As Formula E prepares for its third season and welcomes big name car marques such as Renault, Citroen DS, Jaguar and Audi, Current E technical editor Craig Scarborough explores the new steering wheel all teams will use.
Much like other high-tech racing cars, the Formula E steering wheel is used for much more than simply pointing the front wheels. It also houses an electronic dash and all the various switches and dials needed to control the electric powertrain and alter its performance characteristics on the go.
The first season Spark package came equipped with a French-made XAP steering wheel. This featured a coloured LCD display, shift lights, rotary control switches and paddles. In season one, the function of every element was controlled by the standard powertrain package; in season two, with many new powertrain constructors introduced, different functionality was required. Teams were therefore allowed to customise many of the elements from the standard first season set-up.
Move on a year and the increasing complexity of the powertrains and their control software means requirements for steering wheels are becoming far more bespoke from team to team. Spark’s solution is to introduce a more sophisticated unit for season three, one which will be adaptable to meet needs throughout the pitlane but which will still ensure parity of technology.
Enter the new XAP unit. Now fully configurable, the new units sports six rear paddles, six rotary controls, 10 buttons, LED warning lights and a larger colour LCD dash display. The wheel has customisable menus for the team and driver to access the car’s control systems, far exceeding the mere five pages in the previous version.
Above the dash is a row of LED lights, which were used for to indicate when to change gear in the first season configuration. Also making an appearing is a triangular cluster of three LEDs; these are the FIA warning light system, which light a LED to match the coloured flags being waved trackside by marshals.
The first generation steering wheel had just three rotary controls and six buttons. For season three, there are now five rotary controls. Three are mounted on the front face of the wheel and two are located in the grips at the 2 and 10 o’clock positions. These latter rotary controls are placed to make it easier for the driver to adjust while on the move, removing the need to take a hand off the wheel. The 10 buttons are arranged with a set of five buttons on each side of the digital display, swooping upwards in line with the top of the grips; this keeps each button in close proximity to the driver’s thumb, again making it easier to select setting without letting go.
Behind the wheel the first iteration steering wheel had four paddles. In the first season, two were used for shifting gear, one triggered regen settings and one was used to unlock additional power for fanboost. In season two, teams could modify the use of these paddles, with some teams running fixed gears and therefore not requiring shift mechanisms.
On the new unit, there are now six paddles, arrange with a row of smaller paddles top and bottom, sandwiching slightly larger paddles in the middle. The upper four paddles are held closed by magnets so that they click when pulled; each of these operates a micro switch and so produce an “on-off” effect. The lower two paddles are sprung so their effect is graduated in contrast to the upper four paddles.
Brake bias is still controlled manually via a knob in the cockpit. At one point, electronic brake bias adjustment was being considered, which may explain the variable movement of the lower paddles.
With the increase in the number of controls and the opening up of the control software, the wheel now offers a dizzying array of possibilities for the team and driver. For example, gear shifting could be accomplished with any of the top four paddles or even a push button. For teams with two-speed gearboxes (thought to be around half of the season three paddock), shifts could be made with a single paddle: click once for an upshift and again for a downshift (neutral is usually selected with a separate button). The amount of energy permitted to be captured under braking (regen) has increased for season three, which gives the drivers even more to think about in the cockpit. They can now decide on the fly to run faster laps or defend more robustly at certain points in the race, knowing they can recoup some of that energy to make it to the end of a stint as planned.
Drivers can now access a wide range of, and more detailed, information on the dash display. This can be better customized now to what each driver feels he needs. This is critical in Formula E, where teams have access to very little telemetry and must rely on the driver radioing across data on energy consumption, energy levels, motor and battery temperature and so on.
Formula E may be a forward-looking racing series with its focus firmly on the technologies that will underpin the next generation of road cars, but it remains pleasingly old-fashioned in its decision to put the driver squarely in control of his racing car. The all-electric sport is a real driver’s sport and the new steering wheel will help to reinforce that in the forthcoming season.