Home Racing Fun: Quick Buyers’ Guide to Sim Racing Wheels
From Schmoe to Pro, we look at options to get you on the virtual track.
If you are like us, it has been a long couple of months while we've missed track days, autocross events, and karting sessions. How to cope? Pro racers are showing us one way forward with their sim-racing rigs, racing other big-name drivers from the comfort of their living rooms. No doubt, you have tuned into at least one or two of these virtual events from your own living room, and you might be curious about getting involved in sim racing yourself. While this sim-racing buyers' guide is far from comprehensive, we take a brief look at the basics of sim-racing wheel setups to get you started at three different price points, from relatively inexpensive to near pro-level.
The Budget Option: $300 or Less
Buying a budget sim-racing rig is easily done; there are several options on the market for less than $300. The advantages of not spending a ton of money are, well, not spending a ton of money. New hobbies can get expensive in a hurry and if you don't know if sim racing is something you'll enjoy, it's probably best not to go all-out in the beginning. If you have any experience with sim rigs at all, you know that driving a real car and driving a virtual one requires many of the same skills, but also some different ones—the experiences end up feeling quite different.
That's a big reason we like providing a sim-racing buyers' guide, and there are three primary types of gaming wheels: gear-drive, belt-drive, and direct-drive. The least expensive wheels are gear-driven, with a compact and fairly lightweight electric motor that acts on a set of gears to simulate steering effort. The best gear-driven wheels offer at least 900 degrees of rotation, with plenty of easily accessible buttons to make on-the-fly changes to car setup or to just navigate your gaming platform's options menu. While gear-driven wheels aren't as quick to react or as smooth in their action as more expensive belt- or direct-drive options, they do come at a price point that most everyone can afford and are often bundled with paddle shifters and a set of pedals to get you started immediately. They also come with built-in clamps, so you can get driving right away by pulling up a standard chair and clamping the wheel to any table or desk.
The Logitech G29 (PS3, PS4) and G920 (Xbox One and PC) wheels are oft touted among the best of these budget setups, with a leather-wrapped wheel that rotates 900 degrees, paddle shifters, and a three-pedal setup. These pedals are fairly basic items that equate braking force to pedal travel; the further you push the pedal, the quicker you come to a stop. Want to shift gears the conventional way, with an H-pattern shifter and clutch pedal? You can do that with the optional shifter extension that's sold separately. One thing you won't get with these devices is all-in-one compatibility with multiple systems. Each wheel and pedal set costs $299.99, while the optional conventional shifter is an extra $62.99. In our experience, though, sticking to the paddles is the way to go. Another option in this category is the Thrustmaster TS-150 Pro, also priced at less than $300.00.
The Middle Ground: $800 or Less
Stepping up a rung brings you smack dab into the arena of more serious, belt-drive gaming rigs. These wheels typically use larger, more powerful motors that drive a belt which actuates on the steering shaft. Advantages over gear-drive setups are the ability to handle more forceful feedback with less noise, and with smoother, quicker action. While these types of wheels can also be mounted on a desk or table, they step into a serious enough realm that you'll probably want to pair them with a race-style seat and mounts for the wheel, pedals, and shifter. You may start to find pedals with load-cells at this price point as well. Load-cells transmit braking force by how hard the driver pushes on the pedal, which is more like how an actual car's hydraulic braking system feels. Push harder to stop sooner, instead of pushing further.
Options at this level include Fanatec's CSL Elite wheel base which can be bundled with a set of CSL pedals for about $570. This is the official setup for the Sony Playstation-platform "Gran Turismo" game franchise; the wheel as it arrives only works with PS3 and PS4. You'll have to add a different, PC- and Xbox-compatible wheel to use this setup with either of those platforms, which brings up an interesting point about Fanatec products: they can be mixed and matched across the lineup with different steering-wheel drive bases, pedals, wheels themselves, and shifter mechanisms. This product approach means you can get the exact compatibility and system you want. For example, the basic CSL Elite bundle includes a basic two-pedal setup that can be upgraded to a three-pedal unit with load cells for extra cost. Other options here include options by Thrustmaster: the TS PC Racer, TS-XW, and T300 RS GT.
Playing with the Pros: $1,000-Plus
If you're sure sim racing is going to eat up a healthy chunk of your free time, or you're just one to buy the best gear available as a matter of principle, be aware that the best home racing setups will push you beyond the $1,000 price point—and some well in excess of that amount. Here, we're looking at direct-drive steering wheels with large, heavy motors (up to 30 pounds, in some cases) that act directly on the steering shaft and can produce enough torque to cause injury.
No, really. Ever spun out or crashed in a real car? Then you know the forces put on the steering wheel in such events can literally rip the wheel right out of your hands. That's the case with the most powerful direct-drive systems on the market; while the force they put out is adjustable, they have been known to cause everything from sprained wrists to broken fingers with the uninitiated. At this price level, you'll also want a dedicated area to assemble a fairly significant rig that will withstand these types of forces.
Options here include a la carte choices like the Fanatec DD2 direct-drive wheel base, which you can pair with your choice of Fanatec wheel, pedals, and shifter. The DD2 wheel base costs $1,495 alone, not including the wheel itself (from about $500 to upward of $1,000) or pedals (another $360-$600 or so for the very best load-cell items). Add in a gaming platform at another $400-$1,000, and it's pretty easy to add the equivalent of a month or two's mortgage or rent payment to your credit card. Other companies like Simexperience, Simucube, and Simagic also play in this space with top-shelf, direct-drive systems. These are what most of the pro racers you see gaming on YouTube are using in their homes (and you can bet most of them had sponsors willing to buy the gear for them).
Do Your Homework
Before you rush off to spend that stimulus payment on a swanky new gaming rig, keep a few things in mind. First, be prepared for a bit of a delay when ordering most new gear: There are plenty of racing enthusiasts with too much time on their hands, and many sim-racing gear companies are sold out of their most popular wares. We've seen wait times stretching months down the road for delivery.
Also, be careful to make sure whatever gear you buy is compatible with the PC, PS3, PS4, or Xbox One you own. Lastly, if you don't mind buying used, you might get a great deal on an entry-level or intermediate sim-racing setup someone is looking to upgrade from or simply didn't use as much as they thought they would. Like bicycles, musical instruments, or other hobby gear, many people splurge on new equipment only for it to sit around unused. You can bet there will be a flood of used sim-racing gear up for sale when the world goes back to normal, so it may be worth waiting around for a deal. Then again, think of all the virtual track time you will have missed out on in the meantime.