I was one of those people who bought a PS2 just so I could play Gran Turismo 3. The shocking part is that for about a year, I didn’t buy or play anything else.
To say I was enamored with the racing game genre would probably be like saying the Mercedes Benz CLK GTR was just another fast car.
Since my gaming was usually on a budget (college, making ends meet and all that) I’ve only played Gran Turismo or any other racing game on a controller. To be honest, I really didn’t think that adding a racing wheel could better my lap times or improve my racing line. Plus all my friends used controllers as well, and some of them regularly beat me on weekend racing binges. I just need to get better is what I kept telling myself.
Fast forward years – I got myself a PS3 and as usual the appropriate Gran Turismo accompaniment, GT 5. While I was grinning ear to ear, thinking of the new challenges I was going to complete, out of the corner of my eye I saw a racing wheel. It was a Thrustmaster T80 RS – it looked sleek, serious and purposeful. It was definitely within my budget if I really tightened my purse strings for a few weeks. You can probably guess what happened next.
I got home and began setting up my PS3. After which I booted up GT5 and ran a few laps with a few cars I knew. After a bit, I wanted to get the suspense out of the way – getting the wheel setup. It was pretty simple, connect a few cables here and there, the power brick to the outlet and voila I was done. Things are much different now when it comes to compatibility – you can now find a steering wheel for XBox One, PS4 or PC.
I wasn’t expecting much because I was a dyed in the wool racing car enthusiast with decades of experience with a controller. Jumping on to a different controller wasn’t going to cut my lap times or tighten my lines. And unsurprisingly, me equipped with the wheel struggled to keep a car on the track, much less break my own lap records. I decided to keep at it because it was already bought and I don’t believe in returning things that aren’t broken.
After 2 weeks of persevering with it (cue Rocky training montage), I was confident enough to use the racing wheel to go online with my racing league. While I usually am in the jostle for the top 3, this time I pulled ahead of the pack and stayed there until the end of the race, with a degree of eerie comfort. Strange. It was suddenly clear to me what had to be done.
It is called the “Green Hell,” a torturous, 12.9 mile, snaking tarmac sandwiched between flaming death and serene greenery. The Nürburgring Nordschleife will test man and machine alike. It whispers false promises with long straights, tightens its grip on you with high G turns and bucks its serpentine form with sudden elevation changes. All this is done effectively, efficiently without nary a hint of drama except for the heap of smoldering metal and rubber, catalyzed by the sickly, sweet odor of gasoline.
If there was a difference in my driving ability, what better stage than the deathly silent grandeur of the ‘ring'? My weapon of choice would be my super tuned Nissan GT-R Nismo. I had a lap time of about 7.19 earlier with my controller. It was time to put that to the test.
I won’t lie, I was a bit nervous. This track can do that to you. After a few warm up laps, I was ready. I passed hard through the traps at the start/finish line, and my timed lap had started. Though I had my heart beating out of my chest back then, when I think about it now, I nailed about 90% of all the apexes and stuck to the racing line most times than not. Shifting was also a lot more effective because I could hold on to gears longer.
I never looked at the clock even during the final straight – I wanted to blow through the finish line and surprise myself. As my Nismo thundered across the chequered bit of road, the clock froze – 7.15.32! I’d almost shaved 4 seconds off my timing with just a peripheral and about 2 weeks of practice! And the good part is that as I got used to the wheel, my times would get better.
Like a lot of people on the internet, I too thought that a steering controller couldn’t actually make a difference to my driving. I can admit when I’m wrong and especially when I found this out for myself. Racing wheels do get you better lap times. There I said it. But how? Let’s find out.
Most people have stubbornly stuck to how racing wheels are better than controllers. There are reasons why and I’m going to give you just that.
This is the big one when it comes to racing. The smoother you’re able to transition between changes in direction, the quicker you are through corners. Modern racing games are ridiculously detailed at simulating the effect of g-forces, the angle of tarmac, traction, slip and lateral movement of the car. And when all this is put into play, you need to be smooth as possible with your steering input. There is really no contest between the ~3-4 mm of travel of the controller and the 360-degree rotation of the wheel – you are getting so much more precision with a wheel. This aspect also lets you stick to your racing line a lot better than you’d be able to with a controller.
A lot of people using controllers stick to auto shift because it becomes really hectic during racing conditions especially when you’re jockeying for a position. Assuming that you’ve got both forefingers on both triggers for brake and accelerate, this leaves your thumb free for shifting on the face buttons. But, when you have to do something like hold RPMs and shift gears at the same time, you alter your position on the throttle. If you were on the wheel, one flick of the right or left paddle (without losing control of any other elements of the car) and you’re done, no muss or fuss.
Even though I’ve been playing for years with a controller, I find my throttle modulation when using my fingers is a lot more lacking than my feet. This also has to do with the fact that the racing wheel setup is a lot closer to how we drive than using the controller, so you’re a lot more comfortable working the throttle and brake.
So does a racing wheel make you faster than a controller player? Well, yes and no. Some people have a natural ability to use the controller for better input in racing games, it’s uncanny, but there it is. Even today some people in my racing league trade win against me online. But I have gotten better than I previously was. Some people just find it better while others do mighty fine with just a controller.
But I can tell you this: it totally changes your perspective towards racing games. The 4-hour endurance race at Laguna Seca you breezed through last week? Try it with a wheel. It feels so real and visceral it’s the next best thing to being able to smell race fuel and burning rubber. If you live and breathe racing games, the racing wheel will add multitudes to your experience – you’ll feel empty inside when you use just the controller after.