Necessity is the mother of invention, and as the demands of motorsport have grown over time, the steering wheel has evolved to suit. From a simplistic, leather-bound design to today's rotating information centers, Porsche's steering wheels and their marked evolution are indications of how quickly racing pushes technology forward.
Interestingly, the buttons and displays we now associate with a racing car's steering wheel is really only a product of the last two decades. Prior to 2000, even Formula 1 cars lacked the intricate control layout and displays, but now every racing car has adopted this information-heavy approach to designing a steering wheel.
“The extreme demands we face on the racetrack very quickly highlight any weak points and encourage engineers to look for new and better solutions,” said Ferdinand Porsche. In days prior to pit-to-car communication, the steering wheel was something drivers used to steer and brace against. By the time the 1980s and 1990s rolled around, teams were experimenting with comm systems, as evidenced by a few telltale buttons on the wheel. However, this was typically only seen on the most advanced cars; club racers and mid-tier racing cars still had simplistic steering wheels.
A New Tool for a Digital World
As the end of the century approached, racing grew more technologically advanced at an almost exponential rate. The steering wheel had to evolve accordingly.
Why? Development has changed. Cars are incredibly refined today, and often they're controlled tightly by their category's regulations. So much of getting a racing car to run competitively nowadays depends on improving the less-appreciated aspects which Joe Public doesn't care much about. Driver interface is one. Chassis alterations, differential control, traction control, even a drink—all these are now controlled via a knob or a button on the wheel.
Moreover, such things must be done intuitively during the heat of competition, which means the driver does their homework. In fact, the wheel in the latest GT3 R comes with a 27-page manual. Special combinations of buttons activate certain functions, like Ctrl+Alt+Delete would on a personal computer, and drivers must perform these by rote. If not, the process becomes too complicated and their performance suffers.
“I was driving a Porsche 911 GT3 R at Pikes Peak and was on course to win when rain set in and then snow fell at higher altitudes. That’s where I lost everything. Why? A control button for the windshield wiper was installed on the steering wheel. You had to press it for a second to activate the intermittent wiping function, and for three seconds to make it continuous. It was way too complicated. At Pikes Peak, it’s one corner straight after the other. By the time I got the wipers working correctly I’d lost too much time,” said Romain Dumas.
Modern drivers are often criticized for not being coordinated enough; that anyone could shift with only paddles to worry about. The reality is that racing cars are not simplified today, but hyper-competent. Their growing level of safety and reliability only frees a driver's mind to focus on their growing technological complexity. Managing one is a daunting, demanding feat of multitasking, but Porsche is committed to mitigate the strain as best they can—it's the way forward.