The steering wheel was once a simple automotive component.
All of that changed once the digital age arrived. Instead of just simply allowing drivers to 'drive' the car, the steering wheel has become one of the most sophisticated devices inside a vehicle. From toggles, switches, as well as buttons, the steering wheel today can now set the car's performance, change your music playlist, answer your calls, and adjust the car's settings with ease.
That holds true for the wheels inside high-performance racing cars. Through the years, automakers have continuously added so many functions on the steering wheel that everything the driver needs are now within their fingers' reach. Porsche is no stranger to both, and the evolution of their steering wheel speaks volumes of how far technology has come.
As a brief backgrounder, the marvel of F1-like steering wheels found on Porsche’s racecars only came after two full decades. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that development of the steering wheel made any headway, and based on how they describe their progress, they’ve only just “begun”.
If you look at the 356 No. 1 Roadster from 1948 and even the Le Mans Porsche 917 of the ‘70s, you won't see a paddle shifter or D-cut wheel which has become more common. No, all you’ll see is a literal wheel with no buttons whatsoever. But then again cars weren’t so complicated and didn't have a lot of features back in the day.
“In 1999 I contested the Carrera Cup as a Porsche Junior. Back then the steering wheel had no buttons, no radio, no paddle shifters, no pit speed limiter. We had to drive along the pit lane with an eye on the speedometer,” says Porsche brand ambassador Timo Bernhard (Germany) of those earlier years.
Two years after, the Porsche Cup Car received its first steering wheel button. No, it wasn’t a speed limiter meant for the pit lane, but one for the radio. Bernhard witnessed the rapid advancements in steering wheel technology firsthand, and three years later, the 911 GT3 RSR already had 6 buttons in total. Take note that these wheels were nothing but modified, commercially available motor racing steering wheels. More and more buttons and functions were added in the next years, which ultimately resulted in the next “phase” of the wheel’s ongoing development: layout and ergonomics.
What we can see now may look complicated, and it probably is. But Porsche’s idea was to pattern ease and ergonomics behind a simple device: a TV remote control. Obviously they can’t have a simple brick to serve as a steering wheel, but the rationale behind it was to make it intuitive for the drivers. Drivers took on a more direct role in the design process which led to different placements. But one thing always remained the same: all functions must be easily accessible to factory drivers and casual racers alike.
Slowly, the steering wheels started getting plastered with buttons and dials, all of which work with purpose. This then paved the way for the next, and probably the most important innovation of Porsche’s steering wheels. With all the data that the driver needs to feed into the car and its computers, they couldn’t afford an already tight driver cell (or even just a cabin, for that matter) to be cluttered with wires. The solution: a single wire.
Yes, you read that right. A single wire may be the most important part of the whole steering wheel revolution. In lay man’s terms, if you look at the fiber-optic data lines of some ISPs, Porsche went with the same logic. Faster with less resistance and interference, they found a way to transmit data as effectively as they can. And it worked.
As we speak, the Stuttgart-based marque is probably thinking of new ways to reinvent their racing steering wheels already. But then again, we can’t exactly fault them if that is what they are doing. In just about two decades they have come this far and with how much they update and upgrade their vehicle lineup, the need for more features and ways to make driver-car communication more effective won’t slow down either.
That’s something nice to keep in mind, though, isn’t it? Porsche is about form, function, and most importantly, finding ways to make your driving and racing experience easier. And faster.