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The racing wheel debate

By on @Chairman7

At some stage of fandom those into racing games will likely begin to consider buying a wheel. They might see one at a store or a video of the awesome rigs that they use to show off the latest titles at a gaming convention. They might recall days of old where racing wheels were an essential part of the arcade experience playing Daytona USA or Sega Rally.

I have heard it many times that if you are serious about racing games, you need a wheel. It is the right way to play. But is that true? Should you really spend the money on one?

I wrestled with this question across console generations.

About 18 months ago I pulled the trigger. I bought a second hand Logitech G920 complete with a metal frame that houses the pedals and wheel. To complete my make-shift rig I bought a very low chair with a high-back from Ikea.

It is not a world-class simulator but it does the job and creates a nice illusion.

But why did it take me so long to finally buy a racing wheel?

For starters a racing wheel is expensive. A decent one can cost you as much as the console you are going to play on it. That is a lot of money for a controller that will only be used for a handful of games.

Even a base racing wheel is going to be expensive. Cheap controllers but especially cheap racing wheels feel terrible. The plastic can be awful and if it doesn’t have force feedback you miss all the kinetic information that makes using a wheel worthwhile in the first place.

At the other end of the spectrum you can spend a crazy amount on a wheel. For a stellar rig it might be cheaper to get a few friends with some mechanical skill and buy a lemon racer.

Once you get past the initial financial layout, you need to consider the physical commitment. A racing wheel takes up a lot of space. Are you prepared to dedicate four to six feet of physical real estate where you play games? If you opt for a moveable option, where are you going to store it? Will you be prepared to roll it out every time you want to play Forza or Gran Turismo?

What on earth is your other half going to think?

The physical complications associated with wheel ownership become more complex when you consider the logistics of using the wheel. Are you going to clamp it to a desk? Are you going to have a dedicated stand and rig? What will you sit on? Will it be the right height? How are you going to secure the foot-pedals?

Foot-pedals are the critical but forgotten equation of a good wheel set-up. Remember the days playing sega-rally where you stamped on that brake like it was terrifying spider? You’ll want to stamp in your home set-up as well. This means securing the foot-pedals to avoid them sliding. This is fine if you have a rig but not so convenient if you are planning to simply clamp your wheel to a desk.

Even if you secure your foot-pedals sliding can occur. Tiled floors and racing rigs don’t mix. This was a mistake I learned over 10 years ago following my first, brief wheel purchase. Even today in my carpeted home theatre I use a thick yoga mat under my rig to avoid it launching forward during heavy braking.

Once you’ve got your wheel and organised your set-up, you’ll be ready to become a digital Senna or Earnheart, right? Not quite. Here is the inconvenient truth. Even after you have laid out hundreds of dollars and dedicated a good part of your living space to your wheel, you might not be any quicker.

From my experience, after playing with a controller for more than 15 years, I had to learn using a wheel. This may seem strange given that I use a real steering wheel in my car everyday. However that method of driving and racing are different things. Your wheel rotation is not the same as driving a real car, you get different feedback and, of course, in your daily drive you are unlikely to be rocking 500 brake-horse power.

Racing games are all about finding those tenths of a second every lap. With a wheel, your muscle memory may need to be retrained.

Eventually using a wheel will prove itself faster but it takes time and practice. After 18 months of owning a wheel I decided to do an experiment with F1 2017. In time-trial mode using identical Ferraris and assists I set five fast laps at three different circuits.

The results surprised me. At the technical Sepang Circuit I was significantly slower with the wheel with a best time that was 1.8 seconds quicker with the controller. At Shanghai the difference in China was less pronounced but still a significant 0.6 seconds. However, at the Red Bull Ring in Austria I was faster with the wheel by a margin of 1.1 seconds.

My quick experiment is hardly scientific and the best racers around the world will tell you that a wheel is the only way to go but, for me at least, a wheel hasn’t translated to quicker lap times.

One reason for this is that controllers have improved for racing games. The rumble triggers on even the standard Xbox One controller are fantastic for racers. The force feedback gives a great sense of resistance and grip when braking or trying to control wheel spin. This tactile feedback can even be greater using a controller than foot pedals. While maintaining subtle directional control is easier with a wheel, I’d argue that maintain throttle control and braking control might be easier with a controller.

The other factor is that many great racing games aren’t suited to a wheel such as Forza Horizon. That series is just too twitchy for the wheel. I wouldn’t dream of playing the Need for Speed series or arcade titles like Baja Edge of Tomorrow with a wheel.

At this point you might be thinking that a wheel is a terrible investment and it might just be. However still I love owning a racing wheel and importantly using my racing wheel.

I love the way that the force-feedback in the wheel shakes the rig giving an odd sense that you are being tossed around the vehicle as you jump the curbs. I love being able to do manual starts with the clutch in F1 2017. And while I am not skilled enough for manual gearboxes in circuit races, I love being able to use manual gears in the Dirt Rally series.

As I have outlined here there are many factors to consider when thinking about buying a racing wheel. Too many I suspect are gathering dust like the one I bought second-hand. But if you have the money, the space and the set-up there is nothing like taking to the virtual roads in your own home simulator.