Back when I was at University, I just happened to be a DJ. And, as all DJ’s from the late 90’s (showing my age here, but bear with!) can attest, the turntable of choice was a Technics 1210 MK2.
What’s that got to do with sim racing I hear you ask?
For a long time, the only turntable you could buy that was direct-drive was the Technics 1210. It had bags of torque, so it would happily recover the rotational speed after a sync correction (if you slowed it down with your hand it would return to the correct speed very quickly). It would maintain a reasonably accurate speed (BPM) across the speed control (except the little notch right in the middle). It was a really nice bit of kit and most importantly, it felt right!
Then, alternative turntables started to appear. Some were belt drive. They would have less torque, they felt cheaper in plastic cases and a flexible platter and were generally harder to keep in sync because the speed would vary slightly more (pitch variations, wow, flutter and so on). Some were direct drive too, and aside from the cheaper casing and flexible platters, they’d have much less torque and were quite simply nothing like as satisfying to use.
The experience of turntables in the ’90s reminds me very much of the subject of direct drive wheels (and more broadly the topic of wheelbases generally) in sim racing. We have belt drive products at the lower end of the market and at the higher end, direct drive wheelbases. Some feel better than others in the way they drive, how they feel, and how they’re manufactured.
Until the announcement of the Fanatec CSL DD wheelbase some months ago, there was always a distinction between cheap and expensive. Cheaper units would start in the €200-€300 price range and more expensive direct drive wheelbases would be closer to €1000+. Things change, of course, and as a result, we have pricing for direct drive wheels in the arena of €400 and higher, which essentially puts cheaper gear and belt driven wheelbases out of the question on a serious sim rig.
So, most newly equipped sim rigs will almost certainly be built around a direct drive wheelbase. But what is direct drive, how does it work and which units do we recommend?
Before we begin I think it’s always important to start with my usual disclaimer. There’s very little difference between the higher-end direct-drive wheelbases, and your choice is very much down to personal preference. Some feel smoother, more detailed and have higher torque levels than others. Some can change direction and communicate detail with a huge amount of clarity. You’ll come across phrases like “fidelity” and technical terms like “slew rate” – don’t be too confused by these things, no one can feel the difference over a few nanoseconds of improved slew rate! What’s more important is that as a driver, you will get used to the characteristics of your direct drive wheel. A Simucube feels very different to a Fanatec DD2 or an Accuforce V2, but a professional sim racer will be just as quick with any of them. Personal choice is very subjective, and therefore emotive, which is why a lot of sim racers love the “which one is best?” argument in forums.
How does direct drive work and where does the “feel” come from?
Fundamentally, a direct drive wheel intended for sim racing is a large, “MiGE” motor connected to a power supply! When you’re holding your steering wheel, the wheel is connected via a hub to the motor shaft. The feedback, resistance and torque you feel during use is rotational energy created by the motor. But, it’s far more complicated than this.
Much of the feedback you experience is generated by the drivers running on your PC, the motor speed control electronics, power supply design and digital signal processing (DSP) algorithms. Combined, this hardware and software technology interprets the output from the simulation package (your iRacing, Assetto Corsa and so on) into force feedback (FFB). This technology also interprets the inputs coming from the driver’s actions on the wheel by measuring position, torque and rotation using an encoder fitted to the motor.
What does a direct drive wheel feel like in comparison to a cheaper unit?
Direct drive wheels can create lots of peak and nominal (holding) torque. But critically, the design and engineering of direct drive allow you to feel more detail – there’s more information in the feedback. For example, I really like to get a sense of available grip and feel aware of when the car is losing grip in the corners. The detail you receive from a direct drive wheel is huge in comparison to cheaper wheels. In principle, then you can react to incidents as they happen and catch them before it’s too late. Direct-drive might not make you faster but the sense and awareness you get while driving is vastly different. More awareness often leads to tidy laps and fewer mistakes.
Best direct drive wheels for sim racers
If you’re about to embark on a direct drive upgrade for your simulator, here are my top picks for the current best in market products.
Simucube 2 Pro
At number 1, we simply cannot fault the incredible Simucube 2 Pro. It’s found on almost every serious simulator installation from home setups to more professional rigs (the professional systems often use the higher budget Simucube 2 Ultimate, too). What I particularly love about the SC2 is the smoothness and detail of the feedback. Something just works about this wheel unit.
Using the Truedrive software you can configure FFB profiles and save your preferred setup. You can also grab other driver’s shared profiles via their Paddock software. Simucube have a great community and are very strong on customer service, their reps take part in the Facebook sim racing forums so they’re very easy to get assistance from. One of the most important features on any direct drive wheel is the QR hub (quick release). Simucubes come with the SQR hub for both the wheelbase and wheel side. The SQR hub is, in my opinion, one of the best hubs available with no play whatsoever. There’s something very satisfying about the package as a whole, it’s easy to install and get started.
For those who don’t own a Simucube 2 Pro might very likely own a Fanatec DD2. Fanatec is responsible, perhaps, for bringing sim racing to the mainstream with devices that out of the box are very good. The DD2’s force feedback is strong and has lots of clarity. Some owners feel that the FFB isn’t anything like as smooth as the SC2, and can actually be quite notchy and grainy at times.
But the DD2 is extremely setup dependent – feelings like graininess and associations can be dialled out. If you own a DD2, you might agree that the proprietory QR hub can have a bit of play at times. This has always been the weak point of Fanatec devices, the QR isn’t great and you’re in a closed ecosystem, with really only a choice of Fanatec sim steering wheels to complement the device. This, of course, is fine for most sim racers but those with an inclination to explore, make their own wheels or choose say, a Cube Controls unit would likely be better off staying away from the Fanatec ecosystem. Read our DD2 vs Simucube 2 Pro comparison here.
Simucube 2 Sport
A slightly less powerful direct drive unit, the Simucube 2 Sport is plenty for most sim drivers. It has practically the same feel as the SC2 Pro, but just delivers a lower peak torque.
Frankly, I don’t use the full torque of my Simucube 2 Pro anyway and I’ve always thought that the Sport would have made a fantastic alternative. Get access to all the same features including wireless wheel technology, an SQR hub and Truedrive at a lower price. Ideal for sim build on a budget price without compromising on the equipment, and ideal as an upgrade from an older or belt drive wheelbase!
The VRS DirectForce Pro Wheel Base is priced below the Simucube 2 Pro and Fanatec DD2. It features a 20Nm MiGE motor with a 22-bit BISS-C encoder with custom control electronics. The wheel can be supplied with a hub adapter that tightens down on the MiGE motor shaft and screws to the back of the wheel using a 70mm PCD pattern. You can of course choose any MiGE shaft compatible QR hub.
Unlike the DD2 and Simucube, the USB controller is located in a separate box alongside the power supply. This is a typical configuration for MiGE based units similar to the early Simucube 1. If you’re a sim racing technology geek then the VRS is a well-rated option, but depending on the level of support you feel you might need, or the game title you play, it might still be a bit too early to consider for a beginner to intermediate sim owner.
Fanatec CSL DD
The darling of the budget sim racing community, the CSL DD is a neat little package priced around the 400EUR mark. For that money you get a device that is leagues ahead of the current Thrustmaster and Logitech offering, producing up to 8Nm of torque depending on the power pack option you choose. Early reviews have been promising and, if you’re a beginner, this could be a good option.
Remember though that you’re committing yourself to the Fanatec ecosystem which limits your choice of wheel. It also has the same QR hub as their other wheelbases, a good thing if you’re upgrading from a CSL Elite as you can keep your old wheel(s).