Porsche nut and friend of the site Jeff Zwart produced a book nearly a decade ago called "Three Points of Contact". Inside was a gorgeous photo-essay which explored how a racing driver communicates with their car. Those namesake three points are eyes, feet, and hands. As important as the other two are, the hands are perhaps the ones doing the lion's share of the work. As you can see from the steering wheel pictured above, Porsche packs a lot of interactivity into the steering wheel module of their 919 Hybrid LMP1 racer. Porsche has given us a bit of insight into the work that their drivers' hands are doing during a stint, and just how much control they have over what the car does. This wheel does a lot more than steer these days!
Porsche has been working diligently with their driver crew to create a steering wheel with the ergonomics and button placements that are easiest to reach and in locations that make sense. This new-for-2016 steering wheel is truly a genius piece of kit, but the drivers have got to really be on their toes to know what buttons go where, and when to push the right one. I have a hard enough time typing with my smart phone, and I'm not wearing fire-proof racing gloves, or going over 200 miles per hour on a regular basis.
The wheel is shaped in a flat rectangular fashion, because space is needed below the wheel to get legs in and out of the car during driver changes. This is probably a godsend for taller drivers like Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber. Once installed in the car, the wheel is a communication tool between the driver and car. The steering wheel is made of carbon, and the grip handles are covered in slip-resistant rubber. With Porsche's sophisticated power steering system, the effort to turn the wheel is minimal, even with a small diameter turn circle and relatively small narrow grips. The 919 uses the wheel to communicate speeds, gear selection, hybrid system management, charge status, and several other functions (the "DISP" button at the top toggles what information is shown) through the large digital display in the middle of the wheel. The driver uses the wheel to communicate what he wants the car to do, be it steering (obviously), headlight controls, battery-powered 'boost' control, and so much more. Lets get a rundown of what each of these buttons does, what do you say?
Blue Button - Upper Right
This is the headlight button. When pressed, the button will flash the headlights three times. This is used to attract the attention of slower moving GT and LMP2 traffic and try to inform them that the Porsche is coming through and it would be in their best interest to let them by. Of course, sometimes this will also be used as a distraction technique on other LMP1 competitors to try to force them into a mistake. This button placement allows drivers to essentially drive with their thumb on the button for the entire race. This is a button that gets a lot of use.
Red Button - Upper Left
This is the button that deploys the electric motor "boost". Drivers use this button a lot as well, but are forced to ration it out. The Porsche can only harvest and deploy 8 megajoules per lap of the Le Mans circuit. LMP1 drivers will employ different strategies concerning where in the lap it is best to use this power. For the most part, the electric boost is used coming out of corners to assist acceleration and grip. The boost can also be used to get past traffic.
Rotary Dials Left And Right - TC/CON & TC R
These dials are used for adjusting the traction control settings. Porsche doesn't really get into anything more specific than that, unfortunately.
Top Yellow Buttons - TF+ and TF-
These two buttons are used to make fine tune adjustments to "various engine settings".
Second Row Blue Buttons - MI+ and MI-
These two buttons are used to make fine tune adjustments to "various hybrid settings".
Third Row Pink Buttons - BR+ and BR-
These two buttons are used to make fine tune adjustments to brake bias between the front and rear axles.
Fourth Row Green Buttons - RAD and OK
The RAD button on the left is the "push-to-talk" button that allows the driver to speak to the crew on the wall. The "OK" button is a quick an easy way to confirm that a message has been heard, or that a change to the car has been made as requested. The engineers are not allowed to actively interfere with the Porsche's operation via telemetry, they are only allowed to tell the driver what to change, and with this button the driver can confirm they've adjusted something without having to speak or take their mind off of the job at hand.
Fifth Row Red-Orange Buttons - DRINK and SAIL
DRINK does what you think it does, it powers the driver's drinks bottle and allows them to take a sip of thirst quenching beverage, usually imbued with electrolytes and vitamins to keep them focused and attentive, even during a long triple-stint drive. The SAIL button allows the engine to decouple from the transmission and essentially coast to conserve fuel. This is helpful to prevent engine braking under deceleration and to coast down into the corner so you're using less fuel. Conserving fuel is always a major concern in endurance racing.
Sixth Row Gold Buttons - PIT and FCY
The PIT button on the left side of the wheel engages the pit-lane speed limiter. When drivers enter the pit lane, they are required to run at just above a walking pace (60km/h or about 37 miles per hour) for safety reasons. This button keeps the car from going over that speed limit to prevent penalties. The FCY button is pushed when the circuit is under "Full Course Yellow" caution conditions. FCY conditions call for all cars to slow to 80 km/h (about 50 mph), and this button keeps the car from going over that speed limit to prevent penalties.
Center Rotary Dial - MULTI
Multi works in conjunction with the red and green dials at the top of the steering wheel. This is another vague system that Porsche won't really divulge much about, but they have released the following explanation.
When the race engineer, for example, asks for the setting “Alpha 21”, the driver chooses “A” with the rotary switch, then he chooses the 2 by the left hand red controller and finally the single digit 1 by the dark green right controller before pressing the OK button. Programmes for engine management or fuel management are designated by such combinations.
Upper Right Rotary Dial - RECUP
The RECUP dial is used to control how energy recovery is harvested and deployed. Presumably this will switch the emphasis between Porsche's MGU-K (Kinetic energy recovery via regenerative braking on the front axle) and GU-H (Heat energy recovery via an electric turbine on the turbocharger) style energy recovery systems.
Left Hand Golden Dial - B-
This dial is used to "define the amount of energy when boosting".
Right Hand Blue Dial - S-
This dial is used to "offer the strategy choice for the combustion engine". I have to assume this is used to allow the engine to run lean for fuel saving, or to run rich for 'full attack mode'.
Bottom Center Button - START/KILL
This one is pretty self explanatory, right?
All of these knobs and switches are flourescent and glow under the black light lamp situated above the driver's head. This is to promote visibility at night without making visibility outside of the car any worse.
Backside Of The Wheel - Six Paddles
On the back of the steering wheel are six individual paddles with different functions. The two larger paddles in the middle control the gearchange with the left paddle used for downshifting and the right paddle indicating an upshift. The two lower paddles operate the clutch, which is really only used when leaving the pit lane or pulling away from a dead stop. The two paddles up top operate the engine boost. Both of these paddles are extraneous, as they perform the same function as the button on the front side of the wheel.
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[All photos provided by Porsche]