If you’re new to the world of PC-based sim racing, you’re probably going to need to buy a few things. Your graphics card or CPU may need a refresh or, worst-case scenario, a whole new gaming PC might be in your future. A plethora of gaming monitors are only a click of the mouse away or, if you want serious immersion, virtual reality headsets will really get you in the game.
But, far and away the most important purchase that you’re going to make will be a steering wheel and pedals. These will be the only components that you actually touch, the only things able to replicate the tactile sensations of a sport that’s largely based on feel.
Needless to say, getting something good is hugely important, but finding something that fits your budget is also key. You can easily spend more on a sim racing setup than you might on a real race car — which sounds totally crazy until you start to do the math on what actually being competitive in the real world costs.
I’ve been sim racing for nearly 20 years now and in that time have tested a lot of wheels from a lot of companies. Jump on in and we’ll find you the right setup for your budget.
A place to play
Before you start shopping for the wheel, it’s important to figure out exactly where you’re going to drive. If you already have your PC set up at a desk, clamping your wheel on there is probably the easiest — and certainly the cheapest — way to go. However, it’s not for everyone, especially if you hate having extra cables slung around your workspace.
Additionally, many higher-powered wheels cannot be clamped to a desk, simply because they’re way too powerful. So, if you have the budget and the floor space, a dedicated sim racing cockpit makes a world of difference. The ability to just sit down and start driving means you’ll spend less time fiddling with cables and more time driving. Plus, you can start customizing your cockpit with bespoke seating and button pods and all sorts of fun stuff.
This is definitely an area where recommendations are difficult, because pre-constructed sim cockpits vary hugely in price, size, construction and intent. For my needs, I wanted something sturdy so that I could test out high-power wheels. However, I needed a small footprint to keep from giving up too much of my office. And I also didn’t have thousands to spend.
I opted for the Next Level Racing GTtrack. It’s only 21 inches wide, so it slotted in nicely next to my desk, yet is sturdy enough to handle the most powerful direct-drive wheels on the market. It’s also easily customizable, with an open, box-frame construction featuring plenty of exposed holes and surfaces for adding on whatever you like. You can also upgrade to a motion platform down the road, should you feel like adding a little momentum to your rig.
At $899 it isn’t cheap, but Next Level Racing has other, more affordable options, like the $499 F-GT, suitable for mid-level wheels, and even the $299 F-GT Lite, which you can fold up and stuff in the closet.
Those are three great choices, but if you’re looking to save some money and don’t mind going the DIY route, Open Sim Racing has dozens of plans that rely on inexpensive extruded aluminum sections, meaning you can make a truly custom setup.
Logitech Driving Force G920, G29
For the entry-level, I’m going to recommend the Logitech G920 — or the G29. Either will do, because they’re basically the same wheel. These wheels can do double-duty on gaming consoles, but you’ll have to pick your platform preference. If you’re doing a little Forza Motorsport on the side, the Xbox One-compatible G920 is for you. If you’re more into the Gran Turismo side of the equation, the PS4-ready G29 is your choice.
If you’re only doing iRacing and the like on the PC, then you can go with either, but I will say the G29 has more buttons and knobs, making it the slightly better choice. It’s a minor difference, though.
Either way, you’re getting a well-built wheel with primarily metal construction and a stitched leather wrapping. 900 degrees of rotation will handle anything short of a big-rig simulator and the force feedback is perfectly adequate.
However, there are a few shortcomings. For one thing, the wheel diameter is less than 10.5 inches, meaning it feels somewhat toy-like compared to the real thing — or, indeed, some of the later wheels I’ll mention. The bigger problem, however, is with the pedals. The brake pedal uses a potentiometer, a means of digitally detecting the degree of rotation.
Potentiometers work well for the throttle and clutch, but the hydraulic brakes in a real car work not on how far you press the pedal, but how hard. Since potentiometers only measure movement, accurately modulating the brakes can be a challenge. Logitech attempted to replicate the feel of a load cell by limiting the travel of the brake pedal, but if anything that just reduces precision.
Really, though, at this price point, that’s the only fly in the ointment. The Logitech G920 and G29 are excellent wheels. Plenty of pro-level iRacers use them, which is about as good a vote of confidence as you can get. I raced with a G27 for years and, if $400 is outside of your budget, I’d highly recommend hitting up eBay for a used G27 or even a used G25. They’re largely the same wheel, and a healthy modding community will ensure they’ll work for years to come.
Honorable mention: Got a bit more to spend? Check out the Thrustmaster T300, particularly in Ferrari Integral trim. It starts at $500 and offers a larger-diameter, Alcantara-wrapped wheel that feels more like the real thing. That wheel is also swappable, should you want something different down the road.
Fanatec Clubsport Wheel Base V2.5 and Clubsport V3 Pedals
For those looking to get a bit more serious about their sim racing, Fanatec has a range of products guaranteed to challenge the healthiest of budgets. In my book, the Clubsport Wheel Base V2.5 hits the sweet spot between luxury, performance and price.
Its belt-driven internals deliver the power from a high-torque motor situated within an attractive, anodized aluminum base. The window on top exposing the internals is a nice touch, showing the attention to detail here. Its six pound-feet of torque makes it almost four-times as powerful as the Logitech, but if that’s too much it comes with an extensive suite of tuning software, meaning you can dial it in how you want it.
I’d recommend pairing that with Fanatec’s $300 BMW GT2 wheel, which, at 12.6 inches, is full-sized and Alcantara-wrapped, like the real thing, and offers a healthy selection of buttons and controls. However, the positioning of those buttons leaves a bit to be desired (many are too far away to be reached via quick thumb-press) and the shift paddles on the back are awfully vague.
Finally, on the floor, the Clubsport V3 pedals are hard to beat. The all-metal construction means business and they come with two sets of pedal surfaces. The flat ones installed by default are easily replaced with D-shaped pedals, which are my preference. They even have haptic motors that buzz away to replicate ABS.
Most importantly, the brake on the Clubsport pedals features a load-cell. Unlike a potentiometer, this measures force, not movement, so you can precisely scrub off speed moving through T1 and T2 at Suzuka and handle all that trail-braking which is so important in iRacing.
If there’s one drawback, it’s the cost. The Fanatec Clubsport Wheel Base V2.5 costs $550, which might not sound so bad except that you’ll also need to pay an additional $300 for the BMW GT2 steering wheel and a further $360 for the pedals. Total cost? A cool $1,210.
Fanatec Podium DD1 Wheel Base
If your budget hasn’t reached the breaking point yet, welcome to the Podium level. While Clubsport is Fanatec’s mid-tier products, Podium is at the top, and the $1,200 DD1 is my pick at this price level. With a whopping 14.7 lb-ft of torque at your disposal, it can quite literally rip the steering wheel out of your hands. So, do be careful — the warning labels on this thing are not for show.
That torque is a nice talking point, maybe even needed for those desiring the ultimate realism when simulating vintage cars with no power steering. For me, I turn the torque down to about 65% when I’m driving with my DD1. Why? More force from your wheel won’t make you faster. If anything, it can make you slower as you fight the wheel.
For me, the real draw to the DD1 is the fidelity of the sensations. While all the wheels I’ve discussed thus far rely on gears or belts to get the force to the wheel, the DD here means direct-drive. That is to say, the steering wheel is more or less directly attached to the shaft of an electric motor. The feel is perfectly smooth, just like in a real car.
It’s a premium piece of kit and something that I feel good about using, but the great part of Fanatec parts is that you’re buying into a healthy and always-expanding ecosystem. The steering wheels you use on a Clubsport Wheel Base can be used here, as can the pedals and things like external shifters, handbrakes and lots, lots more. So, as your skills and your needs grow, so too can your setup.