The steering wheel, for some it’s a way of life, for others it’s just a thing they hold onto on the way to the shops. For simracers, it is the key to unlocking the deepest secrets of their hobby.
Unlike any other vehicle simulation, a force feedback controller provides a truly tactile communication between the software on screen, and the human controlling it. Were it not for this communication, our racing simulators would provide less than half of the immersion that they do today. I raced in a pre-force feedback world, and now the idea of not being able to feel the front tyres through my steering wheel seems entirely alien. Over the years the output from the simulation software and the precision in the controllers has increased, and with a good steering wheel, the difference between a good sim and a great sim can be ascertained within a few corners. Conversely, a great sim with bad force feedback can be consigned to the scrapheap by players in a heartbeat.
This has pushed sim developers to focus heavily on the area of force feedback, to push more and more tyre feedback through the wheel in a convincing fashion, thus increasing the immersion of their simulator. For it is this immersion that makes a player think “just one more lap” at 2am on a weeknight.
But are we all getting this information? With a good range of wheels available in the budget range, and a reasonable amount in the mid-range, is either really serving us with the precision we need? Can your wheel be better? Can your performance increase if it were to improve? And how much is our opinion of any given simulator formed by this feedback that we have in our hands?
This is the first article of a long running series I will be writing on RAVSim since acquiring my first “high end” wheel, the Fanatec ClubSport. This device, heavy, chunky, re-assuringly German, is not the kind of kit that the “casual” simracer will be purchasing; with the price coming in at €449.95 for the wheel base, you’ll be throwing another €249.95 at the BMW wheel rim (an exact replica of the wheel found in a real BMW M3 GT2 racecar), and, should you opt for both (as I have) €179.95 for the “Formula rim” which replicates the rectangular style of wheel seen in modern Formula One and most single seaters above Formula 3 level. So, at €879.85 for the full pack this wheel is coming in well above the budget Logitech DFGT that I replaced it with, but still below some other top end wheels, notably the Frex FFB SimWHEEL and ECCI’s Trackstar 6000. Its price still classifies the wheel well into “hobbying enthusiast” territory rather than the “I have the odd blast in a racing game now and then” zone.
To broach two potential questions from the above paragraph, I would like to get the issue of price out of the way. The question mark here concerns whether this wheel is worth the money it is priced at, rather than the deeper question of whether any sim-wheel should cost this much. When you look at the quality of engineering in this wheel, it is not difficult to understand the price point. The facts are that while many in this hobby may not be able to afford such a wheel, many others will, and the concept of fairness for all does not apply in a capitalist world, and certainly not in motorsport. While I will talk about the relative merits of this wheel in regards to its place in the marketplace, any discussion about the rights or wrongs of spending money on a hobby one is passionate about can be had elsewhere.
The second point is concerning my previous wheel, the Logitech DFGT. Many seem to regard the DFGT as a low-end wheel. Yes, it is at a price point that is very affordable, but it’s pedals are abysmal (I don’t use them as I have BRD Speed 7 pedals), but the wheel itself is a good unit, with plenty of buttons. Having tried both the G25 and G27 wheels comparatively, and several Fanatec Porsche branded units as well as their CSR, I don’t feel the DFGT comes off badly in comparison, and many of the world’s top simracers have been known to enjoy a DFGT.
So back to the Clubsport wheel (CSW). I am not the sort of reviewer that talks about the box a product comes in, or the impressive use of polystyrene involved, but I will say the artwork on the CSW box, if I saw it in a shop, would be enough to draw me in. The BMW wheel is very impressive to look at, and the feel of alcantara reminds me of the cockpits of many a race car, the Formula wheel rim, also, feels tight and direct in your hands before you’ve even plugged it in.
So, onto the plugging in. I use a BRD Race Frame Pro, which is a bit “old school” for some of you but, having had this cockpit setup since 2003, I regard it a high quality bit of kit that has worked for me for many years now. The platform for the wheel fitting is a metal panel, which most wheels, historically, have clamped onto the same way they would onto a desk. Digging around in the CSW box for some manner of clamps or what not, I found nothing but a few bolts.
Outraged, I headed online, and found a drilling template, and an optional extra (for €49.95) CSW table clamp kit. Many might say I should have done this research in advance, and should well have known, but then, many might also say that when a wheel costs this much it should come with a way of affixing it to the platform on which it resides. More on this later, as I was to find, there are reasons for this move. The fact was, at this point, I would need to use a drill for the first time in over ten years.
It’s true, I am not DIY-phile, and I largely despise “home improvement” missions. I find hardware stores to be one of the most annoying places to go on a weekend, or ever, with their disinterested staff and confusing alleys of screws and light-fittings. Alas, on this particular weekend the Olympics had just started, and my local hardware store just happens to be situated within sight of the Olympic park. After a few deep breaths, I got in the car and headed out, with a list of requirements established.
The Blonde, luckily, owns a drill, being maybe more inclined to use such tools than I. I had by then established that I needed to drill through the steel of my race frame base, which meant I would need some manner of heavy duty metal drilling drill bits. What an adventure in learning I was having.
On top of a drill bit set capable of rending steel, after two more visits to B&Q, I had acquired a metal ruler, some heavy duty metal cutters, a nail punch set, a hammer, and a spirit level. The kitchen table had been turned into a workbench, and I was ready to start drilling. Well, I wasn’t, every time I have drilled things in the past it has almost always resulted in an unmitigated disaster, so I decided to have a cup of tea first and have a big long think about how I am not going to screw this up.
So, it happened, I drilled three holes, with a fair bit of difficulty, but no major disasters, trips to A&E or broken furniture. A mere six hours after unboxing I had the wheel base bolted to the frame plate and was ready to put everything back together and maybe turn a lap or two.
So what does one drive first? I have most driving simulators at my disposal, and within the first two hours of play I had tried every single one briefly, over a few laps to gather the overall feel of the wheel. As I said, this will be a series of articles which will involve a “long term test” of the CSW. I would like to hope that the unit will last me many years and take all the abuse I can throw at it. As we move through the series I will focus on various sims specifically as and when I have put in serious time in them. For this first piece, I want to focus on initial impressions of the wheel across a range of top simulators. Note, that on RAVSim we talk about simulators, so I have not tested (and won’t be testing) with arcade style games such as “Test Drive Unlimited” or “NFS: Most Wanted”, I come from a background as a driver of many cars in real life, racing cars, fast road cars, gearbox karts, and even the odd Ford Focus. I base my time in racing simulators on a focus on realism and thus feel that the key to force feedback to me is not establishing good “effects” such as engine rumble or tyre blow out madness, but rather the feel of the front tyres through the steering wheel, on entry to, and through a corner, as load builds, peaks and dissipates on exit.
I will also, however, test the wheel with a few other “hard core” (I hate that term) driving simulators that are not racing based, such as OMSI Bus Simulator and SCS software’s Truck simulator series. This is primarily to look at how the wheel weighs up these environments, and whilst I don’t imagine anyone would look to the top end of the wheel market for such sims, my feeling is that a top end wheel should benefit any serious simulation.
The first thing to address, with this wheel, is the built in “tuning menu” on the LED display of the CSW. This contains various settings that can augment any in-sim settings to provide fine tuning of the wheel performance. This has been a common theme on a few Fanatec wheels for a while, but having never run a Fanatec wheel long term before I was a little confused as to what did what in these menus. Digging through the box, any trace of a small manual explaining this was absent, thus, one Google later and I was linked to a Youtube video that briefly went through the settings.
I must say this is not ideal. If I am making changes on the fly, within a sim, it’s not that simple to just pop over to Youtube and run through the video again and again. Having a paper manual that goes through these setting should be a must, to be able to quickly and easily refer back to them, I wrote down all the various settings for my reference, but had to do some digging to truly understand them. The video has no speech in it, and as such while a brief run through is performed, there is no real explanation of what each setting actually does within a sim. This was a disappointment to me, I am sure that all of the settings will become second nature over time, but a video manual is oxymoronic and not overly useful in the long run.
To help out RAVSim’s loyal readers, I shall publish the finding of my research on the various settings:
- SEn – Sensitivity: This is simply to set the degrees of rotation of the wheel between an amusing “90” and a more reasonable “900” degrees. Setting this to off will allow the setting in the Windows driver to control wheel range. Obviously, most modern sims allow this to be set in their options screens as well.
- FF – Force feedback: Control overall force feedback strength from “When your 6 year old is having a go:”10% to “It’s more fun than a workout:” 100%. There is an option to set it to “Off” as well.
- SHo – Shock vibration: Strength of vibration of two vibration motors located in the rim from 10% to 100% as well as “off”. I’m still quite baffled by this one, but it seems to reflect FFB “effects” rather than wheel turning force, such as rumble strips and the like.
- AbS – ABS vibration: By using this feature, you can make the brake pedal trigger rim vibration and brake pedal vibration (only on Fanatec CSP and CSP V2 pedals) to let you know when you have reached a certain braking value to trigger the ABS. I don’t have Fanatec pedals, so this setting is fairly useless for me. However, I get the impression it is purely linked to brake pedal force, and thus the setting works to add a rumble effect to the rim. IE: If you set the AbS setting to 80%, then if you hit the pedal to 80% of its maximum, you will get a rumble on the wheel rim, the strength of which is naturally controlled by the “SHo” setting above. This is a nice touch, but in an ideal world it would be better if a the sim software was able to provide the ABS force feedback feeling when the system activates, rather than it just being based on pedal movement. Perhaps this will come in the future.
- LIn – Linearity setting: Yep, just like the setting in every game/sim since 1991.
- dEA – Deadzone: This sets the deadzone around the centre of the wheel, where a setting of 100 will give you about 20 degrees of deadzone in each direction from the centre. This setting is generally left off, but in some sims I suffered oscillation around the centre point, especially under high longitudinal tyre loads, adding a slice of deadzone here can ease that problem.
- drI – Drift mode: I have no idea what this does, and as I don’t do “drifting” I am not sure I need to. I am given to understand from other reviews that it overrides in game force feedback and does some crazy drift thing with the wheel that I am sure works great in drift world.
- For – Forces setting: This setting controls the strength of all force feedback effects aside from spring and damper effects. Where the relationship between this setting and the “FF” setting lies I am not totally sure. But this setting seemed to reflect more directly against wheel force being pushed from software into the wheel. When set at 100, it would be at “default” and thus reflecting what the sim is telling it, with a range up to 400 to amplify this force. Initially this seemed to be the main setting I would change from sim to sim. My focus is to get a solid feel that is akin to a real race car. This means in some cases that the wheel has enough strength for me to lose control when being unable to move it fast enough. This, for me, reflects realism. Some sims, however, in the interests of not snapping a plastic $40 wheel in half, have their force feedback outputs a lot lower than this level, and so can feel much weaker than a slick shod race car. Playing with this level can increase it to a satisfactory feeling. At the same time, some sims seemed to output a level of strength that was much too high, and made the wheel virtually immovable, so being able to reduce this setting helped in such cases. It could also be tuned to temper overly excited centre point oscillations along with the deadzone setting.
- SPr – This setting controls the strength of spring effect which returns the wheel to the centre upon movement, which is rarely used in PC simulations. Arguably, as a car’s wheels do not return to the centre point when you release the wheel in real life, this setting has no place in something claiming to be a simulator. However, in OMSI, where there is no force feedback modelled at all, I found it nice to set a mild spring to get the feeling of some resistance when turning the wheel.
- dPr – This setting controls the strength of the damper effect. Similar to the above, and not generally used in serious simulations, but it did have benefits in sims with no force feedback to add a gentle resistance to the wheel.
So, ten settings in all, and five pre-sets for them. Thus, if you wanted to set the “For” setting to 280 in Sim A, and 120 in Sim B, you can easily setup two “profiles” out of five to easily switch between settings. Whether five profiles will be enough, and how much variance is required, will be revealed in future pieces, and as I work through various sims, I will publish my recommended settings for each simulator based on playing around with settings to find the optimally realistic feeling.
After plugging the wheel in Windows recognised it and installed a generic driver, which lacked functionality, so naturally I headed off to the Fanatec site and downloaded their native driver, for which there are both 64 and 32 bit versions. Once installed the driver provides a simple page to test the wheel, its many buttons and axis, and test some force feedback actuation. Good to go.
For the first sim I opted for the rFactor 2 beta and the new Formula 2 car. This was primarily because I had been testing this car for another article for many laps in the days running up to the new wheel’s arrival, so it was the sim I was most familiar with at the time. On the whole, I have found the force feedback in the rFactor 2 beta to be superb, and possibly class leading when it comes to the fidelity of forces of clipping kerbs, rumble strips and bumps. Where it has felt vague to me is on corner entry and the precision from the tyre on transitioning into slip, with the tyre feeling a little too much like it is “skipping” along the surface (An issue which I feel is improved with every new build of rFactor 2 at present, it is a beta, remember!). This issue is still apparent with the CSW, but greatly eased due to the considerably higher fidelity of the wheel. For one thing, there is never any vagary around the centre point of the wheel, and this precision holds strong in every application of the wheel. It takes very little time to adjust to the wheel because any lag is imperceptible, correcting small slides becomes considerably more instinctive, and keeping hold of the car easier as a result.
To a point, of course, as I mentioned above, I have set the wheel to replicate the feeling of a real race car. For the first time I can remember in a sim, when trying out the Formula Renault 3.5 at Sepang, I ditched the car into the gravel braking into turn fourteen because the wheel just plain slipped out of my hands. This is what real life drivers describe as “the car got away from me”, and it took me by surprise initially! This had mainly occurred because, being used to much weaker force from previous wheels, I did not hold the kind of grip on the steering wheel I would in a real racing car, something I rectified in future outings. Something else I ensured to remember, from my ARDS training, was that in the event of an “off” to get my hands away from the wheel in case it should snap around on impact with a wall. Not carrying out such diligence with this wheel could easily incur an injury, my advice would always be to avoid crashing, as you would in real life.
Moving on to other sims I came to reflect upon the power and precision of this device more and more. Driving with this wheel is simply joyous; you never feel that it is behind your input, or that your correction of a slide “felt wrong”, and the tactility of every sim’s tyre model is exposed and open for you to feel more than I can recall with any other wheel I have driven. What this serves to do, of course, is highlight the issues in some sims when it comes to force feedback. More on that in future articles.
Where my earlier concerns started to ebb away was on the clamping front. After being rankled by the lack of an included desktop clamp for the wheel, I came to realise that this would be an impossibility. The sheer strength of the wheel is too much for any mere clamp to bear; if this wheel were not bolted to the race frame I am using via my mastery of the drill, then I am fairly sure it would have worked its way off the rig and half way across the room by now. Already, at times I hear my race frame groan and creak under the counter force of my wheel movements (A good headset helps to not notice!), and my biggest fear is that it may well tear the whole thing apart one day!
One aspect of the wheel that was quite daunting was the size of the BMW rim. Bigger than most stock sim wheels, this beast, when cushioned down in a nice bucket seat in a race frame, can end up taking up part of the screen and obscuring the car’s dashboard. Still, this is not far off realistic, and the LED displays come into their own in such cases to ensure you know when to shift and what gear you are in, also flashing when on the pit limiter and when fuel is low. I tend to drive with the in game steering wheel turned off (as I have one in my hands and all), so in some cases, where on single-seaters the shift lights and gear indication are on the wheel, they become invisible to me. This is solved by the LED display and it adds an extra level of immersion to any sim. The software for this, confusingly is developed by a third party team at http://fanaleds.idrift.nl/. Most sims require you to implement a plug-in to make the LED’s work and there is a GUI for configuration, the exception being iRacing which supports the LED’s natively. I am not sure why this software is not provided directly by Fanatec “out of the box”, but it’s out there nonetheless.
So, to end the first part of this “long termer”, what have we learned? At the beginning of this piece I asked the following questions: Can your wheel be better? Can your performance increase if it were to improve? And how much is our opinion of any given simulator formed by this feedback that we have in our hands?
Well, the answers are succinct. If you’re running a mid-range or bottom-end wheel, then, yes, it can be better, and your immersion and enjoyment of the sim-driving experience can be hugely improved by moving to a CSW wheel. As for your performance, it’s a tough one. In the competitive runs I have had, I have not noted any real increase in overall pace, but I have noted a decrease in “offs”. This is simply because, when the car slides, or threatens to get away from me, I can catch it. Not 100% of the time, but a lot of the time, and this adds to one’s confidence to push the car more and more. In theory, this should bring more pace; for me, it brings more consistency.
The final question is one I will answer in fullness over the series of articles on this wheel. From an initial run in all of the sims I have, it was immediately apparent that more information was getting to me via the CSW wheel than any other wheel I have tried. In some cases it immediately made me feel more, or less, of certain simulators with regard to how directly driving them feels like driving a race car.
This wheel can replicate what a racing car’s interaction with the tarmac feels like, but the software has to be in tune with that to achieve the ultimate feel. This is down to the software guys. For now, Fanatec have done their part.