Beginners Guide To Sim Racing: Controller vs Racing Wheel

In this sim racing beginner's guide, we look at whether it is better to race with a controller or racing wheel. Which is better for sim racers and racing games, and does a wheel make you faster?

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This beginner’s guide to sim racing looks at the debate of using a controller vs a racing wheel for sim racing games. This article is part of our larger “beginner’s guide to sim racing” series.

Below are quick links to all articles in this series. Each guide runs through a specific part of sim racing to help newcomers on their journey into the world of sim racing. We have designed this series of guides to be followed in a certain order, however, you can read through them in whichever order you like.

There has long been a debate over whether racing with a controller or a racing wheel is a better option, with sim racers backing both input methods. Some of the fastest lap times can be achieved using a controller, however, a racing wheel can be more immersive and offer greater levels of control in the right hands.

In this guide, I’ll run through all of the benefits of using both a controller and a racing wheel for sim racing. The goal is to help you decide on which input method you prefer, and get you out on track putting in some fast lap times.

Should I start sim racing with a controller or a racing wheel?

Many people’s first experience with a racing game will be with a controller, be it an Xbox controller or PlayStation DualSense. Anyone who has a console has a controller, making it incredibly accessible to pick up a racing game and hit the track with your controller.

Racing games such as Forza Horizon and Need For Speed are perfectly set up for a controller, and in many cases handle better using a controller than a racing wheel. Read our guide on the best racing games to start your sim racing journey with.

This was the case when I started playing racing games, with my first experience being the original Gran Turismo games on PlayStation. And in some ways, this was the game which ignited my passion for motorsport.

For years after playing the first Gran Turismo, I played and enjoyed racing games with a controller. It wasn’t until I raced on a simulator at a motorsport show that I truly discovered the enjoyment and immersion that introducing a racing wheel to the mix could bring.

And it is true. Sim racing with a racing wheel is a much more immersive experience. You can start to feel how your car interacts with the track, and this lets you start to push harder towards the edge of your car’s grip. This is all because of the force feedback from the racing wheel itself and the realism that a racing wheel offers

When playing a racing game using a controller, you can still feel feedback from in-game, which the controller gives you via haptics and vibrations. However, a controller is incredibly limited in how it portrays in-game force feedback, and even with the advancements in controllers with the PS5 DualSense controller, the feedback is never at the same level as it can be with a racing wheel.

So with all of that in mind, let’s look at some of the benefits of starting sim racing with a controller vs a wheel.


Racing with a controller – A more relaxing way to race

As mentioned, most sim racers and casual racing fans will start racing with a controller, and that comes down to their accessibility. Everyone who owns a games console will also have a controller and every single racing game will support controllers.

Pros of racing with a controller

The true beauty of racing with a controller is that it’s incredibly easy to pick up and start playing. This is especially true with the fast loading times of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Within a matter of seconds, you can be in your favourite car racing around the Nordschleife in Assetto Corsa Competizione or Forza with a controller.

And you can do all this while relaxing comfortably on your couch or bed. This certainly isn’t the case when it comes to racing with a sim racing setup.

Cons of using a racing wheel and pedals

Opting to sim race with a racing wheel brings a few challenges to overcome that a controller doesn’t need to worry about. First up, the price of sim racing hardware can be expensive. Read our guide on the best budget racing wheels to get you started.

Once you have overcome the hurdle of price, you then need somewhere to mount your racing wheel and pedals. This could be a desk or table which works if your racing wheel isn’t too powerful. If you opt for a more premium direct drive racing wheel, you will almost certainly require a sim rig or racing cockpit to mount it to.

However, if you opt to mount your hardware to a sim racing cockpit, this takes up space, and in some cases can be hard to move or store away in between race sessions. Wheel stands are a great option here as they often allow you to mount your racing wheel and pedals while giving you the option to fold the stand up and store it away once you have finished sim racing.

Discover the best sim racing wheel stands in our buyer’s guide.

How much control do you have over your car with a controller?

Opting to race with a controller rather than a racing wheel is a much more practical option. However, using a controller can limit the amount of control you have over your car.

A racing wheel can have up to 900° of rotation or higher in some cases. This means you have very granular control over how much steering input you apply. The same applies to the throttle and brake pedal. There is a much larger range of movement in a pedal than you get with a trigger on a controller.

These greater ranges of movement let you position your car and apply inputs with much higher precision. Racing with a controller does limit the precision. This is incredibly noticeable when trying to steer your car with a controller.

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    Applying small steering inputs with a controller can be hard, and being smooth with those inputs can be even trickier. When I race with a controller, I find myself using the method of applying small tap inputs to the steering as this can be easier than trying to apply smooth sweeping inputs.

    The downside of this is that tapping your analogue stick and quickly releasing it can cause instability in your car. This is especially noticeable in more realistic sim racing games such as Assetto Corsa Competizione. Even the smallest steering input at the wrong time can destabilise your car and cause a slide which certainly isn’t the fastest way of driving.


    Are racing wheels better than a controller?

    If your goal is to increase your immersion with any racing game, a racing wheel and pedal setup will certainly have the edge. Using a racing wheel isn’t for everyone, with many preferring the comfort and ease of using a controller. However, a good sim racing setup will provide a much greater sense of realism and immersion.

    Adding a racing wheel and pedal set will immediately make you feel much more connected to your car in game, and give you the sensation of actually sitting behind the wheel in your favourite car. You will be making the same inputs that real racing drivers do. And you even feel the car on the road, and how it’s behaving thanks to force feedback.

    All of these realistic driving elements aren’t as immediately possible when racing with a controller. However, there are still times, especially when playing a game such as Forza Horizon, where kicking back on the sofa with a controller in hand is much more enjoyable.

    But in a nutshell, I certainly believe that you can have much more fun with a racing wheel than a controller. Whether that equates to racing wheels being better than controllers is more down to personal preference. So to help with that question, let’s look at some benefits of using a racing wheel.


    Will a racing wheel make you faster compared to a controller?

    Does the extra level of control and force feedback that a racing wheel offers make you a faster driver? The answer isn’t always yes, but it certainly gives you the tools to become faster and more consistent on track.

    The main benefits from a racing wheel include higher levels of control over your inputs and force feedback. The force feedback that a racing wheel produces lets you feel how your car is behaving on track. Almost all racing wheels produce force feedback, with more detailed and powerful force feedback available with more premium racing wheels.

    What is force feedback?

    Force feedback is the term given to the forces generated by a motor inside your racing wheel. These forces are created by the racing wheel to portray the forces applied to your car while driving. The internal motor inside a wheel base then sends the forces to your steering wheel either directly or via a series of gears or belts.

    Typically, entry-level racing wheels will utilise internal gears or belts to translate the power from a motor to the steering wheel. This approach allows for a smaller motor to be used to reduce the cost of the racing wheel. The downside is that you can often lose certain force feedback details while it is being translated from the motor to your steering wheel.

    MOZA R9 Motor Animation

    More premium racing wheels use direct drive technology to send the forces to your steering wheel. This means the motor is attached directly to the steering shaft and there are no internal gears or belts. This allows a larger motor to be used to increase the peak performance as well as ensuring fewer details are lost making for more fidelity in the feedback.

    Read our complete comparison between direct drive and gear and belt driven racing wheels for more information.

    Does the force feedback make you faster?

    The force feedback that you get from a racing wheel allows you to make much more accurate decisions on how to drive your car, where to place it on track, and exactly how much steering lock to hold through a corner.

    This doesn’t mean that you will always be quicker with a racing wheel compared to a controller. You will likely be slower initially when you first transition to a racing wheel while you are getting used to the new approach.

    Even after some time with a racing wheel, you may still be faster with a controller. Using a controller can sometimes give sim racers more confidence as they are less connected to a car, and this can sometimes result in faster lap times. You will often see that time trial leaderboards contain controller sim racers as some can be incredibly fast using this input method.

    I believe that over time, most will become faster and more consistent with a racing wheel. This is because a racing wheel will present you with much more information, allowing you to become a quicker, more precise driver overall.


    The difference between sim racing with a controller vs a racing wheel

    When you first jump into racing with a racing wheel after racing hours and hours with a controller, everything suddenly feels completely different. That car that you had perfected how to drive is now a completely different beast to handle.

    You will almost certainly find yourself in a wall or gravel trap on your first outing with a racing wheel, and you may become instantly disheartened by this. But don’t.

    Getting used to driving with a racing wheel is hard at first, and it’s much harder than racing with a controller initially. This is especially true in arcade games or arcade-orientated simulations such as Need For Speed and Forza Horizon.

    In both of these games, you can pick up a controller and with a few minutes of practice you will be able to have reasonably good control over your car. This isn’t the case when it comes to driving with a wheel.

    Racing wheels typically have a 900° or 1080° rotation, meaning just like with a real road car, to turn full lock left or right you have to turn the wheel multiple times. This alone, along with the added coordination requirements of having to simultaneously operate a steering wheel and pedals make a racing wheel much harder to drive with initially.

    Is a racing wheel easier to drive with than a controller?

    Due to the factors mentioned above, I would lean towards a controller being the easier platform to drive with. When it comes to reactions and being able to control your car, I still believe it’s easier to do so with a controller. It’s much easier to flick a thumbstick to change your car’s direction compared to the much larger inputs you need to make with a wheel.

    Asetek Forte Wheel base Review

    And that also applies to throttle and brake control. You can make much quicker decisions with a controller as all inputs are much smaller. And those who are experienced with a gamepad can easily modulate a car’s throttle and brake pressure. It can be much harder to understand how much braking force you’re inputting with a wheel and pedal setup.

    Despite my belief that it is easier to drive with a controller, I certainly don’t believe that you have more overall control of a car with a controller. That win will always go to a racing wheel.


    Learning to sim race with a racing wheel

    There is a good analogy that racing drivers use. They say that it can be easy to jump into a car and within a few laps get to 90% of your maximum performance level. But it’s finding the last 10% of your performance potential where the hours, months and years of practice come into play.

    And this is very similar when it comes to the amount of control you get with a controller compared to a racing wheel. With a controller, it’s much easier to pick up almost any racing and get comfortable with it in a short space of time. However, due to the limitations of force feedback of a controller, finding the last 10% of performance is a real struggle.

    The controller’s small inputs may be beneficial in terms of adaptability and reaction speed. However, they are every sim racer’s enemy when it comes to precision.

    One of the most compelling reasons to drive with a racing wheel comes in the form of force feedback and precision. With a good quality wheel, you can feel almost every bump in the road, and you can feel when your car has and doesn’t have grip on the track.

    This extra level of feedback allows you as a driver to learn tracks and cars to a much more detailed degree. And with that knowledge, you can turn it into speed. Following on from this point, due to the inputs with a wheel being much larger than a controller. You also have much more control over the size of those inputs. You can brake with more precision and steer with much more precision.

    And due to these reasons combined, we can comfortably say that a racing wheel will give you much more overall control over a controller.


    Choosing your first racing wheel

    The next guide in our “beginner’s guide to sim racing” series will look at the best racing wheels to use when first starting sim racing. In that guide, I’ll look at the best entry-level racing wheels that are accessible in terms of price. I’ll also look at more premium options that can deliver greater levels of performance, immersion and durability over time.

    Use the links below to quickly navigate to our beginner’s guide to the best racing wheels to get started with.


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    Article written by Rich

    Co-Founder of SimRacingSetups.com

    Rich is the co-founder, and one of the main F1 setup creators and content writers for SimRacingSetups. With over a decade of experience as a graphic designer, marketing director, competitive sim racer and avid motorsport fan, Rich founded SimRacingSetup.com to share his passion and knowledge of sim racing and Formula 1 with other sim racers.

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