The dashboard of a Formula 1 car was at one time a jumble of clocks, gauges, buttons, switches and knobs. Not any more. In this age of micro electronics and pared-down cockpit spaces the dashes in Formula 1 cars have become smaller and pretty much clutter free, to the point that with most of them they are now integrated into the steering wheel.
In fact, the Team McLaren Mercedes MP4-21 is one of the few cars that still actually has a dashboard.
Chances are you've probably seen this dash in action. For if you've ever watched Kimi or Juan Pablo via the onboard camera during a grand prix you will almost certainly have noticed the lights above the upper rim of the steering wheel flashing from red through green to blue to help the driver time his gearchanges to perfection.
This is the most important function of the dash, as McLaren's head of vehicle electronics, Charles Hawkins, explains: "Across the top of the dash there are 15 LED lights, which are made to illuminate in a pattern to let the driver know when he's approaching the point to shift up another gear." It's an important instrument, because while the drivers have a tremendous feel for when to change gears, this gives them the all important edge when it comes to precision.
Interestingly, the actual colours of the lights are not that important. But the contrast needs to be vivid, and green-red-blue seems to work best. The way the lights illuminate (the sequence) is down to the driver's preference, and while Kimi likes the lights to light-up from left to right, Juan Pablo likes the outside lights to illuminate first, then the lights work their way in to the middle. Incidentally, these shift lights are also used for warning displays - for the pit lane limiter, for instance, so that when the limiter is turned on the lights flash a warning.
But it's not just shift lights, there are also three information windows in the dash - which is made of magnesium alloy by McLaren Electronic Systems. The most noticeable of these information windows is the gear indicator, which shows which gear is engaged. Either side of this there are two other windows, one of which usually displays the car's speed in km/h, while the other shows the driver's performance relative to his previous best lap, which is stored in the car's ECU - which controls all the car's electronic systems.
"It's basically a continually updating comparison to the driver's fastest lap," Hawkins says, "every 50 metres the ECU sees how far the car has gone, and looks at how long it's taken to get there compared to the fastest lap that the car has done prior to that. Also, when the car goes past the lap-trigger at the end of the lap it will display the time for that lap on the dash."
These windows can also be used to show other information, for instance the oil temperature, water temperature, or oil pressure, as well as a switch's position when the driver has selected it on the steering wheel - he wouldn't really want to be looking down at the wheel when he's in the middle of a hot lap, after all. "It also displays the oil pressure when the engine's being started," explains Hawkins, "because when it's started on the grid before the race you're not allowed to have computers connected to the car."
But even though the dash is obviously far more than just a rev counter, Team McLaren Mercedes believes in keeping it simple. Hence its dash is an elegant piece of equipment that gives the driver all the information he needs, and nothing more.
But what of the future? The team has no plans to move the dash to the wheel like other teams have - having found that vibrations made it difficult to read. Then again, when you have a part that's never failed and gives instant, clear information without the driver having to turn his head, then why change it? One thing's certain, it sure beats all those gauges, switches and knobs.
- Length: 120 mm
- Height: 45 mm
- Thickness: 20 mm
- Weight: Less than 100g
- Material: Magnesium alloy