Force feedback sim racing wheelbases come in a couple of different configurations. Gear or belt-driven, and direct drive. But what exactly is the difference between these, and what advantages does direct drive bring?
Every force feedback wheelbase has a small electric motor in it that translates what the car is doing in our sims, to movements in the wheel. The issue though is that these motors in gear/belt-driven wheels are not big so they need some assistance in order to boost the amount of strength that the driver can feel.
For this, companies will use belts and gears to amplify what the motor is doing. The downside of this though (as you may have noticed in your own wheel) is that there is some play in the wheel and slopiness in the detail of the force feedback.
This obviously isn’t an ideal situation for sim racers as all the detail of what the car is doing is coming through the wheel, therefore any loss of this detail isn’t great. What’s the solution to this though? Direct drive!
How Does Direct Drive Work
The wheels that we mentioned earlier invoke a ‘middle-man’ in the form of gears or belts that introduces some play and sloppiness into the wheel and force feedback that we experience. Direct drive wheels, however, do not have anything between the motor shaft and the wheel, hence the name direct drive. There is nothing else between you and the motor. It is directly ‘driving’ whatever it is attached to (in our case, the wheel rim itself).
Direct drive isn’t a term that is exclusive to sim racing either, you can read up on the specifics of it here.
The motors in direct drives wheels are also a lot bigger than the motors in the belt-driven wheels, which we will talk about in a minute.
What this means for sim racers is that they are now directly connected to the motor of the wheelbase, meaning that everything that is being translated into force feedback from our sim, gets translated 1:1 to us as a driver.
There is no sloppiness in the wheelbase and the steering inputs also have no delay or play, meaning that you’ll be able to control the car a lot easier and more precisely than before. There is no loss of detail in the force feedback either, so you’ll be able to feel the car start to slide, or hit the grass or curb with a lot more detail and precision.
Simply put, direct drive gives us, as drivers, much more information about what the car is doing compared to non-direct drive wheels that are available. This is because the wheel is now connected directly the motor shaft of a much bigger motor, and does not have anything in-between that interferes with the true detail of the force feedback.
Many sim racers compare going from a belt-driven wheelbase to a direct drive wheelbase as the same feeling as going from a 60Hz monitor to a 144Hz monitor. The reaction time and additional speed and detail of information that they’re receiving is a night and day difference.
What Are The Benefits
Torque, Detail, and Fidelity
These are the building block as to why everyone loves direct drive wheels and why they are so much more effective than their gear or belt-driven counterparts.
The increased torque allows as to feel the details of the car much faster than we would normally which means we can correct mistakes or correct car behaviour faster, and more reliably.
Let’s look at an example. You hit a bump in the track causing your wheels to jolt to the left or the right. According to this post on Reddit, you will get over 2x more detail about what is happening, 2x faster. The OSW direct drive wheel was able to move 120° in 100ms, whereas the T500 (which is a belt-driven wheelbase) was only able to move around 55°.
This means is that you’re able to correct the car more precisely and faster than you would normally, and you will theoretically be able to obtain faster acceleration.
Because all the detail of what the car is doing is coming through the wheel, you’re even able to control things like wheelspin from standing starts and drifts a lot easier as well.
Does this make you a faster driver? Debatable. If you’re not a great sim racer now on your current setup, you’re not suddenly going to become Max Verstappen overnight, but what it will make you are more consistent. You’ll be crashing a lot less as you’ll be able to feel the limits of the car more precisely, and feel when it is pushing those limits much faster.
A word of caution with the amount of torque that direct drive wheels can put out though. Whilst it is useful in getting a lot of detail through to you when you are racing, it can also be very fatiguing and even dangerous.
There have been situations where drivers have broken wrists/hands/fingers because of the wheel moving so fast.
There is a reason why real-life drivers let go of the wheel before they hit a wall. You will need to start doing the same thing in sim racing if you’re taking advantage of the higher torque options of a direct drive wheel in order to avoid the potential of serious injury.
Are There Any Downsides
Unfortunately at this stage, there aren’t any direct drive wheels that are in the same price range as introductory wheels, which means that if you’re going to be purchasing a direct drive wheel, you’re going to be spending a lot of money.
Direct drive wheels are still relatively new to the consumer market though so I expect that prices will go down as more options become available. For now, though, you’re stuck paying a hefty chunk of change for them.
With the amount of force feedback that direct drive wheels can push out, you’re going to need something sturdy to mount them on.
Unfortunately, your cheap DIY PVC pipe rig won’t hold up and in many cases, even a desk mount will probably be cutting it fine.
In order to get the most of a direct drive wheel, you’ll really need a strong, sturdy dedicated rig. Something like a Sim Plab P1-X or similar 80/20 rig, or a Next Level Racing GTtrack which is what I use. Whatever you get though, just make sure that is compatible with direct drive bases.
Setting It Up
The set up for a lot of the current direct drive wheelbases is a rather difficult process. Between the software that you’ll need to download and the settings that you’ll need to get right, it can quickly make a lot of people run the other direction that simply want plug-and-play functionality.
You may also have to deal with EMI depending on what wheelbase you go with. You’ll have to make sure that the wheel is correctly grounded so that it doesn’t interfere with your other sim gear. This is a very common issue that a lot of first-time direct drive users don’t know about.
Long story short, direct drive wheels will give you more torque which means you’ll get more information more quickly as to what the car is doing. This is because the wheel is attached straight to the motor shaft, and does not have any gears or belts between the two for power and detail to get lost in.
The increased motor size of a direct drive means that you’ll be paying a lot more for a direct drive wheelbase and you’ll also need a very stable and strong rig in order to handle the extra torque that they’ll put down.
If you’re tossing up between direct drive and a belt-driven wheelbase, seriously consider a direct drive as they are definitely the future of sim racing.