Featured image: Fanatec CSL DD
Direct drive wheels intended for sim racing are usually priced upwards of £1000 for a complete kit, so, is that investment worth it?
Today, I’m taking a deep dive into the subject of direct drive sim racing wheels.
What DD wheel is best?
Before I get started, I’d like to tackle the default discussion among sim racers. If you ask for a recommendation in the majority of the forums, you will end up with a bit of a competition amongst owners to declare their wheel the best.
The truth is that with the force feedback properly set up, there is rarely any significant difference between wheels that would fundamentally affect your enjoyment or performance in the simulator. That’s not to say those different manufacturers have their own characteristics, but they’re such subtle differences that few of even the most professional and particular drivers would actually be bothered by them.
If you want to skip straight to the wheels, use the links directly below. Otherwise, read on!
Contents: What are the best rated direct drive wheels for sim racing?
- Fanatec CSL DD
- Fanatec DD2
- Simucube 2: Sport / Pro / Ultimate
- Simagic Alpha Mini
- VRS DirectForce Pro Wheel Base
- Simplicity SW series
- Leo Bodnar SimSteering2 FFB System
- Ricmotech Mini Mite
- Sim Experience Accuforce
- Augury H Kit (OSW)
Much of the development in the wheel technology is actually in the drivers and onboard DSP algorithms – the technology that interprets the output from the simulation package into force feedback, and the inputs coming from the driver’s actions.
This is a fluid thing, software and drivers are updated all the time.
So, there’s no such thing as a “best” DD wheel for sim racing. You could waste a lot of time trying to decide in fact. You could be singularly unimpressed by a wheel because it wasn’t set up by the owner correctly. You could waste more time lusting after a “better” wheel which would be time better spent on your own technique and tuning setup.
I’ve compared (extensively) the Simplicity SW20 vs the Fanatec DD2 vs the Simucube 2 Pro (the DD2 and SC2 I own). I can honestly say that the strengths and weaknesses in each product are more driven by external factors like the hub, wheel compatibility, driver software and tuning menu intuitiveness.
Factors that are important to the typical sim racer
Critically, I want my DD wheel to work! If you’ve spent enough time in the sim, you’ll know that from time to time, things can go wrong.
If you’re quite technically inclined (perhaps you build your own OSW wheels or you’re just interested in the software and technology) then occasional problems aren’t a big deal. But if something stops working just before qualifying, it can be a frustration.
Mainstream equipment providers like Fanatec and Simucube are well developed and ultra-reliable.
That’s because they’re not particularly niche and offer good support. They’ve sold enough volume to iron out the problems. By comparison, we’ve found it difficult in the past getting support for lesser-known / smaller manufacturers, although some smaller manufacturers have better customer service out of the whole lot.
Hub compatibility might be an issue, too. As I own several Fanatec wheels, they’re only compatible with Fanatec wheelbases. My Simucube Formula Sport wheel is wireless, which is only supported by the Simucube 2. In particular, the stiffness of the Fanatec hubs bothers me when I compare them to the Simucube SQR hub. So much so that I found a modification for the Fanatec hub that fixes this problem.
What is a direct drive wheel?
A direct drive wheel is a sim racing wheel where the wheel itself is directly mounted onto the motor via a quick-release hub.
This is unlike belt and gear driven systems where invariably there is a mechanism between you and the motor.
Belt and gear-driven systems generally have lower quality parts and don’t have the ability to deliver the same forces (some up to 30nm) that direct-drive systems do. In fact, the lowest budget systems barely have any force feedback at all.
Direct drive is simpler, mechanically, but the wheels have far more complexity in their electronics. They tend to be heavier, and built from what often feels like industrial-grade metalwork. They’re more expensive but offer advantages over low budget systems.
Why is direct drive better?
Direct Drive wheel motors have no lash…. that momentary if subtle relaxing and tensioning on the belt within most conventional wheel motors. The absence of lash in a DD wheel results in the ability to crank the steering weight up without losing any feedback. The result, with sufficient time we can fine-tune the steering to achieve any level of expected feel.Simon Mason, Sim Dynamics
To understand why direct drive is potentially better, it’s a good idea to look at what makes a sim racing wheelbase, good.
All of the wheel movement is as intended by the simulation software. There’s less lag in the system and no mechanical play. The speed that a direct drive wheel can deliver feedback means you can respond more quickly to slides, so you’ll feel like you can handle slides and sudden events quickly and competently. Once you’re used to the forces involved with a DD sim wheel, you’ll likely feel more confident, make fewer mistakes and eventually find a sweet spot where you’re really enjoying the driving.
All wheels go beyond 900° of rotation which means that your steering input matches the simulated wheel rotation precisely. This has been a feature for a long time now.
Force Feedback strength and Force Feedback effects
Direct drive wheels can deliver higher peak and nominal (holding) torque levels. The Fanatec DD2, for example, has a holding torque of 20 Newton metres (Nm) and a peak torque of 25 Nm. That peak figure is a lot – almost 5 times higher than the belt-driven Fanatec CSL Elite.
The availability of torque does open the opportunity to give more concise force feedback effects (see: what is FFB?) – as a driver, I like to feel when the car is losing its available grip, and I like that sensation to manifest itself through an opposing force, especially in the mid-corner. Direct drive wheels do this exceptionally well, where something like a Logitech G29 would barely let you know you were sliding by comparison.
Detail at high frequencies
I absolutely love feeling the track detail as I’m driving. Kerbs and rumble strips are there to tell you you’re on the track limit with your car. To feel the vibration through the wheel is great. By their nature, the motor and motor control electronics can operate the motor at very high frequencies. High enough, in fact, that the Simucube 2 Pro can beep at you simply by sending a high frequency through the motor.
This availability means saw effects like vibrations and track detail are reproduced in exquisite detail.
Rigidity and build quality
High torque loads and heat mean plastics are more or less out of the question. A proper direct-drive sim wheel will have at least 4 M6 threads for mounting into an aluminium cockpit. Everything has to be strong and tight to deal with 25nm peak torque.
Most DD wheels feel heavy, industrial by design and as a result feel like they’ll stand the rigours of time.
Defining Torque Characteristics
Torque is the most important aspect when it comes to direct drive systems. Manufacturers tend to talk about two types of torque values:
- Peak torque
- Holding or constant torque
“Peak torque” refers to the maximum output of the wheel motor in short bursts. You might experience peak torque when you drive over a high curb, during a high-speed direction change or in a crash.
“Holding torque” refers to the strength of the motor in resisting rotation.
In sim racing the driver is regularly resisting the car’s self-aligning torque through a corner, causing the motor to heat up. High holding torque performance is crucial to a consistent driving experience.
“Torque ripple” is a very subtle vibration you would feel in the steering wheel during constant rotation
What’s inside a Direct Drive Wheelbase?
Most of us would never dream of unscrewing our wheelbase cases to find out what’s inside. Fortunately, YouTubers like Barry Rowlands at Sim Racing garage does on a regular basis! Here he is taking a Fanatec DD2 apart:
Fundamentally, you have a motor, a power supply, a motherboard, a digital motor drive and a USB converter.
Types of motor
You’ll encounter a few different types, arrangements and manufacturers of the motor in a DD wheelbase. Here’s what you’ll commonly come across.
Conventional inrunner motors have the stator coils on the inside of the case and the magnets are attached to a rotor in the center. The shaft rotates with the magnets. This is a typical motor arrangement found in a DD wheel.
Outrunner motors have their magnets attached to an outer casing that rotates around the stator.
The motor shaft when spun would also spin the outer motor case. The permanent magnets on the outrunner are placed on the rotor and the rotor spins on the outside case. On the inside of the motor are the stator windings which do not rotate, they are fixed in position.
Outrunners are able to produce more torque but have a lower RPM per volt. The Fanatec DD1 and DD2s use outrunner motors as their preferred component choice as they feel the outrunner can deliver more torque at low RPMs.
Stepper motors are DC motors that move in discrete steps. They have multiple coils that are organized in groups called “phases”. By energizing each phase in sequence, the motor will rotate, one step at a time. The advantages of step motors are low cost, high reliability, high torque at low speeds and simple, rugged construction that operates in almost any environment. The main disadvantages of using a stepper motor are the resonance effect often exhibited at low speeds and decreasing torque with increasing speed. (source)
A servo motor is not a motor type per se, but a motor that has an encoder built into its casing to measure position, torque and rotation. This is critical for fine control of the output rotation and sensing the driver’s inputs (resisting forces, steering inputs and so on) through the digital motor drive.
MiGE is a popular servo manufacturer in the sim racing community and their products tend to form the basis of most OSW wheel kits. This particular item comes with an optional Fanatec hub adapter meaning that with a USB conversion board like this you could make a start building your own direct-drive sim wheel quite cheaply.
So, if you have the right motor to hand, what would you need to build a direct drive wheel for your sim?
Digital Motor Drives
A digital motor drive is designed for driving servo motors and steppers motors. This product from IONI allows controlling motors with position control, velocity control and force/torque control which makes it an ideal component for a self-build project.
Motherboard with built in Force Feedback controller
Simucube offers a motherboard (to seat the digital motor drive board) with a combined force feedback controller:
The Simucube board provides a slot for the digital motor drive, connectors for motor power, I/O and USB adapter. With this device, you’ve got almost everything you need, except a power supply and a USB converter called a SimpleMotion V2.
What direct drive wheelbases are available today?
Fanatec CSL DD
Fanatec has rocked the sim racing industry with its new CSL DD wheelbase. As a sub $500 / 500EUR device, it plays directly in the usual stomping grounds of Logitech and Thrustmaster. As the CSL DD was launched, so was the Clubsport and CSL Elite range of belt drive wheelbases made obsolete. Fanatec has staked their future on direct drive only equipment:
Fanatec is cleverly making direct drive wheels more affordable, and, by getting to market earlier than its competition, there’s a good chance this little direct drive unit will become the entry-level unit. If I were building a budget sim rig, I’d choose this wheelbase and a SimLab GT1 Evo sim racing rig making a strong starting point for barely more than $1000!
The idea of a $1000 wheelbase and cockpit would have been pure fantasy just a year ago. Yet, here we are. But, is the CSL DD any good? I had my doubts but when I tried it I found it very smooth and surprisingly detailed for an 8Nm peak toque wheelbase. This is a brilliant starter wheelbase – and comes recommended by me.
Fanatec DD1 and DD2
I’m a huge fan of my Fanatec DD2. It’s extremely easy to install and set up making it ideal for the first time DD wheel user. In fact, I upgraded from a CSL Elite to the DD2 and have always felt that this was a good choice.
The DD1 is pretty much exactly the same device but de-tuned to deliver a peak torque of 20nm.
Fanatec’s outrunner style motor is unique in sim racing and allows for a really convincing torque delivery throughout the torque range.
I think their drivers, in particular, are very strong too. There’s a sense of realism I get from my DD2 which I find hard (not impossible!) to replicate in other wheels, especially in the MX5 and Ferrari GT3.
If you’re new to sim racing and want simplicity and a high-quality experience overall, this is a great wheel.
Simucube 2: Sport / Pro / Ultimate
I’m also very happy owner of a Simucube 2 Pro. I like it for different reasons to the DD2, though.
Simucube’s Direct Drive brushless torque motor is super smooth, and you can absolutely tell that the build quality and componentry in this wheel is of an exceptionally high standard.
The SQR hub leaves absolutely no flex on the table and there are just a bunch of amazing features including their latest ARM CPU and motor control electronics that make this thing so fast and responsive, it’s a surprise at first. I use my Simucube much more than the DD2 now. It seems to outperform the DD2 on the details and smoothness of the FFB. Personally, it’s the hub that does it for me. I’ve always found the Fanatec hub lacking in stiffness – there’s always a tiny bit of play between the wheel and the hub. The SQR system is literally rock solid and I love it for that.
For more information on the Simucube 2 family, I’ve written a guide to this favourite direct drive unit including installation and setup tips.
Simagic Alpha Mini
Hot on the heels of the CSL DD release is another sub $500 direct drive wheelbase: the Simagic Alpha Mini. The Simagic Alpha isn’t available just yet, in fact, it’s pre-order only. I’ll update this article when that changes.
For now, here’s what we know:
The Alpha Mini offers a CSL DD beating peak torque of 10Nm and offers wireless functionality through a 2.4 GHz WLAN connection. As with most direct drive wheelbases, there’s the usual servo motor. The case dimensions are pretty tiny at 110mm x 167mm!
Simagic claim to have developed their already excellent physics models to improve the authenticity of their Force Feedback including an AI (artificial intelligence) feature for force feedback optimisation! This might be the go-to choice for those interested in drift racing too as Simagic provide “Exclusive settings for drift and rally mode”. Interesting!
VRS DirectForce Pro Wheel Base
Retailing at around €899.00 the new VRS DirectForce Pro Wheel Base consists of the VRS controller, a 20Nm Small MiGE motor, 3m motor cables, high-quality USB cable and AC power cord.
The VRS DirectForce Pro is a high-end, competitively-priced 20Nm sim racing DD wheelbase and has so far received strong reviews.
The unit is now available to order and, I suspect this will be one of the most popular direct drive MiGE based wheels on the market.
Simplicity SW series
For the money, I think the oft-overlooked SW series from Simplicity is a very compelling OSW based concept. It has a loyal following, and is some of the most intuitive tuning software I’ve come across.
I recently tested an SW20 V3 DD wheelbase and found it to be absolutely on par with the DD2, for about half the money (Read my review here) – I would urge caution, however, as this wheelbase isn’t always easy to get working properly and customer support can be at times unavailable. There is good support in the various groups on Facebook, though.
Leo Bodnar SimSteering2 FFB System
Typical applications of the SimSteering V2 force feedback system include Racecar training simulators, Road car training, Public display simulators (such as static F1 show cars etc), Off-road and military vehicle training. The system is used by many teams participating in race series including F1, GP2, F3, LMP1, LMP2, GT and WTCC.
The wheel features a brushless servo motor that offers ultra-smooth and precise force feedback up to 20.5Nm of torque. With the iRacing mode, little setup work is actually required (unless you’re an F1 team!) so if you can stomach the price at around £3,000, this is probably the best DD wheel money can buy.
Sim Experience Accuforce
The SimXperience AccuForce is a professional racing simulation steering system with extremely low latency and high-frequency digital signal processing. We’ve never tested one at SRC HQ but Accuforce has been around since the very early days of sim racing, so the likelihood is that this is a great wheel.
The price is a highly reasonable $699 – a lot of wheelbase for your money. Check out the extensive specs and detail here.
Ricmotech Mini Mite
Ricmotech is a company with a long history in the sim racing industry and that has always had very good ties with SimXperience, so no one should be surprised by one of the most popular products available on their retail site, the Ricmotech Mini-Mite with electronics designed by Accuforce.
The Mini-Mite is capable of 16 Nm peak load and a sustained 13Nm, which puts it quite far ahead of the Simucube Sport and somewhere close to Fanatec DD2 country.
The Accuforce electronics are running at a refresh of 2khz, with low latency (as you would expect at just over $1200 for the basic package). The Mini-Mite offers 6000 degrees of rotation but as you’d hope it’s set to 900 by default!
Build your own OSW direct drive sim racing wheel
During my research, I came across this video of a self-build OSW DD wheel project using Simucube components. It’s really astonishing that you can build your own wheel with very little electronics engineering experience. Thanks to Granite devices, the boards, motor and power supplies are available and completely modular:
Here’s the kit list:
|Servo Motor||MiGE 130ST-AM10010|
|Controller Board||Simucube Order Together With Ioni Pro|
|Servo Drive||Ioni Pro (Or HC if you wanna use Large MiGE)|
|Power Supply||MeanWell NDR-480-48 or choose from this list|
|Shaft Wheel Adapter||Ascher Racing 70mm adapter|
Augury H Kit (OSW)
Based on OSW principles, Augury Simulations have their own DD wheelbase:
The H Kit is the SimuCUBE force feedback controller, coupled with the IONI PROHC digital motor driver. This manages a maximum current load intensity of up to 25A. The power supply unit (PSU) is a Mean Well PSU, much like the one in the video above.
Everything is encased in thick aluminium which really makes it look like a professional piece of kit.