Is More Expensive Sim Racing Equipment Worth It?
This question – and its partner – will a premium / direct drive wheel make you faster may be one of the most oft-asked questions in sim racing – right after “why did you do that?!” followed by 0-17 expletives. Of course, the real question you should be asking is “Is an upgrade to my sim racing equipment worth it?” – and if so – “Which element of my sim racing setup should I upgrade?” Those are the questions I hope to help you answer in the following article. I will discuss the upgrades I have made to my sim racing setup – and a couple I haven’t – and explain how they can help you in sim racing.
Disclaimer up front: Sim racing equipment alone will unequivocally not make you faster. It can give you better tools with which to practice your craft, but at the end of the day, the tools are only as good as the craftsman – there are no shortcuts. However, as you gain experience and skill, higher quality equipment can help you fine tune your skill in several ways and help you get the most out of your ability. It certainly isn’t necessary – some of the fastest sim racers on the iRacing service use some of the least expensive equipment available, but it can help.
In order to describe how it can help, I need to explain how a racing simulator like iRacing gives you feedback – or information – about what the virtual car you are driving is doing at any given time. There are 3 primary ways in which information is communicated – visual imagery, physical force, and audio – and I would probably rank them in that order in terms of importance with audio ranking a very distant 3rd in terms of importance when it comes to where to spend your money on upgrades. I will discuss each of the types of upgrades and how they improve the area of information to which they are related below, starting with the one that is most frequently asked about – wheel upgrades and direct drive.
Upgrading your wheel can improve the strength and detail of the force feedback you receive. This extra detail in information can help you maximize your steering inputs. A greater range in rotation can also help you fine tune subtle movements when operating at the edge of a vehicle’s grip, and the increased detail in feedback can help you identify with greater precision where exactly that edge is. Efficiency in your wheel movements will improve both lap time and tire saving, both of which are critically important to maximizing your results in a racing simulator. I will repeat again that it is absolutely possible to drive at peak efficiency with a Logitech G27 but a more expensive wheel will make it easier to find that edge. It will also increase the immersion of the simulation making your sim racing experience more enjoyable. They are also made out of higher quality materials and, as such, tend to be more durable. I would rank an upgrade to your steering wheel behind most of the other upgrades in this article in terms of order of importance – there are more important areas to spend your sim racing budget on first – but it can certainly improve your experience as described above. Whether it’s worth the cost and fits your budget only you can answer, however there are a couple free tips I can provide as relates to your wheel that cost nothing and will improve your experience regardless of the wheel you have:
Tip 1: Dial back your force feedback. Having it cranked to the max will yank the wheel a bit more, but sim racing is not a battle of brute force – it’s a game of finesse. Dialing the feedback back from the max will also put much less strain on the motor while still providing all the detail in feedback that the motor is capable of. I recommend setting the force just high enough that you can still feel something from the lightest form of feedback the wheel provides. Setting the feedback too high for your wheel can also result in “clipping” where the maximum amount of feedback your wheel can provide is exceeded and your wheel will “skip” for a moment. This is horribly distracting and can mess you up during critical moments in a race, so above all else make sure that your force feedback is set low enough that this never occurs.
Tip 2: Use the proper settings in Windows and in iRacing (or the sim of your choice) for your wheel. The forums for your sim of choice, be it iRacing or something else, should have a thread detailing which settings are best for your wheel – find it, and adjust your settings to the recommended values as described in the guide. This will help immensely regardless of which wheel you are using.
With that covered, I’ll move on to the more important part of your wheel and pedal setup: the pedals.
Pedals are discussed less, but the difference between a potentiometer brake pedal and a load cell brake pedal is far more significant than the difference between a budget wheel that has belt or gear driven force feedback and a direct drive hub. This is because potentiometers (found in the brake pedals of less expensive pedal sets) measure distance traveled whereas the load cells found in more expensive pedal sets measure pressure. Pressure is better because it is easier to fine tune – and it’s a more accurate representation of how braking works in a real car, which also increases with pressure. Both load cells and actual pressurized braking systems work in a non-linear manner – the closer they get to maximum load, the harder they become to press. This makes consistently hitting the exact amount of pressure you want much easier than it is to consistently hit the exact distance of travel you have to aim for with a potentiometer. Going fast on road courses and short tracks with heavy braking zones – like Martinsville – requires a high level of skill with threshold braking. A load cell makes consistently approaching or reaching the grip limit of your tires easier than a potentiometer and is the single most impactful upgrade in the physical feedback/information area that you can give yourself. Some really expensive brake pedals can actually give you vibration and feedback, but the real gain here is that you can apply the information that you’re getting from your eyes, ears, and through the wheel through the brake pedal with much greater accuracy. I use a set of Fanatec V3 pedals, which have a load cell, and that has far and away been the best bang for buck upgrade I’ve made to my setup in this area.
A better gas pedal can also help you achieve greater accuracy when lifting off and getting back on the throttle. More expensive pedals are made of better materials and use stronger springs so they provide better, more consistent resistance and allow you to maximize throttle inputs, especially helpful or corner exits but also on starts, restarts, and getting back up to speed after a pit stop. This is critically important to both lap times and overtaking on high speed ovals, road courses, and short tracks – basically everything except super speedways. Ever heard the saying “slow in, fast out”? Well, accuracy and efficiency with throttle application is essential for the “fast out” part and a higher end throttle pedal can really help you dial that in.
No matter what you spend on your sim equipment, you will build familiarity and comfort with your setup the more experience you gain with it, so the more you use it, the better you will get at wringing out every last drop of performance from it. If you are racing on a budget, I recommend getting every bit of use you can out of your current setup you can and then upgrade parts when you feel they truly need to be replaced.
Your wheel and pedals won’t be worth squat, however, if your PC can’t run the software for your sim of choice properly. You can certainly be very quick on a low end PC that runs iRacing on a single monitor at minimum settings, but the visual feedback you receive will be much better if you can draw all the other cars at the maximum distance on three monitors or inside a VR headset. Those latter upgrades – triple monitors or VR – are probably the best value upgrade you can make if your PC is powerful enough in its current configuration to run them. It literally gives you more (in quantity) visual information – and the added peripheral vision can help you in getting as close to the wall or your opponents as possible – and this is very important – without making contact. This is critical at the higher skill levels of sim racing as beating the competition can often require using every inch of available racetrack. Being able to see out your side windows can also help when restarting next to the leader on double file restarts. Upgrades to your PC can be expensive – some simply make the game prettier and are worth it for that, but an increased framerate, drawing all the vehicles as far ahead as possible, and adding peripheral vision will all provide meaningful improvements in the quality of visual information provided by the racing simulator. Your brain relies on the information from your eyes to tell your hands and feet what to do, and it’s a bit of a garbage in, garbage out situation. If you’re thinking about an upgrade to direct drive, you should at least consider if the money is better spent on upgrades to your PC or adding monitors. If your PC meets that minimum standard I described above, additional increases in performance will definitely make the game look better and improve immersion but they won’t give you more feedback that is helpful or required to go faster.
Here’s another free tip – move your monitor as close to you as you’re comfortable with. This will allow you to set an accurate field of view – or FOV. Setting this value properly will give you accurate depth perception, allowing you to judge distances presented on a flat 2D screen more accurately. If you invest in trips, getting your FOV set right is a must.
The final form of feedback – and least important from a speed perspective – is audio. Now, I’m not saying you should run without sound at all – the sound of your tires squealing will tell you when you’ve crossed over the grip limit, your engine note will inform shift points and warn you of grip loss, and the sound of other vehicles’ engines will tell you how close they are to you. You can also use the reverberation off the wall to help find the right distance from it (which, again, is often as close as possible on corner exits). However, a very cheap set of headphones can provide enough audio feedback for you to work with. Higher end audio will give you better feedback, but it won’t help nearly as much as visual upgrades or upgrades to your pedals and wheel. That said, if you’re dropping $2000 on a PC and $1000 on a wheel and pedals, it’s probably worth at least $150 to get a high quality headset just for the increase in immersion alone.
Now, there is one final upgrade I should mention that ties all of the above together – and that’s the rig. Hard mounting your wheel and pedals so they don’t slide around at all provides a great deal of security. If you invest in high end equipment, it’s worth investing in a mounting solution that lets you get the most out of it. The good news here is that if you’re strapped for cash but handy with your tools, you can build a rig for yourself out of 2x4s. It will take some time and work, but it’s a lot cheaper than investing in a TR-80 like I purchased from Trak Racer. That said, if you have the budget for the other stuff, a high end rig to mount everything to is a very worthwhile upgrade and ties it all together nicely.
So, that’s it – that’s the list of upgrades I feel are relevant to consider and how they help improve your sim racing experience. Only you can decide whether a particular upgrade is worth the expense but hopefully this article will help inform your decision.