Sauber steering wheel

Why F1 steering wheels have over 20 buttons – and what they all do

F1 technologyPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

F1 steering wheels serve an obvious and important function. But F1 drivers use them to do much more than just point the car in the right direction.

This year designers have had to squeeze in buttons for Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems and Drag Reduction Systems along with the usual array of toggles, switches and levers.

Now F1 is being broadcast in high definition it’s easier for us to see what the driver’s up to at the wheel.

This video from Mercedes gives an introduction to some of the settings their drivers have to tweak while they’re on the move:

Here’s a closer look at Sauber’s steering wheel and what their drivers have to control while lapping at over 200mph:

Sauber steering wheel
Sauber steering wheel
Button Function
N Puts gearbox into neutral
B Activates Kinetic Energy Recovery System
Oil Activates supplementary oil tank for engine
KRec (dial) KERS recovery setting
Ack / Yes Acknowledge to confirm set-up changes. Also used when the driver’s radio is not working properly to indicate a ‘Yes’ response
Probl/No Sets a marker in the telemetry to indicate a problem was encountered. Also used when the driver’s radio is not working properly to indicate a ‘No’ response
Entry / Prel / Visco (dials) Change differential settings for corner entry, pre-load and corner exit
MFRS (dial) Multifunctional Rotary Switch (centre dial) which controls various settings. Used in conjunction with + and – buttons to change options
PL Turn pit lane speed limiter on/off
BP Find clutch bite point
W Activates Drag Reduction System
R Radio
Pedal (dial) Change throttle pedal map
Box Used when the driver’s radio is not working properly to indicate the driver is coming into the pits
D Drink bottle
Krel (dial) KERS release setting
RPM RPM limiter
Tyre Adjust electronics to suit different tyres
Left gear paddle Shift down a gear
Right gear paddle Shift up a gear
Lower levers Clutch

In addition to the various controls, drivers also receive information via the lights on the steering wheel.

On the Sauber steering wheel the displays are:

  • RPM indicator (upper LEDs)
  • FIA flag signals (left and right LEDs)
  • Gear selection (centre LED)
  • Speed and sector times / MFRS options (left and right screens)

On some cars, such as the Red Bull, this display cluster is mounted behind the steering wheel.

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104 comments on “Why F1 steering wheels have over 20 buttons – and what they all do”

  1. *head explodes*

    Sure you want realism in the next Codemasters game you lot, lol?

    1. Realism? Codemasters? lol they don’t relate one bit.

      1. nope just real qualifying sessions and timing please.

        1. So much going on

      2. Lol, codemasters’s last F1 game was more like mario carts than a real driving sim.

        1. It wasn’t though.

        2. I had a 7 day stint playing the codemasters game, the physics, could be improved. But it has to be said that the atmosphere was very well created. This I think being a core area F1 games should excel in.

    2. *head explodes*


      1. Codemasters FIRST and only F1 game was the closest thing to a real F1 experience that’s ever been made, especially with a wheel. why the hate, @Rob can you recommend better???

        1. it means that you have no experience with games like f1 challenge (published in 2001) and one of the best moto sim engine “rfactor” with a lots of f1 mods. codemaster’s f1 2010 is pretty nice considering graphics but it’s far away from realism (and let’s forget about tons of annoying bugs in this game)

        2. I would argue that iRacing and Ferrari Virtual Academy are the cat’s meow in terms of consumer F1 simulators.

          Of those two, only iRacing offers tight racing against other humans. You even have to earn your licence in iRacing before you can try an F1 in an official race.

          rFactor and Live for Speed are in a second tier compared with those two, and Codemasters F1 is a notch below rFactor in simulation quality.

          Only graphics wise Codemasters is the top one simulation, but it has an ugly input lag that simply spoils any driving.

    3. They would have to agree with Logitech or Trust or someone to do a special F1 racing steering wheel for all the functions!

      Maybe even get the teams to sell them with real logos as officiall add ons.

    4. Chavagator
      21st May 2011, 8:29

      Yeah, its a bit like my Fiesta’s

  2. Looks complicated, but I think most people would have no probs using it after spending 10+ hours in simulator familiarizing with it.

    1. I’m sure people would be ok using a wheel like that in a simulator given enough time.

      But when you’re actually in a moving vehicle at ~200mph with your brain trying to tell you not to kill yourself? No way.

      Top Gear did an episode where Richard Hammond gets to drive a Renault F1 car around the inside track on Silverstone after some practice in progressively faster cars. The short of it was: he couldn’t, really and he didn’t even attempt to deal with anything on his steering wheel.
      Essentially his problem boiled down to him simply not having the skills and the bravery to drive the car fast enough to get heat in the tyres and brakes to allow him to get the car anywhere near its operating range. You know, the range where any of the stuff on that steering wheel gets relevant. And the people who do have those skills and bravery and are in F1, are coming up to the limits of their spare brain capacity with all of the stuff they have to deal with, hence the complaints and the brainfades like Button had in China.

      What I’m saying is, to compare the workload of F1 drivers in their car, with us fiddling in a road car trying to find a radio station we like to listen to or driving a simulator, is like saying you can multi-task because you can breath and pick your nose at the same time.

      1. You missed the point, completely. If you use something for long enough you’ll get to the point when you can do it in your “sleep” (well, for the lack of the better phrase, I’m not native speaker and my english ain’t that good).

        Doing it at 170 mph (the days when F1 cars reached top speeds of 200 mph are long gone) is a problem for someone like me and probably you that aren’t used to those kind of speeds, but those drivers didn’t jump in to those machines like Richard Hammond did in that test, they’ve been doing it for years (not only in F1 but in similar series speed-wise, like GP2, etc…).

        1. “the days when F1 cars reached top speeds of 200 mph are long gone”

          Really? 322 kph (200mph) was the top speed in China last week…

          1. dyslexicbunny
            22nd April 2011, 20:26

            And that was six days long gone, you jerk!!!! :)

        2. No, I got what you were getting at. I think you misunderstood why I disagreed with your statement.

          I agree with you that anyone at all can get used to handling all the buttons and switches on that steering wheel. But that’s in a safe environment.

          The speed in itself is almost irrelevant. It’s the fact that the drivers are in a constantly changing environment where a wrong move could actually kill them. Stuff goes wrong in those situations. Less stuff goes wrong the more spare mental capacity you have. F1 drivers are saying they are coming up to the limits of their spare mental capacity. Ergo: it’s not a matter of just learning to blindly handle the knobs and dials.

        3. I know what you are saying – it is like if you showed a laptop to somebody 100 years ago and said ‘these productivity devices people will use in the future, without even looking down’ they would have said you are mad.

          You are trained to a point where it is all in your subconscious and you do not even think about how to use all the various features.

      2. theRoswellite
        24th April 2011, 18:01

        @Ral: …nicely put. The same relationship exists in the combat simulations…fiddling with a hand controller while sitting in an easy chair is about as far as you can get from the reality of being in the field and being a TARGET. Sims are fun, but they are fun because they lack real consequences. No one has to deal with the finality of an improper choice.

      3. Just look at Clarkson commenting on the Ferrari 458 Italias steering wheel!

  3. Most definitely, the Redbull cars will have a nose up nose down button labelled, Nod.

  4. Bloody brilliant timing on the article, thanks! I’m looking to build a mod for my G25 racing wheel shortly and this is just the info I needed!

    1. Anyone know if the clutch paddle is binary (on/off) or analogue (clutch pressure changes depending on how hard you push the paddle)?

      1. It’s analogue. There are usually 2 paddles on formula 1 cars. They use them for the start. I think the have one engaged and then the other half engaged by sticking a finger in between to keep the paddle half engaged as both fully engaged would kick in the engine anti stall. You can see the little jump in speed when they dropped the second paddle a few seconds of the start when they have traction.

      2. it may be binary with different settings to choose from, but I’m not sure

      3. They’re both analogue. They use the first one for the bite point and then release the second one progressively as they are setting off from the start. It was explained in the pre-show once.

  5. Awesome article Keith! It would be great to have one of those steering wheels in my car.. and replace the functionality of those buttons to ipod controls, air conditioner settings and light indicators :)

    Btw Keith, the changes made to your site to make it better for Chrome users has worked brilliantly. No more ad loops and the pages load really quickly.

  6. Fantastic article Keith and great video from Rosberg. I’ve been wondering for a while what many of those buttons do.

  7. Why does the drink button impress me most?

    1. Maybe because it is road relevant technology! Lazy people like me would love to have push to sip technology in our road cars ;)

      1. it’s easy enough to re-wire the windshield washer system to do that. Just use a new reservoir, and re-route the hose inside your car to where you can reach it. Before you leave, poor your coffee in the reservoir and the engine heat will keep it warm for you.

        1. I bloody wish, for whatever reason whoever designed my car stuck the washer bottle in front of the front left wheel, I’ve never seen it. So along comes winter and I can’t get the blasted thing to thaw.

          On topic though, I wonder what’s hidden on the back of the wheel?

          1. On topic though, I wonder what’s hidden on the back of the wheel?

            It’s Michael’s “Awesome” button.

        2. What could possibly go wrong?

        3. GOLD!! I want one please.

        4. LOL, nice idea. I wonder how I will look like when my wife borrows the car in the winter and sprays the windshield to get rid of the ice now!

    2. Where is the drinks button on that sauber wheel anyway? i can’t find the ‘D’…

      1. Sauber doesn’t believe in fluids. Cutting costs you see…

        1. dyslexicbunny
          22nd April 2011, 18:12

          Clearly not true. They partnered with Jose Cuervo.

          1. water adds weight, which might hurt tyres….. that must explain that saubers performance….

          2. Thats why they have pee bags in their suits so that fluid that comes in, doesn’t necessarily go out.

      2. artificial racer
        22nd April 2011, 19:22

        It’s on the bottom right.

  8. All these settings can be found on simulator F1 car too

  9. Surely a whole bunch of these buttons can be controlled by the team to put less pressure on the driver?

    1. They could, but it’s not allowed under the rules.

      Which I think is a good thing – the drivers should be the ones driving the cars.

      1. They should be driving the car. The setup and settings should be done before the race.

        1. The cars are so sensitive to change that the drivers need to be able to make adjustments to keep up with changes in track conditions, fuel loads, tyre wear etc. I expect it would be near undrivable if they had to keep the same settings for an entire race. Plus it’s nice to see the drivers extract the very maximum from their cars.

    2. racerdude7730
      22nd April 2011, 20:20

      They used to control alot of things from the pits till they changed the rules saying you can not send that sorta data to the car. They would change the ride height of the car and everything from the pits

  10. There’s more knobs than Buttons, something you could say about the F1 paddock in general


    1. Oh god that made me chuckle.

    2. Lol, awesome

  11. I have a feeling it is digital or on/off as the cars usually have a configurable clutch bite setting. Think about it, attempting to modulate your clutch pressure manually will affect your ability to apply pressure on some of the other buttons or paddles.

    1. They only use the clutch during the start and pitstops, so why would that be a problem. The gear change is semi-automatic.

  12. Think if Bernie’s fake rain isn’t allowed they should have a race where distracting music is played over the radio and the top 10 qualifiers drink bottles are spiked.

  13. There’s a similar description of the steering wheel on too, for those who want to check out the differences between these teams.

    What I would be interested in: how much more complicated is an F1 steering wheel compared to the other formula classes? Similar, or huge difference?

    The drivers indeed have to operate everything, but teams make sure drivers don’t have to think about it too much to allow them to focus on the actual driving. Lots of stuff will only be used at the instruction of the race engineer. So this may look pretty impressive and complicated, I think during an actual race it will not be a determining factor for any driver.
    (look at a multi-functional steering wheel in a normal road car. Plenty of stuff happening there too, but most of us don’t have any problems using that too)

    1. Fred Schechter
      22nd April 2011, 16:39

      umm, so I don’t know if you caught it,, but they have an extra (spare) button [on the Lotus],,, that’s big and red!!!! Whatever could that be for?

      2. Radio issues
      3. Contact teammate
      4. Karun

    2. LeMans Prototypes have a similar, although different, layout of buttons. Check out this YouTube video for a description of their controls as well as a view fo the backside (which I am sure is quite similar to the back of an F1 wheel). The GT cars have buttons and switches everywhere (wheel, dash, console, etc.) but not many knobs.

      Indycars use a much simpler steering wheel, but still have a few buttons and controls for the car, pit stop, radio, and drink. See:

      NASCAR has a bunch of switches on the dash but almost nothing on the wheel. Of course, their drivers aren’t as worried about what they have to do with their left hand 3-4 corners that they have at 80% of their tracks as they are about running into the guys right behind, along side of, and in front of them.

      To the best of my knowledge, WRC cars vary quite a bit on what they have on the steering wheel, although much like NASCAR, they have a bunch of nobs and switches on the dash/console, probably so the codriver can get to them.

  14. Wow. That Sauber steering wheel makes those “high tech” cars in the Speed Racer movie (did anybody watch that a couple of years back?) look ridiculously simple.

    And this is workaday stuff for 30 odd race & test drivers!

  15. Using “KRec” he can reduce or increase that harvesting but how it affect to drive?

    1. i think it controls how quickly and when the batteries are recharged. the recharging acts as brakes on the rear wheels, so they want to control how strong and at what speeds that happens. when the batteries are full, the braking effect stops and the drivers have to adjust.

  16. Which button do I press for my team to tell Felipe that I’m way faster than him?

    1. The radio button.

        1. The throttle pedal …

  17. No pause button. Major oversight.

    I thought I heard that Mercedes had their DWS activated with a pedal, at least for Schumacher. Given that he made left-foot braking standard in F1, found that interesting. A pedal-operated DWS would be ideal if you could feather the wing, instead of just changing to one of two positions. I would love to see the drivers actively managing the aero through the whole track. Driving as well as “flying” the car.

    1. Some might prefer an “undo” button

    2. This is why they limit it to just a place where you need almost no downforce. They don’t want to create artificial racing and make it another thing which teams can take advantage with clever engineering.

      By 2013 they plan on having even more limited aero above and are going to focus on under the car aerodynamics to create downforce thereby fixing the problem of dirty air. That is their hope, and it is all of this dirty air dirty tricks that had turned F1 into a race where it is difficult to pass.

      They just want to make the race more exciting for everyone, lets hope they continue getting it right and succeeding.

  18. Bigbadderboom
    22nd April 2011, 14:47

    Good I struggle with my cruise control and radio settings ;). I would have though there would be more moans from the purists demanding that all they should have is a stick shift, brake, accelarator and clutch. And if they wanted a drink then they should have a cup holder! Doesn’t all these controls make F1 too synthetic? A joke (Obviously) but realistically where is the line drawn, we all complain about codemasters making f1 not simmy enough but isn’t f1 becoming too gamey with all this buttons and dials? Not sure I like too many gimmicks that adapt the conditions to the car, I would appreciate a driver more if they managed the variables through driving and not changing the cars setup to match the track conditions.

  19. dyslexicbunny
    22nd April 2011, 15:26

    That’s more complicated than my Saitek flight stick and throttle.

    1. the one modeled after the F16 controls?, I have that one!

      *high five!*

      1. dyslexicbunny
        22nd April 2011, 16:08

        Nah. I have the X-45. I snagged it off ebay specifically for Freespace 2. I love it though. It’s fantastic.

  20. SennaNmbr1 (@)
    22nd April 2011, 16:08

    Where’s the red shell button?

    1. Next to the oil slick button.

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