Passionate motorsport enthusiasts and gamers have been dipping their toes into sim racing for a long time now. If you are thinking about investing in a new sim racing setup, then be sure to read this article to gain a better understanding of your first sim wheel purchase.
There is a lot to learn when talking about sim racing, and making the right choice of wheel can make a big difference to your overall experience. In this article, we will be touching on some of the basic concepts of what makes a good sim wheel, as well as an in-depth look at how sim wheels work and their associated costs.
What is a Racing Simulator Wheel?
Sim racing wheels consist of multiple parts, and can often be sold separately or as part of complete kits depending on the manufacturer.
Complete kits are much easier to plug and play and do not require much configuration. However, you can achieve much higher levels of customisation on setups bought in separate pieces.
The common parts you will need to be aware of when buying a sim wheel are:
- The wheel/rim – this is the steering wheel part itself, the part you hold in your hands. This can sometimes be sold separately, and on higher-spec wheels, can come in all shapes and configurations depending on your intended use. F1 style wheels are significantly different to GT car style wheels. Other options of wheel can include button layouts (where the buttons are) and grip material choices.
- The wheelbase – this is the power unit and what drives the steering wheel, giving it its force feedback sensation. Again, in higher-spec wheels, this is can be sold separately and in several different power unit types (more below).
- Shifters – these are what you use to change gear, they can be paddles mounted to the rim, or a stand-alone gear stick (often sold separately).
- Wheel to wheelbase mounting – usually only in higher-spec wheels where parts are sold separately. This is the plate or adaptor that allows you to attach the wheel to the wheelbase. Not all wheels are compatible with all wheelbase so be sure to check before buying.
- Wheelbase mounting – when buying a wheelbase, or complete set, make sure to understand how the wheel attaches to either your desk or sim rig. Having a solid mounting to a flat surface is essential to the performance of your wheel. Mountings can come in different forms, either clamps, direct screws or lap attachments.
- Pedals – pedals can come in lots of shapes and sizes with different capabilities. Be careful when buying complete kits because pedals aren’t always included. When buying separately, make sure to check compatibility with the wheelbase.
What makes a sim wheel good? Comparison of Direct Drive vs Belt Driven vs Gear Driven
Some basic criteria that make a sim wheel pleasant to use:
- Force Feedback (FFB) realism
- Comfort and Customisation
There are literally hundreds of available steering wheels on the market today, with just as many online reviews telling you which one you should buy and which ones you shouldn’t. Unfortunately, this is not an article telling you which wheel is best for you, rather, we want to give you the information to make your own decisions.
First things first, if you have never used a wheel before, then it is strongly recommended that you try one out.
Whether it is a friend’s, a show model, or a pay-to-play experience. Having a sim wheel in your hands will instantly tell you what decision you should be making in terms of product quality and cost.
There are some considerable jumps in FFB realism depending on the “drive type” of wheel. There are 3 main types to be aware of. In cost order:
Direct Drive, Belt Driven and Gear Driven.
The drive type refers to the power unit in the wheelbase that controls the level of force feedback given by the game. Force feedback is what makes a sim wheel feel real. It should mimic the real world sensation of driving perfectly. Any deviations in FFB can make the driving experience feel notchy, unpredictable and unintuitive.
Direct Drive Wheels
Direct drive wheels are generally the most expensive of the 3. The motor in DD wheels is fixed to the steering wheel itself, giving direct feedback to the wheel. The accuracy, frequency and strength of inputs from the sim to the wheel is much higher for direct drive and can therefore give the best realistic feel.
The ultimate downside to DD is the cost, with some setups coming in at over £1k for the wheelbase alone. There are however new introductions to the market, advertising “entry-level direct drive wheels”, these are fairly new and do promise a cheaper alternative.
Belt Driven Wheels
The middle ground is belt-driven motors. They run either one or two motors, connected by a belt/pulley. This controls the wheel and gives the feedback. Belt driven wheels have been around for a fairly long time now and can vary in price and quality. It is commonly thought that belt-driven wheels are the next best option if you chose not to go down the direct drive route. Belt driven wheels can range around the £300 to £800 mark.
Gear Driven Wheels
Gear-driven wheels are the 3rd option, they run using a very similar concept to belt-driven wheels. Instead of a motor pulling a belt, the motor is attached to the wheel via plastic or metal gears that are meshed together.
Gear-driven wheels were the original sim wheel design and are the cheapest on the list due to their low manufacturing costs and high accessibility. Gear-driven wheels are often a great starting point for new or inexperienced drivers to sim racing. Often labelled as the ‘gateway wheel’ to bigger and better things.
To summarise, when it comes to customisation and tuning, Direct Drive is your best option. The majority of DD wheels on the market today are sold as separate components and offer a range of styles, buttons and FFB settings.
For overall FFB feel, DD is the most real, but, both belt and gear driven wheels offer superb levels of motion. The ultimate factor is your budget. Belt and gear driven wheels are generally cheaper than direct-drive and can still provide a great driving experience. A lot of the top eSports drivers today use these entry-level wheels, so, again, do not be concerned about starting with one.
What to look out for when Buying a Sim Wheel
As mentioned above, there are 3 significant categories when it comes to choosing a wheel. All 3 options have their own pro’s and con’s which effectively determine their price.
If you are picking a wheel for the first time, be sure to stick to the main big brands. Logitech, Thrustmaster, Fanatec, Simucube, AccuForce for example. The larger brands generally have a larger fan base, better customer service, better reviews and larger sources of spare parts and info.
All of these are important factors that you may not have considered.
Your budget will play a big role in determining what wheel you should go for. If you’re looking to spend big money, around the £1k mark, then a Direct Drive wheel is probably best, whereas a budget of around £500 will be more suited to a belt-driven or entry-level DD setup.
Gear-driven wheels are great starting points for smaller budgets, with hugely popular wheels like the Logitech G29 and G920 offering fantastic driver feel for around £200.
An additional point to consider is a manufacturer’s warranty, it is not uncommon for sim racing wheels to fail, so make sure you are covered if anything does go wrong.
Generally not advisable but can be a great way to land yourself a cheap, high-end wheel.
If you are convinced about buying second-hand then there are some main points to consider when buying. How much playtime has the wheel gone through and how does this compare to the manufacturer’s warranty? – very important.
General wear and tear on a steering wheel should be obvious, marks, scratches and dust build-up can be signs of poor life. Making sure that the wheel functions as it should before purchasing is strongly advised.
Ensure that what you are buying is compatible with your console or PC. Older style wheels are not always applicable to newer systems, so be sure to do your research when buying second hand.
What does a good wheel feel like?
Realism is key. Manufacturers have been pushing what is capable with sim wheel designs. Merging the virtual and real worlds as close as possible.
A realistic feel through the wheel will ultimately make the car easier to control. Increasing feedback will help you know when the car is understeering or oversteering. You’ll feel every bump in the road, every kerb and every rumble strip.
This is what makes sim racing so exciting! It has enabled the everyday driver to feel as if they are in the front seat of a Lamborghini GT3 car, or a retro F1 classic. Realism is what makes the game a ‘simulator’.
What should you be looking out for then in terms of ‘feel’?
Smoothness: the force feedback in the wheel should feel fluid, smooth and predictable. It is the same for real-world driving, if you are feeling a notchy, scratching sensation in the rotation of the wheel then there is most likely something wrong.
Direct drive wheels have gotten this spot on as of recent. With belt-driven wheels close behind. Gear-driven wheels haven’t quite got the silk-like qualities of the other two but do still provide a progressive force feedback sensation.
The design and shape of the steering wheel rim is dependant on personal preference, whether you prefer an F1 style, rectangular wheel design, compared to a more circular GT or Drift style wheel.
It makes sense to buy a wheel for the type of game you will most likely be playing, F1 games therefore would prefer an F1 style wheel, whereas Gran Turismo Sport, Assetto Corsa or iRacing would probably lean more towards a GT style wheel.
The next big thing is comfort in the hands and material choice of the wheel. Leather wheels are most common and most durable, they are however less comfortable than their Alcantara counterparts.
Button locations and configurations also add to the realism of your setup. It is a massive advantage to have easily accessible buttons on the wheel so that you can change certain car setups, menu options, etc without the need for a separate controller or keyboard.
How should you Secure your Wheel?
Mounting is everything (excuse the pun). It does not matter how good your wheel is, if it is not secured to a solid, fixed base, then it will be useless.
This goes for all sim racing setups. A fixed mounting method is best for attaching your wheel either to a desk, or a dedicated rig. These can come in a variety of types, but the most common will be directly bolting the wheelbase to a surface. Not all wheelbases support this method of attachment, so be sure to check compatibility.
Desk clamps are also fairly solid but do have a tendency to come loose if not tightened correctly.
The reason why the connection should be solid is to avoid any play and movement. Extra added ‘wobble’ to your setup will be exaggerated through the feeling in the steering wheel, making FFB feel unnatural. You can easily ruin an impressive setup by having flex or play in the steering wheel mounting.
Fix your wheel down!
Do you need a top-spec wheel to win?
This is a very heated topic within the sim racing community. With owners of high-end wheels saying you don’t need one, and owners of entry-level wheels saying they do need one.
Who should you believe?
The research tells us that Direct Drive wheels, combined with solid mountings, will statistically give you a much better feel, realism and immersion and this should therefore make you more aware and sensitive to car handling characteristics.
Is this always the case, however?
Most likely no. Unless you are a top-level E-Sports racer or have significant mileage plugged into a sim, it will be very hard for you to tell the difference between a £2,000 setup and an £800 setup.
Think of this as a comparison, a real-world racing driver who has competed at the highest level of GT racing is told to drive the 2019 Porsche GT3 racecar, back to back with the 2020 version of that car. Instantly the driver will tell you the subtle differences between the two. Next, we put a driver who has never been on a track before into the two cars. Their experience will be completely different, they’ll notice the major points but will struggle to determine the intricacies that the race driver found.
The same can be said in sim wheel setups. The mid to entry-level wheels offer superb starting points for drivers wanting to make their first steps into sim racing.
There are plenty of examples out there of drivers with admittedly low-end setups who strive in online events. The ‘Alien’ drivers out there will say that anyone can be competitive with 10-year-old budget rigs, and we agree!
Time and testing are what it takes to find something that works for you. It is easy to blame the equipment for being the reason you are off the pace, but difficult to realise faults in your own driving technique.