How to build a racing simulation setup

It’s the middle of an outbreak. Everything is shut down. Professional motorsports have been canceled all over the world. And none of us can go outside. If you have a need for speed, that need has never been greater. So, what’s a race fan to do? Sim racing, that’s what.

You can see this reflected in the impressive Twitch numbers around iRacing. Over the course of 30 days from the time of writing, it’s had a 167% increase in average viewers, 101.7% increase in hours watched, and a peak viewer jump of 93.3%.

Professional folks like Formula One driver Lando Norris are racing against YouTubers like Jimmy Broadbent in widely viewed sim races. Unlike other sports video games, Broadbent can actually battle it out with a guy like Norris. The best NBA 2K player in the world cannot hope to go one on one against LeBron James. But Broadbent and Norris can! This is a thrill that only sim racing can provide.

If you’re just starting off as a sim racer, check out how to get started here!  But if you’re getting serious about sim racing, this is a list of gear for various budgets. Plus we’ll go over a few of our favorite racing sims, in case you’re wondering what to buy!

Choose PC

PC is the superior platform for sim racing for a few important reasons. The first and most important reason is power. A good PC is the most powerful gaming machine you can buy. While a high-end gaming PC will cost much more than a PS4 or XBOX One, the graphical grunt available can provide a truly stunning visual experience, especially in 4K.

A PC also allows you to use a triple screen setup for sim racing. This gives you an extremely wide field of view, providing more immersion than a single screen. It allows you to see more of the action and use rearview and sideview mirrors as if you were actually sitting in the cockpit of the car. Needless to say, this is awesome.

PC sim racing also gives you access to high end VR headsets. There’s an ongoing debate inside the sim racing community about whether VR or triple screen setups provide more immersion. Triple screen advocates point to the lack of motion sickness and the ability to use sim racing dashboards and displays. VR advocates enjoy the lack of bezels breaking up their view, 3D audio, and the fact that it’s easier to judge distance to corners. A single VR headset is also much smaller than a triple monitor setup. Oculus Rift S users argue that their single headset is far cheaper than three high end gaming monitors. This is a very personal debate, and one that won’t be settled any time soon.

If you’re racing on PC, you can mix and match your rig in a way that you can’t on console. Console games only accept input from a single control device. Your pedals need to be plugged into your wheelbase to function. On console, you can’t mix and match a Thrustmaster wheelbase and Fanatec pedals.

However, if your pedals / wheelbase / shifter / etc. have individual USB outputs, you can connect them all to your PC. In fact, some devices have higher resolution when directly connected to your PC. This allows you to do piecemeal upgrades as you build up your rig into a full-fledged cockpit simulator.

Finally, iRacing is only on PC. iRacing is where all the motorsport pros are playing at the moment, and it’s where the most serious online competition is happening. If you want to race with the best of the best, you have to be on PC.

If you’re convinced to get a PC, here’s a sim racing build that comes in right under the $1500 price point at the time of this writing. It uses the Ryzen 7 3700X, which is the best bang-for-buck high-end CPU on the market right now, along with an RTX 2080 Super GPU, which utilizes NVIDIA’s ray tracing and DLSS features. It packs in 16GB of fast RAM and a 500GB M.2 drive for your OS and games. It doesn’t have a ton of storage space, but compared to other AAA games, racing sims are small – they’re probably cutting weight to go faster!

The Hardware

You can sim race on any kind of controller. There’s a YouTuber out there who crushes my best Dirt Rally 2.0 times playing on a keyboard. That being said, I haven’t found anything more fun than playing on a force feedback enabled racing wheel with a pedal set.

If you want to play the way pro racers do, you need a force feedback wheel and pedals. It’s also the most immersive, exciting, and nuanced way to play a good racing sim. I strongly recommend this for anyone thinking about getting serious about the hobby.

Force feedback is why you show up to this party. I’m not talking about the simple buzzy rumble of a gamepad. Force feedback equipped wheels use serious internal motors to communicate information to you about what your tires are doing, how good their grip is, and how close they are to losing traction. This information is critical to driving well, and without it, a racing wheel is just a silly novelty.

Big ups to the sim racing reddit, which has an excellent buyers guide from which I pulled information for wheels I haven’t used personally.

Entry level wheels

I don’t suggest purchasing a wheel that’s less than $100. There aren’t really any wheels available that are worth the price. The reasons for this are twofold:

  • Rotation angle. Cheaper wheels don’t have a wide rotation angle, which makes cars harder to control. You want at least 900 degrees of rotation.
  • Lack of force feedback. As I mentioned earlier, this is critical.

I recommend that you save up for at least a Thrustmaster T150 (for PS4) or the Thrustmaster TMX (for XBOX One), which has a 1080 (or 900, for the TMX) degree rotation angle and force feedback and a very basic two pedal set. It comes in at $200.

If you want a clutch pedal, you can spring for the Thrustmaster T150 Pro or Thrustmaster TMX Pro for about $250, which comes with the T3PA pedal set. If you want something a little heavier duty, there’s also the T3PA Pro.

Mid-Tier Wheels

Once you add to your budget a bit, you start to see some serious improvement over these basics. The Thrustmaster T300RS (PC and PS3/4) and Thrustmaster TX (for PC and XBOX One) and the Logitech G29 (for PC and PS4) and G920 (for PC and XBOX One) are mid-level all-in-one packages for people who are getting a little more serious about their racing. Compared to lower tier wheels, you can expect better, faster, stronger force feedback.

One of the main benefits of the Logitech wheels is their pedal sets have three pedals. If a clutch pedal is a priority for you, you may want to strongly consider those. Also, their optional Logitech G driving force shifter accessory is a lot cheaper than the comparable Thrustmaster TH8A shifter.

If you can find them, Thrustmaster just released a set of load cell pedals dubbed T-LCM. These are a significant improvement over their base pedal sets and the T3PA pedals. Load cells are terrific because instead of measuring the distance that you push the brake pedal, it measures the amount of force that you used to press it down. It’s easier to be consistent with your lap performance when using load cell brakes.

Unfortunately, they were set to release at the end of March, in the heart of the coronavirus outbreak, at a time when sim racing is at an all-time high. If you get your hands on a set, consider yourself lucky!

If you want to build your own custom set up from an array of excellent parts, Fanatec makes the CSL Elite wheel base, which is known for its excellent force feedback and high build quality. It’s also the only wheel base that I know of that is natively compatible with XBOX One, PS4, and PC (folks who are looking for cross console compatibility with other wheels should check out the DriveHub).

The price escalates here, at $400 for the wheel base alone (the actual steering wheel is extra – but the selection of available wheels is awesome, including F1, Porsche, and BMW replicas), but there’s a commensurate uptick in quality.

For pedals, you can get the CSL Elite pedals for $100. If you want a clutch and a load cell pedal for your brake, you can get the CSL Elite Pedals LC for $229.95.

High tier wheels

If you’re looking for a more advanced wheels, you should take a look at the Fanatec Clubsport V2.5 (PC-compatible, with upgrade options for XBOX One). You’re looking at more than 8Nm (newton-meters) of torque – almost 4x what you would get out of the Logitech G29/920 wheels. Before Fanatec released its direct drive podium wheels, the Clubsport V2.5 was their flagship model.

You can also pick up the Fanatec ClubSport Pedals V3, which include a 90kg load cell, contactless hall sensors for greater reliability, and adjustable brake stiffness. There’s also an inverted version of the pedals, which are a bit pricier but some folks prefer.

If you are in the Thrustmaster ecosystem, you might want to consider the Thrustmaster TS-PC, which includes more powerful torque and a more realistic wheel rim.

Rigs

While most of the above wheels can be clamped to a desk, you can get a much more enjoyable experience by mounting it to a wheelstand like the sort offered by Next Level Racing. These kinds of stands offer a great deal more stability than a desk, while costing significantly less than a full cockpit.

If you’re a little strapped for cash, you can use the Wheel Stand Lite. This cheaper unit places a single vertical spar between the driver’s legs, which some folks find awkward if they’re heel-toeing.

In terms of rigging, the sky can really be the limit, with cockpits, 80/20 extrusion, and homemade, DIY wooden frames. Google around – there’s tons of plans online.

Direct drive wheels

This is where things start getting truly serious, both in terms of performance and cost. Rather than using a gearing system or a belt-drive system, direct drive wheels couple the wheel directly to the motor shaft. You can expect more power, fidelity, and speed in your force feedback. You can also expect an investment over $1000.

Direct drive wheels are serious business, in terms of rotational torque. Unlike other wheels I mentioned earlier, you can’t just clamp a direct drive wheel to a desk. The rotational torque is simply too powerful. Cheap, lower end wheel stands won’t be enough either. You’re going to need a serious rig to mount a direct drive wheel. Sim racing enthusiasts have built stunningly awesome rigs with monitor stands out of 80/20 extruded aluminum.

Also, most racing sims are developed with consumer-level wheels in mind. Direct drive wheels require a bit more setup and tweaking to get the best performance, but there is a lot of information around Reddit, the web, and in the specific games’ communities to help you get things working well.

In general, direct drive wheel bases are not a plug and play experience. Initial setup can be a bit intimidating. The actual steering wheel may not be included. Be ready to do some reading and building. I’ve included a short list of direct drive wheels below. Full explanation of the entire direct drive universe is a bit beyond the scope here – you’ll want to do some independent research if you go this way.

Fanatec offers both the DD1 and DD2 direct drive wheels. The DD1 is their base model with 15Nm of toque, while the DD2 delivers a whopping 25Nm. These wheels are also completely compatible with the pedals, shifter, and handbrakes in the Fanatec ecosystem, which can all be attached directly to the wheel base itself, saving you USB ports. This is the simplest way to get started with direct drive wheels, and requires the least amount of DIY building.

Folks who are serious about PS4 racing can check out Fanatec’s Podium Racing Wheel F1. It’s more expensive than the DD1 or DD2, but it also includes a very snazzy F1 style rim with a magnetic paddle system for shifting and DRS. It’s also compatible with PC.

Leo Bodnar also offers three different direct drive wheels (designated 52, 53, and 54). As the model number steps up, so does the price, torque, and features. These wheels also offer an impressive 1500 degrees of rotation.

Like Leo Bodnar, Simucube comes in three flavors: Sport, Pro, and Ultimate, with 17, 25, and 32Nm of torque respectively. It also includes a nifty steering wheel quick release system.

The Ricmotech MiniMite’s claim to fame is its tiny size. Ricmotech claims that its small shaft length and small diameter rotor are extremely lightweight, making force feedback more responsive and detailed. It provides 16Nm of torque.

The Accuforce V2 is another direct drive wheel worth considering. Even though it only provides 13Nm of torque, it comes with a direct drive base and button-laden wheel for around $1100. This is a good deal when you consider that most direct drive bases alone cost $1000 or more.

Note: Feel VR direct drive wheels look like a great deal, but many people were burned on their Kickstarter and the company failed to deliver any wheels.

The Games

You can’t race without a good sim! If you want to race with the best of the best, you need to be playing iRacing. When the coronavirus canceled every professional motorsport this year, iRacing became the preferred platform because many professional drivers already had an iRacing membership. It has a great physics engine, well-modeled cars and tracks, and dammit, if it’s good enough for Lando Norris and Max Verstappen, it’s good enough for you. It’s not the prettiest sim out there, but you bring this date to the dance for how they move, not how they look.

However, it’s a big investment. There’s an ongoing membership fee (think World of Warcraft), but luckily, it’s 50 percent off right now. While a basic membership comes with 26 cars and 21 tracks, more content will cost you. Additional cars are $11.95 each and tracks are either $11.95 or $14.95. You can buy bundles or cars / tracks that can cut your costs, but this is by far the most expensive option. Like most things, if you want the best, you’ll have to pay for it.

I eventually want to do an IMSA race, which will require that I buy ten new tracks, which means it’ll cost me at least $150, plus my membership, plus a GT3 car. Luckily, I don’t have many things to spend money on in quarantine.

If the idea of a monthly fee turns you off, try Assetto Corsa Competizione. It’s the officially licensed simulator for the Blancpain GT championship, which means that it has a somewhat limited number of tracks and cars, but what it’s got is modeled well.

The audio and visuals are sumptuous, from the howl of the engines to the sound of gravel bouncing up into your undercarriage. Wheel performance is fantastic and while the force feedback feels a bit light, it’s informative enough. If you like GT3 cars like the Nissan GT-R Nismo, the Aston Martin AMR V8 Vantage, and the BMW M6, you’ll be in heaven. There’s a console version of ACC coming in late June as well.

I gleefully burned over 100 hours on Dirt Rally 2.0, which looks, feels, and plays great. If you like rally and rallycross racing, this one is terrific. The DLC really fills out the game, but can be a bit expensive. If you can’t get enough rally racing, you can check out WRC 8, the officially licensed World Rally Championship game. The latest version is a ground up rebuild of a previously mediocre franchise, with an excellent single player mode that includes interesting management aspects.

While I gave Project Cars 2 a glowing review when I first experienced it years ago, I can’t really recommend it now. Its physics engine feels very off compared to other sims, its force feedback isn’t great, and some of its DLC cars feel half-baked. The Honda Civic, for some reason, has no FFB at all. This DLC is old and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t have been patched years ago. Early access Automobilista 2 runs on Project Cars’ Madness Engine, and I’ve avoided it for that reason. There’s a debate over whether it feels just like PC or not, but I haven’t taken the plunge yet, especially with iRacing calling my name.

PlayStation owners should give Gran Turismo Sport a look. While its single player mode is a bit barebones compared to earlier entries in the series, it has grown in leaps and bounds over the years since its release, with new tracks and cars, all free. While its physics engine is perhaps a bit more forgiving than it should be, it has great tutorials and a nice selection of cars. Wheel compatibility is nice as well.

I’m going to steer Xbox One owners away from the Forza series. While both Forza Motorsport 7 and Forza Horizon 4 are great games, their racing wheel performance is subpar. Their controls are oriented toward pad play first; racing wheels are an afterthought. I find FH4 a fun and relaxing experience, but it’s not a serious platform for sim racing.

I hope that this guide has helped you get started! Tell us about your sim racing journey in the comments below!