Of all the facets and accouterments in your car increasingly growing more complicated, the steering wheel is leading the charge. At first, the steering wheel was tasked merely with turning the wheels, then buttons and dials started populating the small space to control radio volume, cruise control, phone calls and even change the way the car handles. The design tactic certainly clutters the real estate and is done in the interest of safety — the less time your hands are off the wheel, the better. But if you think the steering wheel in a modern road car is overpopulated, slide into the Mazda RT24-P IMSA prototype race car and belt your self in front of its $30,000 direction changer.
Modern top-tier race cars are exponentially more electronically complicated than their forebearers. Before the advent of traction control, the driver’s right foot took care of managing grip. Before shifter paddles were bolted to the back of the wheel for quick shifts and seamless gear changes, drivers were doing it all manually. Engine revs and speed, those were on the dash. Now, cars like the Mazda RT24-P put all of those operations and more on the wheel solely on the steering wheel.
If you really want to trace this trend back as far as you can go, you can argue it started in the ’60s when Jackie Stewart taped a wrench to the steering wheel of his BRM Formula 1 car so he could get out if he crashed. Mazda driver Tristan Nunez doesn’t have a box end wrench strapped to the wheel of his RT24-P, but he says “this is by far the most complicated steering wheel I’ve ever raced with — more so than even an Indycar.”
With a set of shifter lights, two shifters on the back, 11 buttons, four scroll wheels, four dials and one LCD screen for basic readouts like lap times and speed and to see all the settings he’s changing with all those dials and buttons, it’s easy to see why. Throughout any race in the IMSA, Nunez and the other drivers he shares the car with are constantly adjusting and alter the settings on the car to fit their specific tastes and to best suit the conditions on track.
Nunez can dial in how much weight he wants in the power steering and he can fine-tune the level at which the traction control intervenes. And like most road cars these days, the RT24-P has a few driving modes, but where your typical ‘comfort’, ‘eco’ and ‘sport’ modes suffice for your daily driver, Nunez has a dial with 11 different engine map settings. Oh, and his steering wheel also has a button to dispense a drink, through a tube going into his helmet. Consider the fact that this tiny little supercomputer steering Nunez’s Mazda race car is made from carbon fiber and magnesium and it starts to make more sense why it costs as much as a brand new Miata.