There’s no sport quite like Formula One. While there are other wildly difficult motorsports out there — hello, WRC — there’s a reason why F1 is called the pinnacle. No other racing series puts its drivers and cars through such intense forces, all while performing a thousand other tasks when driving 180 mph around Monaco’s narrow streets.
Those constant demands, mind you, aren’t coming from the pit wall or even engineers back at the team’s home bases listening to the driver through the comms. They’re coming from the car’s steering wheel, a small piece of very expensive carbon fiber.
Slotted behind the car’s halo and set deep within its tub, F1 drivers have more than two dozen buttons, knobs, rotary dials, menus, displays, and LEDs to interact with on the steering wheel. Again, this is all while trying to keep each other behind their respective rear wings and out of the championship points. You might be saying, “Yeah, but Jonathon, the steering wheel on my 2021 Ford F-150 has a bunch of buttons and knobs, too. What’s the big deal?” What you’re failing to grasp is how complicated this F1 wheel is.
To demystify the complicated controls for everyone — new fans as well as those who’ve watched F1 for years and still don’t know what strat, entry, mark, overtake, and DRS are — the Guides & Gear editors of The Drive put together the ultimate explainer.
And by ultimate, we do mean ultimate.
What Do All Those Steering Wheel Buttons Do?
Grab a beverage and your most-focused attention span because we’re going deep on the functionality of everything on an F1 steering wheel. Let’s drive.
Every race is different. Every race has its own peculiarities. And every single race on the calendar is strategized by both the driver and engineer a thousand ways to Sunday before ever lining up on the grid.
What if the MGU-K fails? What if it rains? What if it’s hot? What if there’s a small puncture in one of the tires or if an errant flock of seagulls enters the track? What if Ricciardo’s great-white-shark smile blinds the field through Eau Rouge? Don’t worry, the engineers and driver have game plans for all of the above, and they’re mapped out on the steering wheel’s rotary-knob strategy settings.
An F1 car’s powertrain is one of the most complex systems in the world, thanks to the sport’s hybrid era. With that complexity comes the possibility of failure on many different levels. To ensure the driver has the ability to work around some failures and prevent others, the team’s engineers have designed specific engine-calibration maps the driver can control through a rotary knob on the wheel. These can range from wet-weather conditions that limit power, qualifying power, race power, low-fuel power, failure power, etc.
This is how the driver orders lunch.
Just kidding. The menu allows the driver control over nearly all of the car’s systems. They can access everything and scroll through the countless pages of telemetry through the menu. And they can probably also order lunch.
The Accept button is essentially the steering wheel’s “enter” key. It lets the driver go forward with a change from the menu or for one of the other settings adjusted on the fly.
When there’s an issue with the car midcorner, down the front straight, or anywhere else on the track, the drivers can mark that specific point in the car’s telemetry recording. That allows them to discuss it with the engineers after the race to see why they encountered something that was out of the ordinary.
The differential balance is controlled via a single scroll knob or a set of scroll knobs to control entry, mid, and exit settings. This allows the driver to change the setup in tiny increments. Drivers can change the balance to more front or rear throughout the race to ensure they have the right balance for every corner.
The brake balance is also controlled via a scroll knob that can change the setup in small increments. Drivers can change the balance to more front or rear throughout the race to ensure they have the right balance for every corner.
In some cases called Harvest, this allows the driver to start recovering some of the energy made during braking and store it in the car’s hybrid system to be deployed later.
The Race Start button sets the limiter to a specific speed to, hopefully, get a perfect off-the-line push into each track’s first turn. In supercar speak, it’s a lot like launch control but much less dependent on the car’s electronics.
As with normal cars, F1 racers have neutral, too.
Given that pit crews consist of humans who are, let’s just say, fragile in their construction, you don’t really want race cars coming into the pits at 200 mph. That’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, F1’s rules set maximum pit-lane speed at 50.5 mph. There’s a button that limits the car’s speed as it enters pit lane so the driver doesn’t have to worry about delicately balancing the right foot on the throttle pedal to maintain that specific speed.
After hearing in comms to “box, box, box” and likely seeing it along the pit wall, the drivers can confirm manually that they heard the communication and that they will be pitting on that specific lap.
How else are we going to hear Lewis Hamilton complaining about his tires going off, a giddy Lando Norris replying to a radio check, “Movin’ up and down, side to side, like a roller coaster,” or possibly the most well-known radio exchange, Kimi Räikkönen telling his engineers, “Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing.”
F1 drivers lose an average of five to seven pounds of water weight during a race. Using a system similar to a powered hydration pack, this button pumps fluids directly into the driver’s mouth.
The Overtake button, also known to some as push to pass, momentarily gives the driver a boost in engine and hybrid power to get around the car in front. I think I speak for all enthusiasts when I say that I’d like that button on all my cars.
DRS stands for drag-reduction system, which is a fancy term for active aerodynamics. In the case of F1, it’s a semi-active rear diffuser.
When the driver hits the DRS button on the steering wheel and is within one second of the car in front and in a track’s specific DRS zones, the middle portion of the rear wing opens, thereby reducing drag. When open, the DRS gives the driver about 6-10 mph more speed by the end of the zone, although that depends on the track. Tight and even claustrophobic circuits such as Monaco are only good for about 4-5 mph more oomph.
Other Secret Buttons
As with all racing, there’s a lot of room for secrecy in terms of design and setup as well as specific driver demands. The above list of buttons and knobs and rotaries are only the mainstays, but there are others that are bespoke to the driver, team, or even race weekend.
What About the Wheel’s Other Parts?
Of course, there’s more than just button controls on the steering wheel.
You may be surprised to hear that there’s more than just paddles for the transmission on a F1 car’s steering wheel. You might not be so surprised if you’re a fan of the sport who closely inspects in-car camera angles for such clues.
There tend to be three sets of paddles in F1, but each driver and team may have a different setup. The top paddles can be set to give the driver quick access to specific strategic settings, engine setups, overtake mode, DRS, etc. The middle ones are for the driver to shift the eight-speed transmission. The lower ones are often for the clutch, which is only for race starts, tire warming, or in the case of victories, a few donuts.
It’s what the drivers grip and use to turn the wheel at 190 mph. Each one is also molded to their respective driver’s hands, and teams can use different materials for the rubber compound. Neat!
This allows for easier entry and exit out of the car’s cockpit. Something you definitely want in the case of a crash or, worse, a fire.
Like the dashboard on your personal ride, F1 drivers also need a display. The mini screen gives them telemetry, current gear, lap times, delta to the car in front and behind, battery state of charge, menus, and insight into their car’s performance and issues, among a host of other telematics. And again, this is all read at speed.
The display itself may be located on the wheel itself or on the race car’s dash, depending on team and driver preference. Both have their benefits and issues, though, as on-wheel screens give drivers more leg room but aren’t as effectively observed when turning the wheel. While on-dash screens are better for overall observation, they reduce the driver’s legroom and have to be integrated into the car’s chassis.
There are LED indicator lights for rpm levels that let the driver know when it’s time to shift. Drivers will often have these set up in different colors to denote low and high RPMs. These are either located at the top of the wheel or mounted to the dash, depending on the driver’s setup.
FAQs About an F1 Steering Wheel
Despite the breadth of answers above, we still have a bunch of questions to answer. To do that, we enlisted the help of F1 steering-wheel engineers from Aston Martin, McLaren, and Mercedes-AMG. There are so many questions we had to break this post into two sections, or it would Nikita Mazepin your computer.
Head on over to the next post to see how Mercedes-AMG Petronas, Aston Martin F1, and McLaren design and torture-test an F1 steering wheel.
You know you want to see the wheel in action now, don’t you? Let’s take a look at this explanation from Mercedes.