever were.

  17. Adam Taylor says:

    Its really good to see an in depth piece on the car such as the steering wheel. Its crazy to think how much they have to adjust within the car during a single lap or stint. There must be no time to do it around places like monaco.

  18. JaviValle says:

    A couple of weeks ago, Alonso showed on spanish TV how the ferrari steering-wheel works. This is the video (in spanish, sorry):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRM5ISHT6ZA

    With those two videos I’m amazed by the level of focus that would be necessary to handle these things while driving.

  19. michael grievson says:

    How many streering wheels are used in a year? It would be interesting to see the drivers with a standard wheel

  20. Robert S says:

    Hi james a great video!! could you explain a bit about how the diff is changed on corner entry or exit. how does the car know where it is in the corner ect. and how does changing it affect turn it and exit. seems so complex

    thanks

    1. Peter Jones says:

      Presumably, if the wheel knows how far it’s been turned, wouldn’t that just be as follows:

      Normal – wheel straight up
      Corner entry – wheel turning
      In corner – wheel not turning, not straight
      Corner exit – wheel turning back towards straight.

      It doesn’t need to actually know anything about the corner, or the car’s position on the corner. Of course, the answer is bound to be much more complex than this by the time a qualified F1 engineer has got involved ;-)

      1. Jose Arellano says:

        When a car is going around a corner the diff “opens” and lets the outside tyre advance more than the inside tyre.. making the car turn in a closer radio…. and depending on the diff setting.. in a moment of the turn, the diff “locks” and makes both tyres push equally launching the car out of the corner more quickly..

        thats how they change it on corner, entry or exit…. defining how long does the dif takes to “open” in a turn and how soon or late “locks”.

    2. DistraChi says:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limited_slip_differential#Characteristics

      In the article it says limited slip differentials have three input torque states: over run, no load, and load.

      I believe it translates to:
      Corner entry = over run
      In Corner = no load
      Corner exit = load

      I believe these labels makes much more sense to the driver than having a dial that says “over run.”

      1. Jon says:

        Normally for racing cars it’s power (on throttle), coast (off power), and preload (transition between the two).

        You can be accelerating into the corner, and if you are, you are using the power lock.

        All the diff does is slow down the inside wheel while both rear wheels are turning. It’s not an ideal way to get traction, and it’s all about a comprimise.

        However, with parc ferme rules, everything is locked except tyre pressures and front wing etc. So having this to be adjusted on the fly from corner to corner would be invaluable, you’d imagine. It’s not going to fix an ill handling car though. It’s fine tuning. The key parts of the suspension like handling the bumps properly and getting good traction on exits needs to be taken care of before quali.

      2. Jon says:

        For example, if the tyre wear is high and the rears are sliding around and overheating and the car is suffering oversteer, you can tighten up the power (corner exit) lock.

        That will stop the sliding around, but it’s not an optimum solution, because by doing that you are also hinding your rear tyres ability to get power down onto the road. But since you are bottlenecked by the worn tyres, it doesn’t really matter.

  21. Tom says:

    Enjoyed the video, very clear – thanks!
    These steering wheels are pretty tough – in case you haven’t seen Karun’s message from a couple of days ago:
    My good mate Jonathan Williams has just text me to say Rubens’ steering still works despite 2 HRTF1 cars running over it – Impressive !!!

    1. Neil Barr says:

      Perfect – that’s the steering wheel Rubens should get for Turkey.

  22. Matt says:

    Great video James! I love seeing the technical side and it’s amazing how complex these steering wheels are.

    No wonder (for example) Fisichella struggled last season when thrown into a Ferrari. I’m sure that the steering wheel layouts are very different, and possibly even with different functions.

    Going back to Ruebens, I read elsewhere on the web (and posted above) that the stewards were thinking of punishing him but, in the end, got sidetracked by the Schumacher issue, so didn’t follow it up. If that’s true, then I am quite shocked. Surely it could have been investigated after the race, not just ignored.

    Unfortunately, Ruebens’ explanation that he had to throw the steering wheel to jump out of his burning wreck, strikes me personally as “blah blah blah” and I’m not buying it; it looked liked another fit of petulance to me.

    Anyway, great post – thanks.

  23. Cameron Isles says:

    How much of Rubens throwing the steering wheel out was the fact he was stationary in the middle of the track facing the wrong way just beyond the blind crest into 150mph massenet and about to turn his fruit-of-the-looms into a fudge factory?

  24. Meeklo says:

    Out of curiosity, was it Rubens who reported a lifted manhole cover as causing his spin?

  25. smellyden says:

    Great stuff again! Thanks James

  26. James says:

    Wow, what a peice of kit. So not only do the drivers drive they also do a bit of computer programming at the same time. Not bad to fall back on if they ever hit hard times

    Great article James.

  27. Brian says:

    Hey James

    This is like premium stuff and i learn more and more each day from this site, i would like to know if you have any plans for these F1 videos to have a channel on places like Youtube or maybe create a video collection on this site we can view videos etc. If im taking a business break i like to pop here several times a day and I make sure i have lots of spare time to read comments, it just shows how well informed these great fans are.

  28. Ian Joyner says:

    Top video, thanks James

  29. TM says:

    This a fascinating video.
    I can’t help feeling though that the racing would be better if they just had a plain old steering wheel and stick shift.

    Leave the drinks button though, I’ll allow them that, Lol.
    Overtaking because the guy in front passed out might be a step too far :o)

  30. Spyros says:

    …and it’s waterproof, too! :D

  31. Antoine says:

    Amazing, it’s like using a laptop as a steering wheel. With the speed they carry I still can’t believe they’ve got time to think/choose what to what setting to change especially on corners. Also I’ve always wondered when do drivers choose it’s the appropriate time to speak to their teams and vice versa, do they wait until they get to a straight line or their super instinct allows them to communicate from anywhere on the circuit?

    When Martin Brundel took you for a spin around the new Sylverstone I notice he was commenting throughout the track? Was it that easy for him?

  32. Jose Arellano says:

    hey james.. does CLOSE THE DIFF. means that the diff locks sooner in the corner or later in the corner ???

    locks meaning the two tyres are pushing forward with the same strenght….

    1. Jonathan says:

      Locking a diff has nothing to do with the amount of power each wheel transmits! When a diff is locked it means that both wheels rotate exactly the same amount. If the car is cornering with a locked diff it means one wheel must be losing grip. The reason for locking a diff (or limiting the differential speed) is to prevent the complete loss of power when the suspension can no longer keep both wheels on the ground. With no diff control a wheel losing grip will spin much faster and stop all power going to the other wheel. By locking the diff a wheel can lose all grip but will still only turn at the same speed as the one wheel that is still transmitting power to the track.

      Presumably an F1 diff is a variable limited slip diff – worked on electro-magnetic clutches. The steering wheel controls are simply variable potentiometers (like volume control dials) that alter the timing points for other inputs to control the lock / unlock points for the diff.

      To claim these steering wheels cost £40k is laughable – they are not much more than a Wii controller in a special mounting. A few pounds worth of switches in a mounting costing a few hundred pounds to produce.

      It may well cost £40k to cover all the overheads and new moulds to change to a new layout but I doubt it costs much more than £1k to then reproduce each usable wheel.

  33. Buck61 says:

    As always, top notch. Thanks James

  34. Andy says:

    What advantage do Redbull see in not having the display on the wheel like the other teams?

  35. Martin says:

    Great insight – thanks! But one thing not mentioned … does it turn left and right?

  36. Ralf F says:

    Rubens should donate £40000 to charity. Or at least pay that steering wheel to the team.

  37. Sergio says:

    Here’s a presentation of the Indy500 steering wheel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EltkDhTDSAA&feature=player_embedded

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