Steering Wheels, Gear Sticks and Foot Pedals - A Racing Wheel Market Overview
Once you have tried racing with a steering wheel, you will never want to go back to doing even a single round on the keyboard. And if you have ever had cramps in your hands in the middle of a race due to force feedback - which simulates driving dynamics on the wheel (and even on higher-priced pedals) - you would not miss the vibrating and pulling of the wheel for the world and feel naked and helpless on the race track without this additional information, as if you were flying blind.
As in all areas, supply and demand have to work together. Manufacturers of input devices such as Logitech, Thrustmaster or Fanatec are dependent on games that actually supply the amount and diversity of data that the steering wheel needs. The best hardware is only as good as the data quality that the game can offer. But just look at that data rate: 1000 Hz update rate via the USB port and resolutions of up to 16 bits.
Some of the current top games in the simulated racing world are “Project Cars” (remember: the release date for the successor "Project Cars 2" is September 22nd 2017), “Assetto Corsa”, “iRacing” and “rFactor 2”. The latest technologies such as laser-scanned race tracks and high-performance physics engines have even enabled smaller game publishers to produce realistic, well-developed and high-detail games. Due to the clear advances in realism in the gaming sector, steering wheel manufacturers have become aware of the great possibilities of growth that a premium market could offer - the best is yet to come. Apart from graphics that you can hardly tell apart from the real world, particularly with the support of various VR glasses, such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, gamers now want to actually feel the car. As the ex-Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda put it so well - the "buttometer" (German: "Popometer"), the feeling a race driver gets for the car (which comes mainly via your seat) plays an important part in being able to drive so fast. Never have you been so close to a race track in your own living room as you can be now.
Force feedback is at the center of it all
What are the characteristics of a good steering wheel? The most important thing is the authentic feeling of holding a real steering wheel in your hands. Not a flimsy plastic plaything, but a wheel with real inertia and resistance controlled by force feedback. Force feedback has become one of the most important, if not THE most important, element of a steering wheel. It directly connects the driver to the car. 20 years ago, you could feel nothing but a slight binary jolting - today, the steering wheel transmits the car's force in up to 16-bit resolution (equivalent of 65536 values on the wheel's steering).
It enables you to feel the difference between a slippery and a grippy road in tight curves. It shows how uncomfortable the car feels on a curve that hangs towards the outside. Force feedback makes curbs feel flat and smooth, high or roughly grooved. A hasty shortcut is answered with strong rattling that you can feel all the way up to your shoulders.
All of this enables the driver to get a deeper feeling for the race track and to receive genuine feedback about how the car fares at its limits.
The challenge of producing realistic and convincing force feedback effects is in transferring a variety of different forces. It has to be able to produce very fine, hardly noticeable forces that last a few seconds (for example, slight sideway drifting on smooth asphalt can be felt as a very light, calm pull on the steering wheel) as well as strong and surprisingly rough jerks, for example when the wheels regain traction after drifting.
It all starts with the wheel base
Such forces require stable, high-quality construction and sufficient power. The "wheel base" is the main device that is connected to the table and onto which the steering wheel is attached (the steering wheel can be exchanged in the higher price-range). Inside this wheel base is a powerful force feedback servo motor and all the electronics. The connection options are at the back of the device. This main unit should be able to be fixed onto the table and have a certain weight. A wheel base can weigh over 4 kg (~8.8 lbs) and consume up to 400 watts via an external power supply. The force can be transferred via a gear drive or a belt drive, although the latter is preferred nowadays as it is quieter and more precise at transferring forces. You will mostly find belt drives in mid-range and top-range devices.
The steering wheel is more than just a steering wheel.
Steering wheels themselves have also taken a big step forward in the past years. Exact replicas of original steering wheels are being produced, using high-quality materials ranging from various synthetic leathers and hand-sewn real leathers to anodized and polished aluminum. The manufacturers do everything in their power to keep their products as realistic as possible, and even make their replicas to the original size and weight.
There have also been developments in terms of functionality. The steering wheel is equipped not only with snappy paddle shifters, but also with a row of buttons and turn-switches with which you can make various changes to the steering wheel software such as changing brake bias while driving or activating KERS or DRS. And there is more: the steering wheels are finally equipped with LEDs that can display the RPM directly on the wheel itself, instead of on the game monitor. Nowadays, steering wheels can be taken off the wheel base and exchanged. Imagine – a little unrealistically – that you want to switch from a Formula 1 car to a rally car. The difference should not be underestimated. Anyone who has tried keeping a rally car under control in the woods with a Formula 1 steering wheel with 540-degree lock-to-lock rotation and its typical form that you can only hold at the 9 and 3 o’clock position, will know the painful feeling of holding the square Formula 1 wheel in your hand.
The steering wheel can be exchanged in both Thrustmaster and Fanatec devices, although Thrustmaster’s exchange system still has room for improvement. While Fanatec steering wheels can be changed quickly via their quick-release technology by using your middle and ring finger to pull a metal ring towards you, you need a screwdriver to remove a screw and fiddle around the closure of the Thrustmaster wheel base before you can take off the steering wheel. This does not allow “on-the-fly” switching for multiplayer games in hot-seat mode where every driver might want to use their own steering wheel.
The Pedal Set
While the cheaper models often consist of a piece of plastic (that has no grip on the floor) with two pedals, higher priced pedal sets include a clutch and can weigh up to 7 kg (~15.4 lbs) Thrustmaster and Fanatec both offer several pedal sets while Logitech has only one model that is available with the G920 steering wheel.
While other manufacturers are focused on the development of their steering wheels and do not pay enough attention to pedals, Fanatec offers us its finest Fanatec pedal technology. Instead of the usual potentiometer (which is used to measure the position of the pedal) Fanatec has developed a technology to measure pedal position using Hall sensors (magnetic measurement of pedal position) with 12-bit resolution. But another specialty is Fanatec’s brake pedal itself. Usually, the strength of the brake signal is measured from pedal position and then transmitted to the game. Thrustmaster has a cone-shaped rubber attachment that tries to simulate the natural resistance of the pedal for the last few centimeters - what you feel when you slam your foot on the brakes. But it only transmits the position of the brake pedal, not how much pressure you are putting on it.
Fanatec, on the other hand, has integrated a “load cell” into the brake. This also measures the pressure (up to 90 kg (~198 lbs) that the foot puts on the brake pedal. The higher the pressure, the stronger the braking in the game. You might think that this is the same as the pedal position, but especially at the limit, just before the wheels begin to block, this kind of braking is a lot more natural and sensitive. But this technology has its price – the ClubSport V3 pedals from Fanatec cost about $300.
Luckily, the significantly cheaper pedal set T3PA-PRO from Thrustmaster and pedals of the Logitech steering wheels (G25, G27, G29, G920) can be manually equipped with a load cell from the third-party manufacturer Ricmotech – or you can buy their already modified pedal set.
There is one thing you cannot add to Thrustmaster pedals as it is only available on the Fanatec ClubSport V3 pedals: force feedback for the accelerator and brake pedal. This enables you to feel spinning wheels through vibrations on the accelerator or the ABS on the brake pedal that sets in when the wheels block. This feature makes the pedal set worth its high price.
These features and the differences in quality are directly reflected in the price, which can range from pocket money to a month’s worth of salary. Price ranges are a good guide to let you know whether a steering wheel is made for leisurely Sunday drives or strenuous record-making on the race track.
Bottom price range up to $100
You cannot expect too much from this price range. These devices will be made purely out of plastic and are very basic keyboard replacements. Of course they are better than driving with four arrow keys, but they are still mainly aimed at simple Arcade games and are not suitable for simulation gaming.
Thrustmaster Ferrari 458 Italia (about $89)
The Ferrari 458 Italia is the cheapest entry-level model and enables to get away from the keyboard and no more. It does not have force feedback, just natural resistance when it automatically returns to neutral position. Pedals are included in the set and apart from the paddle shifters, the entire steering wheel is made out of plastic. The maximum lock-to-lock rotation is 270 degrees, which is 135 degrees in either direction. This means that you will quickly reach the maximum rotation when doing a sharp turn - even before you would need to take your hands off the wheel, which is definitely not a good thing. The steering rotation is simply way too small to really simulate the steering wheel in a real car. Due to the missing force feedback, it really is only suitable for Arcade games or very occasional gamers.
Speedlink Trailblazer (about £80)
This steering wheel is also best described as a “plaything”; at least as soon as you see the suction cups at the bottom of the wheel base. This is the only option for securing the steering wheel – and you need an absolutely smooth surface. Unlike the Thrustmaster Ferrari 458 Italia, the Trailblazer has something that vaguely resembles force feedback, although all you can feel is a simple jogging of the wheel. Another deficiency is the deadzone around the neutral position, which is too large and makes precise steering unnecessarily difficult with a rotation angle of only 360 degrees. The Thrustmaster Ferrari 458 actually lets you steer better.
Please note: This steering wheel does not currently seem to be available in the US.
Middle price range up to $300
This is where the racing begins. Models start to have good force feedback and robust manufacturing. The mid-range sector offers more than a first, cheap beginner’s device and is suitable for ambitious drivers.
Thrustmaster T150 PRO (about £180)
The T150 PRO enables you an affordable but ambitious start into racing. It has force feedback with 12-bit resolution (40965 values), which gives the driver quite detailed feedback. The 1080-degree lock-to-lock rotation means that the wheel can be turned three full turns, which also makes it suitable for rally games. The workmanship is a lot better than on the Thrustmaster Ferrari 458. An important thing to mention is that Thrustmaster’s “Eco System” is already supported in this price range. “Eco System” is less about driving in an environmentally friendly way, but more about protecting your pocket – the steering wheel can be expanded with different modules. It is available in a bundle together with the T3PA pedals, but thanks to the “Eco System” you can easily expand your set to the T3PA-PRO pedals and an H-pattern (TH8A) gear stick. Only the wheel itself cannot yet be exchanged in the T150.
Please note: This steering wheel does not currently seem to be available in the US.
Logitech G920 (about $290)
Logitech has made a name for itself in the racing scene with its very popular G25 from 2006 and its follow-up, the G27 from 2010. Together with the T300 from Thrustmaster, Logitech has dominated the mid-range market with these two models for over ten years, thanks to their solid build and high quality. The two models from 2006 and 2010 are now being replaced by the new models G920 (PC and Xbox) and G29 (PS3 and PS4) - and these new builds are even better.
The G920 has a hand-sewn leather steering wheel, glass-filled nylon mounting clamps for the desk and a set of three pedals, each of which have different resistance and pressure points. The materials are just as high-quality: anodized aluminum, used to mark the wheel spokes, and brushed stainless steel on the pedals and paddle shifters. For the first time, Logitech has also included an LED indicator to display the RPM directly on the steering wheel, something that Thrustmaster has not yet bothered to include in any model - much to the surprise of a lot of drivers.
There are two force feedback motors running on the inside of the G920 with a helical gear that goes about its work a lot quieter than it did in the G27. But you can still notice the rather wide deadzone of the steering wheel, a common deficiency among gear drives. The steering wheel has a lock-to-lock rotation of 900 degrees, which is easily sufficient for off-road racing games such as rally simulations.
As with its predecessors, the steering wheel can be calibrated easily and quickly with the Logitech Gaming Software. It also lets you configure the buttons.
The quality of the G920 is significantly higher than that of the T150. There is a small drawback, however, compared to the T150, which is that Logitech does not offer a large range of optional upgrades. While you can add the external H-pattern gear stick for about $60, Logitech offers no possible pedal upgrades as they simply do not make any. However, the racing game community has developed modifications and drivers for the G25 and G27 in order to be able to connect pedal modules from other manufacturers, for example Thrustmaster's T3PA or Fanatec's ClubSport pedals, and it will only be a matter of time before they do the same for the G920.
Highest price range from $250
This price range can easily shoot up into four-digit territory, but you can also find convincing high-quality technology (that is still a clear step up from what the mid-range devices have to offer) for about $400 to $500. Again, Thrustmaster is a good bet due to its wide and well placed product range, while Logitech has given up the top-range segment without a fight. Instead, another manufacturer comes into play: Fanatec. This manufacturer offers steering wheel sets from about $500 upwards, but also has products in the $1000 range and above. What Thrustmaster and Fanatec have in common in the top-range segment is their modular system, which consists of four parts: the wheel base, the steering wheel, the pedal set and an optional gear stick. So the budget-savvy possibility would be to start with a $500 starter set and then upgrade the modular steering wheel when you have some extra Christmas money or find an item on sale - without having to buy an entire new set every time.
Thrustmaster T300RS and T500RS
The T300RS (about $400) is the cheapest steering wheel in this price range, but still clearly belongs to the top range. It has force feedback with 16-bit resolution and a Hall sensor, a brushless servo motor, a quiet dual-belt mechanism and an adjustable rotation angle of between 270 and 1080 degrees. Again, the pedals are included in the set (accelerator and brake). From this model onwards, it is possible to take off and exchange the steering wheel.
As is appropriate for the top range, this set includes a high-quality GT-style steering wheel that weights 1.2 kg (~2.6 lbs) - its dimensions alone making it very realistic. The T300 is also expandable with all pedals of the Thrustmaster series and is even compatible with Fanatec pedals via adapters from a third-party manufacturer ($55).
The T500RS is another (price) level above the T300 and is available for $600. It has an even stronger 65-watt T500 wheel base with a servo motor that has a torque of 150 mNm at 3000 RPM. Unlike the T300RS, the T500RS is already equipped with the high-quality T3PA-PRO pedal module (3 pedals incl. clutch), which justifies the higher price. Naturally, this model also allows you to use other steering wheels, even from other manufacturers (provided they produce suitable steering wheels for Thrustmaster).
Thrustmaster TS-PC Racer (about $500)
something to offer with its newly developed wheel base and a second-generation force feedback motor. It is supposed to have a torque that is 1.6 times higher than that of the T300 wheel base and not only be more powerful, but also have more dynamic in its force reproduction. This enables it to provide sufficient force - from long stall curves to sudden zig-zag manoeuvres. The turbo power supply offers up to 400 watts, which provides enough power for the device's needs.
The steering wheel is in Formula 1 style, the gripping areas covered with high-quality suede leather; but as mentioned above, this can be exchanged with other steering wheels. Despite the high quality standards, there is one thing to criticize: that even for its flagship device, Thrustmaster still has not included a visual LED RPM or gear indicator. You have to take care of this yourself, for example with a smartphone app or a steering wheel modification (Z1Simwheel, for example). By the way, the TS-PC does not include pedals in its standard set - despite its high price. The affordable T3PA pedal module would have to be added on to the budget and costs about $100.
Fanatec CSL Elite Starter Set (about $580)
Fanatec does not offer devices below the top range and only provides steering wheels and pedals for hardened fans of racing simulators. The high price might scare off some people, but on the other hand, Fanatec does not make a lot of mistakes. The manufacturer also offers a complete starter set for $500, which includes a steering wheel plus wheel base as well as pedals. This actually makes it cheaper than the Thrustmaster TS-PC racer, as that does not include pedals.
In detail, the CLS Elite Starter Set includes a CSL Elite Wheelbase, the standard P1 steering wheel and even a CSL Elite pedal set (two pedals). It is made entirely of high-quality material and the inside of the wheel base is filled with a very strong brushless servo motor with up to 6 Nm of torque and a belt drive. Unlike Thrustmaster, Fanatec has equipped the steering wheel with LED indicators for RPM and a special Fanatec tuning display that allows you to see important information such as force feedback strength, maximum steering angle and even brake sensitivity.
The steering wheel is made of synthetic suede leather and perforated real leather - it feels really good, as you would expect from its price range.
Fanatec also emphasizes the modular build and expandability of its devices. Steering wheels can be changed in an instant via the "Quick Release" system. The manufacturer offers over 20 different steering wheels on its website - from a Porsche 918 RSR or the BMW GT2 to the more classic light-leather and polished aluminum steering wheel.
The Fanatec CSL Elite Starter Set offers a bundle discount of $60 in the Fanatec Shop.
There is not really much to recommend about the lowest price range, even if you are looking for a bargain. If you would like an inexpensive beginner's device, think about the Thrustmaster T150 for $195. And for another $40, you can even get the better Thrustmaster T3PA peals instead of the standard ones.
If you are feeling bold, or you would simply like to replace an old steering wheel, the Thrustmaster T300 is certainly a good buy for everyone. Its expansion possibilities also mean that the device is future-proof to a certain extent. Thrustmaster has a great number of followers and you will usually find a solution to any problem you may have in forums.
Buying a steering wheel can be seen as a long-term investment. The build quality and durability should not be underestimated, as it will keep you gaming for many years to come, or in other words: for thousands of rounds on the race track. Similarly expensive PC components such as a graphics card will probably have to be replaced more often than a steering wheel. The modular system that Thrustmaster and Fanatec offer are also great for your pocket as you can replace or upgrade individual components without having to replace the entire set.
And if you want to go even further and play with the big guys, we would recommend going for the Fanatec series. Although Thrustmaster does offer models in the higher price range, its product range is rather limited, while this is where Fanatec's products start to become really interesting.