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We often get asked the question, which is better, direct drive, belt or gear driven wheels. The answer is often longer than expected, as we can’t always say that direct drive wheels are better for your circumstance than their much cheaper, belt driven counterpart.
Below we will break down the key differences between direct drive wheels, belt driven wheels and gear driven racing wheels. We have included price comparisons as well as performance comparisons, in the hope to give you a better idea when choosing which option is best for you.
Before we recommend any products within each category, I’ll start with a brief overview of the technology in each wheel.
The majority of sim racing wheels on the market today are belt driven, and there is good reason for this. Belt driven technology provides a much cheaper option when implementing force feedback through the wheel rim due to utilising a small motor.
The price reduction in the small motor used to power belt driven sim wheels allow these products to be targeted at gamers who are looking to buy their first wheel. And these types of products are often a first step in to the world of sim racing for many.
Belt driven wheels work by utilising a belt and pulley system and a small motor. The small motor generates the force feedback, which is then passed through the belt to the wheel rim. By utilising a belt and pulley the effects that the small motor generates can be amplified to produce much more torque, and stronger force feedback. It isn’t unusual for the belt to boost the motor’s torque by up to 20 times.
The main downside to boosting the motors actual force feedback by this much, is that the force feedback becomes less accurate. A belt driven wheel base will almost always produce smoother force feedback than a gear drive wheel base.
However, the downside of this smoothness, is that in fact the smoothness is a result in the belt absorbing some of the force feedback. The high frequency force feedback is actually lost in this absorption, meaning you aren’t getting the full force feedback intended.
Gear driven wheels work in a very similar way to their belt driven counterparts. The small motor is attached to a series of gears which translate and amplify the force feedback effect. This, once again produces much more torque than the motor could on its own and in turn, stronger force feedback.
The main disadvantage of gear driven wheels lay in the gears themselves. Geared systems can be inherently clunky due to the metal on metal contact of two spinning gears. Depending on the sim racing wheel you buy, you will occasionally feel the gears grinding and jumping through heavy force feedback.
Belt driven and gear driven wheels both work on a similar principle. They implement a small motor, which is connected to either a series of gears, or a belt. The gears and / or belt are then connected to the wheel rim. The small motor is the element of the wheel base which is generating the force feedback, and then that is amplified by the belt / gear system.
Most sim racing wheels will opt to use on or the other of these technologies, however you will find a select few which opt for utilising both in the same wheel base.
As a general rule of thumb, gear driven wheels are the clunkiest on the market, and therefor the most accessible. Belt driven wheels will produce a much smoother force feedback than gear driven, and command a slightly higher price tag. This isn’t always the case.
Direct drive wheels connect the wheel rim directly to the motor shaft. The motor itself is much larger than those found in belt or gear driven racing wheels. This has to be the case as there are no belt or gear systems to amplify the power which the motor outputs.
The size and power of these motors are what cause direct drive wheels to be able to create such high levels of torque. I mean, we’ve all probably seen top sim racing youtubers battle 100% force feedback challenges with direct drive wheels. These alone show how powerful direct drive wheel motors can be.
As mentioned above, the large motor is connected directly to the wheel rim sending all of the force feedback directly in to your hands. This not only gives much superior levels of torque and strength to the wheel. It also means that none of the force feedback effects which are generated are lost in the gear / belt connections.
Typically this setup will give you a much higher fidelity and detail of force feedback, allowing you to feel the car to a much higher degree.
Using a smaller motor connected to gears or a belt will always result in loss of force feedback detail. There is no escaping this.
Direct drive wheel bases are the only types of wheel base which produce a true 1:1 force feedback. In comparison gear driven and belt driven wheel bases can have a ratio of 20:1. Therefor a direct drive racing wheel will always produce more detail in the level of force feedback.
However there are some very good belt driven and even gear driven wheels on the market today. And which one is best suited for you is down to a number of factors. Below we run through the best racing wheels of each type.
The Logitech G29 is the successor to the ever popular G27. This series of racing wheel has become a staple in the first time sim racers arsenal, and is often the go to frist sim racing product.
The product itself is relatively cheap when compared to its much more expensive belt and direct drive rivals. However it offers a good level of force feedback for a very small budget.
You will often find the Logitech G29 on sale for under £200, and often with a shifter as part of the bundle. This positions the G29 / G920 as the perfect intro wheel setup for someone looking to start sim racing.
You will still find the usual drawbacks associated with gear driven wheels, such as gnawing rumble as you turn the wheel. This is simply due to the gearing inside and is almost unavoidable in this level of wheel.
Fanatec are one of the big players in the world of sim racing, and produce some of the best wheels around. They do normally come with a slightly hefty price tag when compared to Logitech and Thrustmaster equivalents, however they generally boast better force feedback.
The Fanatec CSL Elite is one of the cheaper wheel bundles you can buy and is targeted more towards the casual sim racer.
Due to the belt drive inside the wheel base the force feedback is much smoother than wheels such as the Thrustmaster T300 RS. And even with a slight element of belt dampening, it delivers more detailed force feedback. The wheel base itself also includes a few great features such as rev counter lights, a power switch and is covered in a premium feeling brushed metal.
The Fanatec CSL Elite really ticks the boxes for sim racers looking for a slightly higher quality wheel. The force feedback is sharper. The pedals themselves are excellent with a progressive braking system and adjustable brake stiffness. And the build quality of the whole bundle is extremely good.
The wheel rim itself is large, and does the job. It feels premium. However as with most Fanatec products, is designed to be changed to suit the players needs. You can combine plenty of different wheels with the CSL Elite wheel base for true immersion in your chosen motorsport discipline.
This is slightly trickier category to judge. Direct drive wheels come in so many shapes and sizes, and there is a huge trend to DIY your own setup.
Brands such as Open Sim Wheel and SimXperience offer various components to lead you on a path to direct drive DIY. SimXperience offer multiple packages depending how much of a comfident DIYer you are. They include options from wheel base only through to complete packages including wheel rims.
What stays the same is the direct drive wheel base. And the SimXperience wheel base is one of the best around for entry level direct drive setups.
If you are looking for a more “all-together” package, you have options from some of the big players such as Fanatec. Fanatec have a great direct drive base called the Podium. This comes as it’s own separate base, ready for you to add your own custom touches, or as part of a bundle, with wheel rim included.
We have a full review for the Fanatec Podium Racing Wheel here for you to read. However, if you don’t fancy reading that. It is simply one of the best direct drive offerings around.
A direct drive wheel will give you much more detailed force feedback, giving you more detail in how the car is behaving.
A direct drive wheel is as close to a real steering setup as you can get when sim racing. The steering wheel is directly connected to the steering mechanism just like most real cars.
Using a direct drive wheel wont make you instantly quicker. You will be able to feel more detailed force feedback so you will have a better understanding of how the car behaves. However the increased torque that the wheels produces may make driving fast tougher than with a belt or gear driven wheel initially.