A quick steer on how Formula One has reinvented the wheel

The 20 drivers taking to the tight, bumpy roads above Monte Carlo harbour for tomorrow's Monaco Grand Prix will face an equally complicated challenge from something which is staring them all in the face.

In Formula One, the days when "steering wheel" meant a wheel with which you steer are long gone. In the last 16 years what was once simply a round thing to be turned clockwise or anti-clockwise has become something resembling a mini-spaceship.

The original features – buttons for radio communication, selecting neutral and releasing fluid to the driver via a tube into his helmet – have grown ever more complex to the point where the authorities began to sense things getting a bit too automated, and thus disallowed some of the more refined features, such as automatic launch controls and traction controls, which had threatened to make starting, and even racing, boring.

Thus the latest collection of F1 drivers will face the testing Principality course with fewer electronic props than they are used to. They will still, however, be co-ordinating a range of buttons and dials that would have made Sterling Moss blanch. They even have paddles at the back of the wheel, which allow them to shift gears without taking their hands away.

As a software and electronics engineer for the AT&T Williams team for the last seven years, Stuart O'Neill has observed the ever-changing demands on drivers. He has worked with the mechanical engineer Mike Dean on developing the wonders of the F1 steering wheel.

"In 2008 the FIA changed the regulations and standardised the equipment," O'Neill said. "This season every team has the same display on its steering wheels, with a few variations. But the functionality of the knobs and rotary knobs will differ from team to team."

O'Neill tailors the technology to the two Williams drivers, Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima. "Nico likes to hold the top of the wheel, with his thumbs over the top section," O'Neill said. "So we have tried to put all the key buttons high up, so they are within easy reach for him."

O'Neill believes the most telling change in steering wheel set-up has been the move away from automatic launch controls. "At the start of a GP, as soon as the light went up, you floored the accelerator and pressed the button, and the car shifted through the gears," he said. "Now there is no such thing as a launch start. The gear shifting is done by the drivers. The FIA saw the old system as taking away too much of the skill from the driver. That's a fair point. They are paid a lot of money to put up a spectacle. If it's all being put up by a computer system it turns into a battle of the engineers – although, admittedly, I quite like that."

O'Neill has seen a shift in attitudes among drivers. "Some drivers couldn't handle the new wheels and they rarely changed the displays," he said. "They felt that if it worked well enough for them, they would leave well alone and stay with what they had.

"But someone like Juan Pablo Montoya, who took third place for us in the 2003 drivers' championship, couldn't get enough of the technology. Juan Pablo would be barrelling into a bend at 150kph and he would be changing the settings on the steering wheel as he did so. He is part of the games console generation, and more and more drivers are like him. The technology does not faze them.

"Michael Schumacher was a real all-rounder in this respect. He could make adjustments while on the circuit. He would change the settings because he understood the engineering behind it.

"One of the other recent changes is to have a display of yellow, blue and red flags represented in marshal lights on the steering wheel. In the old days drivers like Michael Schumacher were known to say they hadn't seen the yellow flag, which means 'caution – no overtaking'. All drivers probably do it if they can get away with it, if they can put a move on someone. But that excuse is not available any longer."

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