A Beginner's Guide to a Sim Racing Setup in 2022
Your stomach is alight with nerves. An air of excitement exudes from your every pore. "Let's go racing!" you exclaim. One by one, the red lights turn on.
- The first light goes on, you rev the engine. Pedals, Shifters and Handbrakes.
- The second, you grip the wheel. SteeringWheels and Wheelbases.
- The third, you eye your opponent. Monitors and VR.
- The fourth, you dig into your seat. Seats and Rigs.
- The fifth, all systems go! PCs and Ecosystems.
"It's lights out and away we go!" You thrust the throttle to its limit. The adrenaline kicks in; 0-100 in 4 seconds flat. You line up for the first turn… You hit the brakes at just the right time. Your thigh and calf apply pressure to the brake pedal, which transmits that pressure onto a fluid, before being hydraulically boosted to the brake pads.
1. Pedals, Shifters and Handbrakes
Pedals are the one piece of gear that will make the biggest difference to your pace and consistency. However, not all pedals are made equal. There are three types of pedals:
- Potentiometer: Measures the position of the pedal and uses a mechanical sensor. Cheapest.
- Hall Effect: Also measures position but uses magnets as sensors. Cheaper.
- Load Cell: Uses a transducer, a device that converts one form of energy into another, which in this instance converts pressure into an electric signal. Expensive.
Load cells are the most expensive because they will single-footedly improve your pace. That's because pressure is a fundamental sense that communicates rich information. The alternative is the angle of your ankle… Pay attention to its weight limit. If it’s 100kg, any weight applied to it greater than that will have no additional effect.
Load cells are only for brakes, but cheaper brake pedals are either of the other two types. Throttles and clutches use either Hall effect sensors or potentiometers because neither use hydraulics in real life.
As you press further on the brakes, the resistance becomes progressively stronger and your intuition tells you you’ve hit the perfect entry.
With any of these, you can also get stacked springs that create progressive resistance - for brakes and your throttle - or regressive resistance - for your clutch. There are also hydraulic dampeners that add more overall resistance.
Moving on, that's what your pedals will do if you don't attach them properly. Make sure that they are tightly attached to their deck and that their deck is solid with little to no flex. More on that later.
See all of our available pedals, including Thrustmaster, Trak Racer and Innato.
You momentarily wonder, would you be a better driver if this F1 car had a stick shift? And what about a handbrake to drift around this corner? Imagine!
Many cars, like F1 cars, have no clutch and use buttons on the wheel to gear up and down, and also never make use of a handbrake while driving. Other cars, like rally for example, use clutches, handbrakes and stick shifts. So if you're into a style that makes use of those, what do you need to look for?
Shifters come in two main designs:
- H-pattern. Where the shifter moves in the shape of a capital H.
- Sequential. Where the shifter moves linearly, clicking forward for an upshift and backward for a downshift.
For shifters, you’ll want to pay attention build quality and the resistance when shifting. Cheap options do the job, but can feel light and flimsy. The best options have a solid mechanical feel. Note that some shifters have both H-pattern and sequential shifting modes.
Pay attention to the mounting options with shifters. Some come with table clamps, some with rig mounting options and others with neither. In the latter case, you might have to buy an add-on or create your own solution since most have slots of bolts.
If you’re into rally and drift driving you’ll need a handbrake. The same criteria apply as with a shifter: the build quality, the feel of the handbrake and the mounting options. You’ll also want to check whether it has options for linear mode, similar to a real car, and hydraulic, which is how a rally car’s handbrake functions.
You forget about that and focus on finishing the turn. As you reach the apex, you fight the wheel with your forearms. Every ripple, every bump, resonates up your arms. You over-committed and went tight on the curb, so the wheel talks torque.
2. Steering Wheels and Wheelbases
The wheel has the second-highest impact on your driving. The bumps of a curb, a series of ripple strips or a little irregularity on the surface before a turn: that's what the force feedback of a wheel will communicate to you.
In your standard sedan, you'll experience force feedback of around 7-12Nm (Newton-meters) of torque. In Sim Racing, there are three options to choose from:
- Gear-driven. Uses a series of gears to generate around 2-3Nm of torque. Cheapest.
- Belt-driven. Uses gears as well as a toothed belt to generate around 3-8Nm of torque. Cheaper.
- Direct Drive. Motor directly linked to the wheel to generate 5-32Nm of torque. Expensive (mostly).
Gear-driven wheels are cheap, but have a few downsides. They are very noisy. You can feel the space between the teeth of the gears when you turn: it’s a knocking feeling and causes a slight delay in response. You can only turn it so fast. And there is a limit to the degrees of rotation they offer.
Belt-driven wheels are a step up. Less noisy, and the belt smooths out the clunkiness of the gear-driven belt. Because there is a belt, other issues arise. The elasticity of the belt dulls the steering.
Direct drive wheels are the dream. There are no extra steps between the motor and the wheel. That does mean if the motor is not smooth, you'll feel that. There are three main types of direct drive motors:
- Stepper Motor. The motor turns a discrete number of steps in an open loop, with around 50-100 magnets (pole count). Cheapest.
- Hybrid Servo Motor. A stepper motor that operates in a closed-loop, similar pole count to stepper motors. Cheaper.
- Servo Motor. The motor uses a sensor in a closed-loop to continually update position, with a pole count of around 16 or lower. Expensive.
You feel the car wanting to spin out: the wheel jolts to the side! You quickly counter it, keeping your cool and begin to accelerate out of the turn as you smooth out the steering.
The Stepper Motor performs well at low rotational speeds, but at higher speeds can lose almost all its torque. It’s noisy. Since there are discrete steps, it can feel notchy. It creates moderate vibration. It’s inefficient with power and gets hot. It can also lose its position.
A hybrid servo motor adds an encoder to sense position, meaning it is better at tracking position. This also means it performs better at higher rotational speeds, maintaining some of its torque.
The Servo Motor performs much better at high speeds. It’s very quiet and creates little vibration. It’s efficient on energy. It does have some problems: cogging and torque ripples, where the torque can vary creating a notchiness. This is caused by the interaction between the magnetic poles and the teeth of the motor which creates a varying magnetic field.
Almost all sim racing direct drives use inrunner motors, where the inside turns and the casing stays still. In contrast, an outrunner motor has the inside static and the casing turns. The only wheelbases on the market that use outrunner motors are the Fanatec DD1 and DD2.
Most wheels can be released from their wheelbase so that you can interchange wheels. These wheels have what is known as a quick-release hub, or QR hub. That means you can switch wheels when you go from F1 to GT to Rally, to driving an ol’ semi.
Into turn 2 you go. You glance to your side: there is one on the outside for the next turn. You check your mirror: there’s one gunning for the inside. You pull left, cutting him off. You tilt your head to look at your tire as you drive the perfect line across the inside.
3. Monitors and VR
Seeing where you are going is key. You need to see things quickly, as they happen, and the wider you see the better. There are 3 main options:
- Single Monitor. A single screen. Cheapest.
- VR Headset. Goggles that allow you to look around with head movement. Cheaper or Expensive.
- Triple Monitor. Three monitors stacked side by side. Expensive.
Chances are you already have a monitor, but is it good enough? Consider this: the average reaction time is around 200ms. A 60Hz screen has one frame every 17ms, while a 120Hz screen has one frame every 8ms. Make that change and you improve your reaction time by around 5%. That’s an incredible difference.
Response time is also important: it’s how fast a pixel changes colour. However, that’s not the full picture when it comes to input lag. Input lag is the cumulative lag from your input through all the hardware and software before it reaches your monitor.
What about the field of view? That’s the advantage of triple screens. It gives you the option of glancing at your position on the track and at the position of your opponents. Not only can you look directly, but you can also pick it up in your periphery. It improves your pace, it improves your immersion.
Refresh rate is probably more important than field of view and both are more important than resolution. Ideally, you’d have triple screens with high refresh rates and low response times.
Note that you’ll need to buy a stand for your monitors. Some rigs come with stands or have them as optional extras, but most of these solutions are for single screens.
As you take turn after turn, you reinforce the practice you’ve had on this track. Each turn you note where your wheels touch the apex, as you tilt your head side to side. But as the first couple of laps goes by you’re reminded of how hot this desert sun is… this will be a long 58 laps…
You would expect VR to deliver all of that and more. On one hand, it does. You can peer at your wheel, seeing exactly where it touches the tarmac. You can twist your neck to look all around you. The immersion is unparalleled. You even get sweaty and hot! Like a helmet!
On the other hand, it has drawbacks. Almost all headsets have a field of view of around 100 degrees and a refresh rate of around 90Hz. That means your peripheries don’t help - you have to turn your neck to look at things outside the 100 degrees. If you want more than that, prepare to put down some dollars.
It’s low resolution and the very nature of VR causes eye strain: after around 40 minutes you’ll feel you have had enough. It’s not an option for endurance racing. Certainly a lot of fun, but consider VR has an add-on, not an alternative to screens.
As you settle into the car, you feel some balance issues, but you think “I’ll just put my head down.” Lap after lap goes by. The seat molds to your body, and you become one with the car.
4. Seats and Rigs
A Trak Racer TR160 sim rig made from aluminium profiles. (Photo: Trak Racer TR160.)
The rig is what keeps it all together. You’ll have heard the word “flex”. That’s the angle your pedal deck moves when you push on the brake, or it’s the vibration that your wheel deck transmits from your direct drive.
The industry standard material to eliminate flex is extruded aluminium: the rectangular, blocky shapes do wonders for rigidity and sturdiness. An alternative is aluminium tubing, but these designs are susceptible to flex.
The extruded aluminium profile that is the most popular at present is the 8020 system. This describes the size of the T-slots on the aluminium profiles. You could also make your own design if you’re confident since the 8020 system is a general system, not one limited to sim racing.
You can have the entire sim racing setup on one connected rig. Or, you could just have one for your pedals and seat. Or, just for your wheelbase. Or, or, or. There are many configurations available, it’s up to you.
See our available rigs and cockpits, including Sim Lab, ProSimu and Treq Sim.
You fall into a rhythm. You time each turn-in. Then you extend your leg from your glute, pushing against the backrest. The force is transmitted through your thigh and calf, supported by the incline of your bucket seat. Finally, into your heel and toe, to command your brakes, all the while you wrestle the wheel.
You can buy a seat as part of a rig, or just by itself. A proper seat will help put you in a comfortable position to use your whole body to drive. If you are in an office chair, pushing on the brakes will send your chair scraping across the floor backwards. Your back may start hurting sitting upright the whole time.
See our available seats, including Sim Lab, Trak Racer and SimXPro.
The race is coming to an end. It’s lap 53, you’re 16th, and you need to make a move. You push on the outside… your opponent forces you off and you get dirt on the tyres. You don’t let it deter you! You keep pushing, turn 14 comes up… You slide out! Bang! Into the barriers. “You got forced off.”
Motion platforms add hydraulics to your seat to add another dimension of immersion to your racing. although they are certainly not necessary for pace. The g-forces involved in a crash can’t be simulated and spinning around can’t be simulated either, but a motion platform can make you feel the bumps here or the porpoising there.
Nicholas Latifi’s radio for the 2021 Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix.
You’ve just driven Nicholas Latifi’s championship-winning drive at Abu Dhabi. But you’re not Latifi and you’re not in a real car. You didn’t actually crash, there aren’t any consequences and you won’t be receiving any death threats. So you stand up and stretch your arms out… you think, mhmm, what car will I drive next? What circuit? What game?
Your aim with a PC is for it not to be a standout bottleneck. Earlier input lag was mentioned. What’s the point of a direct drive wheel, load cell braking and triple screens if you’re running an old machine? Giving specific advice with regard to PCs is hard, be sure to check the requirements of the games you intend to play and make sure your PC can handle that.
So far we’ve spoken about all the equipment you can buy, but firmware and software are also incredibly important. A firmware update can turn a wheel that feels off into your favourite wheel. Really, it can make a difference that big.
Sticking to the same ecosystem of products, whether that’s Fanatec, Thrustmaster, Logitech or whatever, can make your life a lot easier. It means you can be sure the hardware and software will work together. If you mix and match, you’ll end up paying for additional hardware so that your Logitech wheel works with your Fanatec wheelbase.
It also means that there will be fewer USBs connected to your PC: Some PCs can only process so many USBs, same for some older games. And take note: some equipment is unusable with consoles! There may be third-party adapters that can help you, but once again, the costs start stacking up.
Obviously, at some point, you will end up adding something in from another manufacturer, but if the core of your gear is in one ecosystem, it will pay off. You’ll spend less time setting up your gear before a race and more time on the track. It will also be easier and quicker to update settings.
So what should you buy? I created a poll on Reddit, asking sim racers which piece of gear was most important for pace. These are the results from the 392 respondents:
- 67% say pedals: particularly load cells for your brakes.
- 27% say wheels and wheelbases: about half say the former is more important, half the latter.
- 6% say your display: just slightly more say VR is more important than triple screens.
Survey results from the r/simracing subreddit poll.
In conclusion, spend more on the gear that will bring you the most pace, rather than spreading yourself thin across the board, and keep in mind the ecosystem you want to commit to.
You decide to try a rally next. You plug in your shifter and handbrake. You release the QR Hub of your F1 wheel for a rally wheel. You strap into your comfortable seat and boot up DiRT Rally 2.0.
You’re ready for the race:
- You rev the engine, testing the throttle.
- You grip the wheel, your gloves tight around your fingers.
- You squint your eyes, focused on the perfect start.
- You dig into your seat, comfortably supported.
- All systems are green!
Go, go, go!
(Header Photo: CXC 01 by CXC Simulations.)