September 28, 2023

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well

A Fanatec sim racing wheel, mounted on a desk in front of a computer screen.  It is bathed in neon purple bisexual lighting

A Fanatec sim racing wheel, mounted on a desk in front of a computer screen. It is bathed in neon purple bisexual light

I’m a fairly serious Forza Horizon player, if such a thing exists. I build and tune cars to exacting standards and am among the top 0.13% of players in the game’s competitive Rivals mode. So when Fanatec offered me a CSL wheel and pedals to test, I jumped at the chance – this was it, I thought, the chance to move up in (voice of Bernie Sanders) the top one percent of the top one percent .

So why haven’t I improved after months of practice? Race after race, lap after lap, I’m still slower with the highly specialized Fanatec setup than with my little Xbox controller from Target. Incredibly, the answer seems to come down to one simple component: the brake pedal.

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Full disclosure: Fanatec offered me a wheel and pedals when Twitchlopnik was just starting out. The setup made up quite a bit of the performances on the stream when we were doing it. REST IN PEACE.

Photo: Steve DaSilva/Jalopnik

Photo: Steve DaSilva/Jalopnik

Now I admit: my home setup is far from professional. I don’t have a sim racing seat, there’s nothing to stop my s1ck g4m3r ch41r from rolling away from the pedals, and the whole steering wheel mounting setup is oddly rickety with the billowing front of my desk. I even had to set the force feedback on the Fanatec base down fearing for the structural integrity of my monitor mounts. It’s not perfect.

But it’s enough, enough to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t when translating the experience of driving into the virtual world. Of my three points of contact—the wheel and two pedals—two were more than up to the task. But the brake pedal, that one point of failure, always led me astray.

Where the pedal falls short is exactly where the steering base proved too strong for my small setup: feedback. With the steering wheel, the feedback is incredible – all its precise, direct-drive deliciousness informs me exactly where my virtual front wheels are. But with the brakes, there’s no real sense of pressure. It’s hard to modulate, hard to tell when you’ve asked too much of the front tires and it starts to slide.

I found myself overcooking corners, diving in too hard and braking too late, or approaching too carefully and costing myself seconds. It’s an inherent flaw of design, a potentiometer on a spring will never have the kind of pulsating resistance that a hydraulic system has. Controllers mimic it well, with varied vibrations through the triggers to inform you when to stop, but the pedals just can’t. At least, this pedal just can’t.

If you’ve ever looked into serious sim racing setups, you’ve probably heard of something called a “load cell” – a piece of hardware that actually do replicate that kind of hydraulic feedback. In addition, Fanatec always offers them with three pedals: two standard pedals, for throttle and clutch, and one with a load cell for braking.

If you’re really serious about lap times, the load cell is worth the extra cost. It’s certainly not cheap – a standard loadcell pedal box costs more than double the going price for my two-pedal setup – but it provides the level of feedback needed to actually help you improve. The whole point of a sim setup is to give you the precision a real car does, rather than force you to settle for an analog stick and two triggers – why not get the most accurate option you can ?

Of course, some people will disagree. I discussed this with Jalopnik’s resident sim racing expert Ryan Erik King, who effectively said – in much nicer terms – that it was a skill issue: he has no load cell pedal and his sim racing has been fine. We eventually concluded that my choice of vehicle made the distinction matter more, eschewing his favorite purpose-built, high-downforce single-seaters in favor of narrow tired ’90s Acuras, but the fact remains that Ryan doesn’t need that has that braking feedback to get an ideal lap time. I apparently do.

If you do too, skip the entry level of Fanatec’s lineup. The CSL wheelbase is great, but upgrade your pedals to a load cell setup. You’re already dropping beaucoup dollars on your setup, your wallet probably won’t notice the extra hit, but your feet and your lap times will.

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