Giorgio Piola’s history of F1 steering wheel evolution

Formula 1 steering wheels have changed dramatically down the years, as more control has been put at the drivers’ fingertips – allowing them to make the most subtle of changes and find the edge over rivals.

The first changes were really all about ergonomics and making the drivers more comfortable with their surroundings, but as time progressed the customization level increased dramatically, with almost every driver having their own signature aspects incorporated into their wheel design.

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Steering wheel Mansell, Prost, Patrese, Senna, Berger

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

At this stage of his career, Giorgio Piola was working with Nardi and Personal on their steering wheels. And, whilst they were based in the same factory, the former (a more prestigious brand) only supplied steering wheels to McLaren.

This allowed Piola to work closely with each driver to give them the individuality in their steering wheel they desired. The wheel was not only an expression of their singularity but also gave insight into their driving style, which as we can see here from this comparative illustration resulted in some very different shapes and sizes.

For example, Mansell, who was known for wrestling with his car, opted for an extremely small diameter rim, whilst also having the thickest grip too. Even so, for two years in a row, a new wheel rim had to be supplied after the Belgian GP, as he exerted enough force on the wheel rim through Eau Rouge and Raidillon that it resulted in him physically bending it.

At the other end of the spectrum, the likes of Senna had a large diameter wheel and much thinner grip, as his driving style was more delicate and less demanding on the integrity of the wheel itself. 

Nevertheless their grasp on the wheel, the freedom to use it remains imperative to performance. This small gap between the drivers and engineers choices couldn’t be clearer than when Senna moved to Williams in 1994.


Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-8 Ford

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Williams FW16 1994 cockpit view

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Senna had become accustomed to more freedom within the cockpit during his McLaren tenure, as seen here whilst at the wheel of the MP4-8 (left), whilst the FW16 (right) featured what had become a trademark for Williams over the course of the previous few years – a cockpit that enveloped the steering wheel for better aerodynamic performance. 

The FW16 and its forebear, the FW15C featured a tight, V-shaped cockpit entry, meaning the driver’s hands ran incredibly close to the cockpit even if using a smaller diameter wheel, like Mansell, let alone the larger one used by Senna.


Ferrari 640 steering wheel

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

This illustration remains a favorite amongst Piola’s portfolio, as it took a relatively short time to produce but was rewarded with significant exposure.

Used by publications around the world, the illustration captured a new and innovative solution by John Barnard, as his design for the Ferrari 640 featured paddle shifters on the rear of the steering wheel, rather than the standard manual H-pattern gear lever mounted down to the driver’s side.


McLaren MP4-15 2000 Hakkinen steering wheel

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

McLaren MP4-15 2000 Coulthard steering wheel

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

McLaren took things a stage further in 1994 when it was the first to move the function of the clutch on to the rear of the steering wheel, seen here later using four paddles on the MP4-13. The two blue paddles are gear shifters, whilst the lower pair gave the drivers the option of controlling the clutch with either hand. 

Hakkinen (left) had cut his teeth on this approach but when Coulthard (right) moved across from Williams, the Scot used longer paddles on his wheel to help with the feel. In fact, so alien did this feel to him that he retained a slim clutch pedal for those moments when he wasn’t able to react quickly enough with the paddles. This became even more clear when McLaren’s brake-fiddle solution was discovered – Hakkinen had three pedals, but there were four squeezed into Coulthard’s footwell.

Also note that while Hakkinen adopted the butterfly-style wheel, Coulthard still felt the need to have a lower grip on his rim.

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Ferrari steering wheel

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The complexity of the steering wheel continued to spiral upward, with more functions being transferred to the wheel and it became loaded with more and more buttons, switches and rotaries. In 1996 Ferrari was the first to incorporate a display on there too. This gave its drivers shift lights, lap times and other information that they required without needing to look through to the dashboard.


Steering wheel Villeneuve 1997 Kubica 2019

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Jacques Villeneuve had a unique approach to using the paddle shifters on the rear of his steering wheel. Other drivers used the left paddle for downshifts and right paddle for upshifts, but he did both from the right-hand paddle – pushing the paddle away for downshifts and pulling it toward him for upshifts. The left-hand paddle was used exclusively for the clutch, reducing the number of paddles needed on the wheel.

You can also see how, upon his return to F1, Robert Kubica used a similar arrangement of a push/pull gearshift paddle (normal layout inset), as the Polish driver customized his wheel in accordance with his injuries.


Ferrari F2005 steering wheel

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Michael Schumacher made changes to his paddle arrangement, adopting an approach similar to Villeneuve’s.

But, rather than have just one paddle with double the functionality, the German opted to keep both paddles, which allowed him to shift up or down the gears depending on his hand position or preference at any given moment.


Ferrari F10 steering wheel

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Fernando Alonso’s arrival at Ferrari was met with an effort to make the Spaniard more comfortable within the cockpit, shaving some of the unnecessary bulk from the upper and lower sections of the wheel, while the shape of the grips, position of the rotaries, buttons, central wheel spoke and rear paddles were all shifted to cater for his demands.

Also note the placement of the PCU-6D display at the top of the wheel. That became a common display used by all the teams and gave them all the same shift and safety lights, gear indicator and various other information, such as lap time, lap delta etc.


Brawn BGP 001 2009 Button steering wheel rear view

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Brawn BGP 001 2009 Barrichello steering wheel rear view

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

That’s not to say that this suited every driver, with Jenson Button’s wheel (left) outfitted with a six-paddle arrangement on his championship winning BrawnGP BGP001 steering wheel, while his teammate, Rubens Barrichello (right) preferred to use just the four paddles. 

Note how close the upper paddles are mounted on Button’s wheel though, with the driver able to use them in combination with one another, should he have chosen.


Red Bull RB7 Vettel’s steering wheel, rear view

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

In recent times Formula 1 teams have taken to giving their drivers the same core wheel design but there’s still subtle differences that can be made to improve each driver’s use of the equipment, which can be seen here with Webber and Vettel sporting different shapes to the paddles on the rear of the RB7’s steering wheel (highlighted in red).


Ferrari F10 steering wheel differences (Alonso vs Massa)

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

This preference can extend beyond the wheel itself too though, as seen here in this example between Fernando Alonso (left) and Felipe Massa (right) in 2010. 

The position of the wheel from a driver’s body is often reflected by their distinct driving style, with Alonso wanting the wheel to be closer to him, in order that he had more bend in his elbows. Meanwhile, Massa preferred to have less bend in the elbow and had his wheel further away from his body.


BMW Sauber F1.09 steering wheel Nick Heidfeld

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Lotus Renault R31 Shifting paddles

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The design of the steering wheel is a constant balancing act between ergonomics and functionality, with the drivers, designers and engineers having to weigh each of their demands against one another to improve performance.

Nick Heidfeld’s steering wheel for the BMW Sauber F1.09 (left) shows the level of complexity that can be reached when it comes to the grips, with every sinew perfectly shaped to take account for Heidfeld’s hand position on the wheel.

Meanwhile, Renault took paddle usage at the rear of the wheel to another level in 2011 (right), as the R31’s steering wheel featured eight paddles, with two smaller paddles nested between the rim and the two lowermost paddles.


Mercedes W05, Hamilton’s steering wheel, front view

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

A new screen was developed by McLaren Applied Technologies for 2014 to coincide with the switch to the hybrid power unit, offering significantly more information for the driver. But its inclusion also meant giving up important real estate on the wheel and so many teams carefully redesigned their wheels to accommodate it. 

The newer PCU-8D can display 100 pages of information, all of which is customisable, giving the team and driver a wealth of information and allowing them to monitor the various aspects of the hybrid power unit and other crucial data, such as tyre temperatures.


Mercedes AMG F1 W08, steering wheel Lewis Hamilton

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

In 2015 the FIA started to remove bite-finding techniques from the drivers’ arsenal, as they attempted to bring back some autonomy, rather than have an almost perfect launch from the grid each time. Instead, the drivers would have to control how much slip the clutch had.

A number of solutions grew up in response to the changes made by the FIA in the subsequent years, with Hamilton adopting a socket on his clutch paddles (red arrows above) in order that he could get more feel from his index and middle finger when modulating the clutch paddle.

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Ferrari SF16-H steering wheel (shows wishbone clutch paddle arrangement)

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Ferrari had taken a different approach, opting for a single longer wishbone-style arrangement that would give its drivers more throw in which to find the bite point on the start line. And while Kimi Raikkonen persevered with this arrangement throughout, Sebastian Vettel made numerous attempts at finding his own sweet spot. 

The German driver’s experiments began at the Spanish Grand Prix, as he trialled a design with a similar finger socket arrangement to the one used by his rival, Hamilton. Considering the experiment a failure, following the famed start crash at the Singapore GP in 2017, he finally reverted to the wishbone arrangement.


Ferrari SF90 steering Charles Leclerc

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Ferrari SF90 steering wheel Sebastian Vettel

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Interestingly Leclerc (left) and Vettel (right) have different preferences when it comes to their clutch too, as Vettel uses his left hand to modulate the wishbone clutch paddle and has a small finger width paddle on the right (smaller blue arrow).

Leclerc uses his right hand, as seen here in Giorgio Piola’s illustration of the Frenchman’s wheel from his maiden Ferrari victory at the Belgian GP.


Mercedes AMG F1 W10, steering wheel Valtteri Bottas

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Mercedes AMG F1 W10, steering wheel Lewis Hamilton

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The Mercedes pairing also have a decidedly different arrangement on the rear of their steering wheels too, as while Bottas (left) joined Hamilton (right) in his use of finger socket clutch paddle arrangement, the Brit has moved onto a more customised variant using just the right-hand paddle to modulate the clutch.

You’ll also note the design of the finger sockets are also slightly different too, which is in order for him to get the right leverage whilst he holds the upper left corner of the wheel during his start process.


Red Bull Racing RB15, steering wheel Max Verstappen

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The rear of Max Verstappen’s steering wheel is outfitted with six paddles, as the Dutchman uses the rear space to offer more versatility in his setup. 

Interestingly teammate Alexander Albon has tried several variations, including the same layout favoured by Verstappen and one run by Pierre Gasly, which features different paddle positions and a socketed clutch paddle.

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