Steering wheels in in Formula1 are becoming highly elaborate, almost organic designs. They have paddles, levers and buttons appearing each season in a variety of different locations (Outside racing, the biggest design changes I can remember were the squarish one they fitted to the ancient Austin Allegro and the airbags which are now fitted everywhere).
On the track though, airbags are thought to be too hard to make work effectively. Given the massive accelerations and occasional bumps which cars sustain, the last thing you need is a driver suddenly blinded at high speed behind his own barrage balloon.
Drivers’ bodies are held in pretty tightly by five-point harnesses, but their heads and necks can still come to grief.
Today’s invention is steering ‘wheel’ which doubles as a safety head restraint for racing drivers. It takes the form of a tube of metal which is springloaded and latched into a flat spiral (This also allows drivers to vary the torque they can apply to the wheel over a bigger range).
When colliding with something in front, the spiral is released, approximately maintains its outer diameter and springs towards the driver, forming a springy cone into which his helmet is guided and which gently arrests the dangerous acceleration of the cranium relative to the car.
This is achieved without obscuring the driver’s vision, so that he can, if he chooses, re-latch the spiral into its flat plane and continue racing.