Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe

F1 steering wheels: How they work, what the buttons do and more

Formula 1 steering wheels often cause confusion due to their complexity, as they look nothing like ones in road cars.

Steering wheel in the car of Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-23

F1 cars are incredibly complex machines which take several years plus millions of dollars to design and build before heading to a track.

A key component of that is the steering wheel. Of course, it is essential for every car, but the F1 steering wheel is unlike any that is seen on the road.

Over the years F1 steering wheels have changed and developed from simple circles into the modern-day version, which looks like it has come straight from a rocket ship. So here is everything about the F1 steering wheel, its evolution, how it works and more.

Evolution of the F1 steering wheel

An F1 steering wheel has not always looked like it does in the present day. Back in the championship’s early years, it held distinct similarities to the average steering wheel of a road car.

This is because when Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and co raced in the 1950s, F1’s technology was not that advanced. A basic steering wheel comprised of wood and aluminium was all they had to control the car with but, as the years went by, changes inevitably happened.

In the 1960s, while technology remained quite basic, the wooden wheel rim became leather wrapped for more grip. Little changes were then made to the 1960s spec until midway through the 1970s when the first button appeared.

This was an emergency ignition-kill switch. At the time, F1 engines were fitted with throttle sliders which tended to open if dirt became stuck in the mechanism, so the switch allowed drivers to quickly turn the engine off before hitting a barrier.

It kickstarted major changes over the coming years, and the 1980s also saw suede replace the leather rim which received a lot of plaudits. Stefan Johansson, F1 driver across two stints between 1980 and 1991, said it was the first “real improvement” because it gave him more of a feel in the car through improved grip.

Drivers then started requesting steering wheels specific to their driving style. Nigel Mansell often put a lot of force through the wheel, so he opted for a much thicker grip, while Ayrton Senna did the opposite because the triple world champion was smoother in his technique.

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-8 Ford

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-8 Ford

Steering wheels also took on more responsibility in the 1980s as gadgets started to appear. One was a quick-release mechanism, so steering wheels became easily detachable which was important when cockpits started to get smaller.

It meant the steering wheel was no longer a large obstacle when exiting the car, which has especially helped in an emergency. Whenever a car caught fire, a driver needed to quickly get out and a quick-release mechanism was essential to that.

The radio button was also introduced so that teams and drivers could communicate better mid-race, while some steering wheels had a ‘boost’ button which aided overtaking. However, these changes were minuscule compared to what happened in 1989 as Ferrari became the first team to use a semi-automatic gearbox.

This is where two paddle shifts behind the wheel replaced the clutch pedal. Drivers went faster as a result and it helped to save space which therefore reduced weight.

It was a revolution. Other teams followed suit in the 1990s, which caused the next big change where the wheel’s shape became rectangular rather than round.

As this happened, more buttons appeared like a pitlane speed limiter and rotary dials where drivers could choose different settings for their car. The turn of the century saw an evolution to this as rubber replaced suede, while drivers began to mould the steering wheel around their hands which in turn helped to increase the feel of the car.

Technology continued to improve, and buttons kept being added, so that drivers could be more specific with each setting. It meant F1 drivers had to develop an engineering mind because there was now so much more to just driving the car.

Little tweaks continued until 2014 when another big change was introduced. At the start of the turbo-hybrid era, an LCD screen was added to the steering wheel so that drivers could flick through lots of data to make decisions mid-race.

In 2020, Mercedes then caused a stir with the introduction of Dual Axis Steering. When Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas pushed and pulled on the steering column during that championship- winning campaign, the alignment of the front wheels moved inwards or outwards, which changed the angle of the toe and meant the drivers were able to adjust the steering alignment for either increased top speed or improved tyre warming.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11, pit stop

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11, pit stop

Teams questioned its legality, but Mercedes acted within the rules and the DAS system was allowed to stay for 2020. That quickly changed though, as DAS was banned for 2021 and beyond; nevertheless, it provided another indication that steering wheels can be used for more than just turning an F1 car.

What are the buttons on an F1 steering wheel?

As buttons began to appear on an F1 steering wheel everything became very complex. Drivers are juggling lots of things mid-race where the press of one wrong button could have a detrimental impact.

At the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, for example, Lewis Hamilton had a dramatic Turn 1 lock-up on the lap 50 restart which put him to the back of the field. It came after the Mercedes driver accidentally hit the ‘magic’ button on the back of his steering wheel which is there to generate heat quickly to the front tyres, so it is useful for the formation lap.

But not in race conditions. By accidentally flicking the switch in the approach to Turn 1, Hamilton shifted the brake balance to approximately 90% for the front axle when it is usually around 55-60%, so his tyres locked up and the seven-time world champion went off.

Despite teams’ best efforts, pressing the wrong button does sometimes happen. When George Russell made his debut for Mercedes at the 2020 Sakhir GP, he continuously pressed the wrong buttons so there is a lot to get used to. That is further highlighted in the table below which lists many of the buttons on an F1 steering wheel.

Drag Reduction System (DRS)

Operates DRS, which opens the rear wing to reduce drag and increase top speed

Skip 1/10 Preset

Manages the critical control sensors on the car and power unit

Gearbox Neutral

Puts the car in neutral which allows it to stop

Pitlane Speed Limiter

When engaged, the car cannot go beyond the speed the car was at when the button was pressed even if the driver goes full throttle

Pit Confirm

Tells the team to get ready for a pitstop because the driver is about to come in

Differential

Controls the differential - amount of torque transfer between the rear wheels - for a corner’s entry, apex and exit

Engine Braking 

Adjusts how much the engine slows the car down when the driver is not on either their throttle or brakes 

Brake Balance

Changes brake balance of the car to either the front or rear

Mark

Identifies a point of interest in the data as indicated by the driver

Accept

Accepts default modes selected by Skip 1/10

Race Start

Sets the car up for a race start where maximum power is used

Radio

Gets pressed when the driver wants to talk to the pitwall

Strat Mode Rotary

A rotary dial which is used to control power unit modes like performance of the internal combustion engine

Menu Rotary

Allows the driver to change various parameters on the car like radio volume or brightness of the steering wheel’s digital screen

HPP Rotary

Also controls power unit settings like energy management

LEDs

LED lights indicate when to shift, while some also show what colour flag marshals are waving

Paddle Shifts

There are two paddle shifts behind the steering wheel which are used to change gear. Usually, the left paddle is for downshifts, while the right one is for upshifts

Do F1 teams all use the same kind of steering wheel?

Each F1 team has its own unique steering wheel because it is one of the things a driver can control, so they want something which suits their specific needs.

A lot of time and effort therefore goes into the design so that a driver can feel comfortable once sat in the car. Alpine, for example, has a steering wheel that is rounder than its rivals while Williams is the only team to not have a digital screen.

Alpine A523 steering detail

Photo by: Uncredited

Alpine A523 steering detail

This was done in an effort to save weight, so its wheel is much smaller than others. On the flip side, Ferrari has a large steering wheel which features up to six rotary dials as opposed to three for Mercedes.

However, both teams still have a steering wheel that is packed with buttons but the same cannot be said for Red Bull. Red Bull is rather more relaxed in that regard, which perhaps makes it easier for its drivers to navigate each button and removes the risk of pressing the wrong one.

But regardless of how many buttons a steering wheel has, each one will be placed in a different location depending on the team. Therefore, no one steering wheel is the same so teams design one which is specific to their needs.

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Wolff: Mercedes F1 team "in legal exchange" with FIA over compliance probe
Next article Hamilton: FIA behaviour on Toto and Susie Wolff is “unacceptable”

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe