--
 
Hot hatches - Old vs New

Check out these 5 hatches and compare the old with the new.

5 most important cars

We take a look at 5 cars that revolutionised the automotive industry.

F1: Reinventing the (steering) wheel

2017-05-28 11:39

Image: AFP

Braam Peens

Cape Town - So you think can race? Forget about turning up the DJ Fresh from your flat-bottomed Polo GTI steering wheel – an F1 car puts the entire dashboard at the driver’s fingertips.

As if battling for position isn’t mentally taxing enough, the driver has to memorise each of the switches’ positions and functions – for use at 300+km/h.

There’s little doubt that the modern F1 cars exist beyond the outer limits of extreme, evolving through science and engineering (while being funded by development budgets the size of small a country’s GDP) and a ceaseless quest for efficiency and bleeding edge performance.

To the casual observer, F1 cars can be reduced to little more than a rocketship engine housed in a wind tunnel-honed body. Naturally, it’s a bit more than that, but the wowness doesn’t start when the engine is fired up; instead it’s the moment when the driver first wraps his fingers around the steering wheel.

Over time, this round and once-elementary instrument has evolved into the freakishly foreign, rectangle-shaped carbon-fibre supercomputer of today. When F1 was in its infancy in the 1950s, steering wheels were made from wood, often borrowed from their road-going counterparts. In the absence of power steering, they were as large as possible in diameter to facilitate less taxing turning.

They only started shrinking about two decades later, then covered in leather or suede to offer more grip to the driver’s glove. Some buttons appeared from the 1980s, only able to execute the most primary of functions.

As the new millennium winked, three things happened to the F1 steering wheel: the number of buttons – and their abilities – grew correspondingly along with the available computing capacity of the day, rim diameter and form morphed into smaller, squarer shapes as power steering and shift paddles had become the norm.   

Today, the steering wheel is the car’s dashboard, where every control is located within a fingertip’s reach, to satisfy the demands of safety and optimise efficiency. The face of Lewis Hamilton’s 2015 championship-winning Mercedes F1 W06 steering wheel is a smörgåsbord comprising 12 buttons, six thumb wheels and three dials. There’s more: on the back is a pair of gear change paddles and hand clutches. 

So what does each knob do? Among others, the following functions – can all be adjusted: the rev limit and numerous engine modes, pit lane speed limiter, front/rear brake bias, how much energy the hybrid system harvests or deploys, fuel consumption, the differential (to adjust corner entry and exit behaviour) and how aggressively the throttle pedal delivers power.

The thirsty driver can even order a drink through his helmet from the steering wheel, and operate that endless source of amusement to TV-watching fans – the car-to-pit radio.

If you haven’t noticed, there aren’t any dials; instead, there’s also a configurable 4.3 inch data screen that relay key car information. Rev clock? That’s so Paul Walker. In its place is a row of multi-coloured lights integrated at the top of the rim and the driver can opt to receive an audible beep in his helmet at each optimal gear change point as well.
What if the driver needs to get out in a hurry?

According to the rules, a driver must be able to exit his car within 5 seconds. To achieve this, the steering wheel can be detached by the driver pulling a quick-release ring directly mounted between it and the column. As the wheel is unclipped, all the conductive circuitry (integrated, with no wires) simultaneously disconnects from the hub it’s mounted on. 

Such performance porn comes at a price, obviously. You’re looking at about R800 000 each. One steering wheel takessix weeks to produce and weighs 1.3kg. Leaving nothing to chance, at Mercedes each driver has three at his disposal per race weekend.

Lewis Hamilton famously reduced his tally to two after taking out Nico Rosberg on the first lap of last year’s Spanish grand prix. Talk about winning at all costs, if you’ll pardon the pun.

NEXT ON WHEELS24X

Inside Wheels24

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.