If you’ve ever caught sight of a Formula One car’s steering wheel, chances are you took one look and went, “what the hell?” There are, approximately, one million buttons and dials that each have a different function and each look intimidating as hell. Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 understands that confusion—and they’ve been so kind as to tell us how drivers somehow don’t screw up and press the wrong button mid-race.
Let’s count ’em, race fans. That wheel has twelve buttons, six dials, three knobs two paddle shifters, and one screen—along with 25 LED lights, according to Mercedes’ blog. There are hundreds of millions of combinations of settings. That’s a hell of a lot of information in one tiny little wheel—and with every team using a subtly different layout, things must get confusing. Here’s all the stuff the wheel can do, aside from just steering and shifting:
The driver can access crucial information on the central display, such as his engine speed, delta times to other cars or sensor information, for example tyre temperatures.
The steering wheel is also used to influence certain car settings, for example change the brake balance or adjust the differential (the amount of torque transfer between the rear wheels). Power unit settings, such as the all-important strategy mode, which determines the power output, are also selected on the steering wheel.
So, they don’t actually go into detail about which button does what, exactly, but GQ Magazine broke it down in 2016 and McLaren did the same in 2017. The BB buttons, for example, change brake balance. The green N button puts the car in neutral for a pit stop. PL is the pit lane speed limiter.
But the pressing question is: With all those buttons and switches and dials—with the thick gloves drivers wear during the race—how the hell are drivers not making more tragic mistakes during the race? Why isn’t “I just hit the wrong button” a more common excuse for screwing up in the middle of a race? Mercedes explains:
To reduce the risk of accidentally hitting a button, the team has installed small plastic rims around certain buttons. Those guards can change on a race-by-race basis. They are particularly important for tight turns like the hairpin in Monaco when the drivers use the maximum steering angle.
In addition to the guards around the buttons, the team uses high reliability buttons that are also used on aircrafts, which require quite a strong tactile force. That way, the driver feels a solid click when he presses a button even with the gloves on.
So, basically, you can’t. You really have to want to push that button to be able to activate it. While that’s not a 100 percent foolproof way of assuring no one will ever change the wrong setting, it at least makes it more likely that a driver won’t bump the neutral button when they want to overtake instead.