Sim racing wheelbases come in all shapes and sizes, find out what tech lies under the surface
Image credit: Moza Racing

Sim Racing Wheelbase Guide: Tech Explained

Gears, belts, direct drive. There are many different designs of sim racing wheelbase tech, but what do they all mean and do? Here is a brief explanation for those looking for advice.

Today, the sim racing wheelbase debate typically comes down to torque output and each brand’s ecosystem. However, many often forget the most fundamental differentiation between the many wheelbases; internal tech.

In fact, though most wheelbases look very similar, what lies within their core may well be totally different. Traditionally, sim racing wheelbase tech focused on gear-driven systems. However, in more recent years, the invention of new systems have taken over the market. Both belt-driven and Direct Drive wheels have emerged since. However, one can still pick up the more classic design in modern packages, or even on the second hand market.

As it is sometimes difficult to navigate the different formats, here is a short guide to help you understand what lies within your wheel.

Gear-driven Wheelbases

As aforementioned, the traditional system was always a system of gears transferring torque from the Force Feedback motor to the wheel. This means that the low-energy motor can see its power increased ten-fold thanks to the system of gears between it and the wheel.

This does allow the wheelbase to put out commendable amounts of Force Feedback allowing the player to feel what is going on. However, it also present some drawbacks, notably when it comes to precision.

In fact, due to a series of gears separating what the motor is doing from the player’s hands, it can lead to vagueness. Furthermore, one will often notice small deadzones in the steering lock. This is due to the slight give between each gear’s teeth. As the teeth engage, it takes time for the motion to reach the motor. This also makes for clunking sounds as the teeth of the gears bite into one another. Those that grew up with such equipment will remember the efforts to avoid waking up the household whilst powering through sharp turns.

Above, we mention that this is somewhat outdated sim racing wheelbase tech. But that does make it relatively affordable. Therefore, most entry-level wheels will feature gear-driven Force Feedback. The likes of the Thrustmaster T128 and no longer marketed Logitech G27 plus its successors G29, G920 and G923 are great examples of gear-driven wheelbases that sit at the entry-level end of the market.

Belt Wheelbase Tech

Whilst gears featured inside sim racing wheelbases for many years, the early 2010s saw plastic and metal replaced by rubber belts. In a bid to eliminate the clunky, deadzone-heavy nature of gear-driven wheels, manufacturers began experimenting with belts.

One again, this design of sim racing wheelbase tech aims to amplify the power of the electric motor in order to provide a good amount of Force Feedback. Whilst no longer on sale, Fanatec’s CSW 2.5 was a great example of this design. On today’s market, Thrustmaster is the most prominent belt-driven wheel manufacturer with its T-GT II.

Example of belt-driven technology
Example of belt-driven technology. Image credit: Fanatec

As one would expect, the removal of several gears locking into one another in favour of a single or pair of belts helps create a smoother rotation of the wheel. Furthermore, with no more teeth clunking, the sound is far less intrusive on belt-driven wheelbases.

However, that does not mean there are no downsides to this technology. The main issue players have with belts is that their rubber design can cause them to stretch under high load. Those with belt-driven wheels will frequently point out a loss of feeling. High frequency detail such as bumps on the road and small corrections often get lost on belt-driven wheels. Push the wheel for too long and the belt can even snap, resulting in a trip to the dump.

Hybrid Systems

In recent years, manufacturers have begun combining the two previous types of sim racing wheelbase tech. Hybrid systems combine the strength of gears with the smoothness of belts to correct each design’s downfalls.

For most of the wheel’s rotation, the motor will send the majority of its force through the belt. However, whenever the Force Feedback attempts to portray bumps or any form of high frequency jolt, the gears play their part to better put across the sensations. Just do not expect this format to solve the gear clunk. The loud rattle is still present on hybrid systems.

The Thrustmaster T248 uses a combination of gears and belts.
The Thrustmaster T248 uses a combination of gears and belts. Image credit: Thrustmaster

With manufacturers mostly dropping the base gear design, hybrid wheels are the new entry-level tech. Thrustmaster’s T248 is also a fantastic hybrid sim racing wheelbase.

Sim Racing Direct Drive

For all previous designs, the aim is to amplify the power of a cheaper motor in order to put out realistic forces. But in the mid-2010s when Direct Drive wheelbases first launched, that was no longer an issue.

In fact, Direct Drive technology allows manufacturers to fit larger motors to their sim racing wheelbases. These more powerful motors send their force directly into the wheel, therefore explaining the name ‘Direct Drive’.

The benefits to this new form of Force Feedback is that detail is far more pronounced. With no gears creating deadzones and noise or belts to stretch, there is no loss of detail, nor is there any additional momentum to cope with inside the wheelbase.

The lack of additional moving parts means that maintenance is non-existent on Direct Drive wheels as they are typically able to run forever. That being said, cooling can be an issue on these larger electric motors, so one might consider giving it a rest every now and then.

As a result of the use of larger motors, this form of tech means products are typically more expensive. When the earliest designs released, many sim racers saw Direct Drive wheels as out of their price range, and an exclusive premium product. That reputation is still around. However, recent releases have shown that Direct Drive is accessible to the masses. MOZA Racing has a plethora of entry-level Direct Drive wheelbases. Meanwhile, Asetek has an ever-growing selection of premium products, and the Fanatec lineup covers everything from low to high end.

Belts, Gears or Direct Drive?

Overall, there is no doubt that Direct Drive sim racing wheelbases are the future. The detail in Force Feedback, modularity and number of products available outweigh most negatives.

However, there is definitely still merit to the lesser products. Belt-driven wheels in particular are still a fantastic means of getting Force Feedback, especially for those unsure of their commitment to the hobby, or for younger children.

Furthermore, very few Direct Drive wheels are compatible with consoles. So for the usability on multiple platforms, one might consider looking around, and checking all possibilities.

What technology does your sim racing wheel use? Let us know on Twitter @OverTake_gg or in the comments below!

A petrol head and motorsports fan since the early days, sim racing has been a passion of mine for a number of years. The perfect way to immerse myself in my true dream job; racing driver. With lots of experience jotting down words about the car industry, I am happy to share my passion for pretend race cars here on Overtake!