We recently had a chance to sit down and try Thrustmaster’s new Xbox-compatible steering system, the Ferrari Vibration GT Cockpit 458 Italia Edition. That lofty title is every bit as difficult to type as it is to say, so we’re going to hereafter refer to it as the Ferrari 458 Cockpit. So, what’s the big deal with the Ferrari Cockpit? Well, it is the latest offering in what is quickly becoming a stable of Ferrari-licensed controllers from Thrustmaster. This latest entry, in typical Thrustmaster fashion, fills a market niche that no other manufacturer has been able to adequately address.
That niche is, of course, the need for a quality racing wheel for the Xbox. While the PC and PS3 markets are crowded with very capable units, the Xbox crowd has had to get by with low-end steering wheels that simply could not live up to the promise of quality titles such as Forza Motorsport and F1 2011. If the brief time we had to use the Ferrari 458 Cockpit is any indication, that gap has been quite capably filled.
You might be wondering what is implied by the word “cockpit.” In this case. “cockpit” refers to the clever realization by Thrustmaster’s product design group that most console gamers are not sitting at a sturdy desk or table when they sit down to run a few laps on their favorite Xbox racing title. Rather, they are sitting on a sofa or chair in front of the TV. Beyond that, many of the current racing wheels designed for console play are designed such that they sit on the player’s legs, a design that does not adequately provide support for the wheel when the racing gets heated. With the Thrustmaster cockpit, that is no longer the case.
The cockpit is comprised of a hefty floor unit that not only contains the brake and accelerator pedals but also acts as a base to support an aluminum steering column of sorts, which in turn supports the steering wheel. The steering column collapses into the base to make the entire cockpit easier to store when not in use. The base even has a carrying handle built into it to make it easier to carry around when it is in its folded storage position.
While we look forward to receiving a review unit to allow us the opportunity to provide a far more in-depth review, for now we can share our impressions of the wheel based on a half hour of usage at Thrustmasters recent press gathering in San Francisco. The event was held at the Ferrari store at Union Square in downtown San Francisco, a fitting location given the Ferrari licensing of the new wheel. Besides the new Xbox wheel, Thrustmaster also had a VRX iMotion 3D Full Motion Racing Simulator on hand to show off the capabilities of their F1 Integral force feedback wheel in a very high-end setting. As much as we wanted to spend our entire allotment of play time bouncing around on iRacing’s Mosport track enjoying the three-monitor, 3D setup, it was the Ferrari Cockpit that we were there to try out.
And try it out we did! Thrustmaster had set up a number of the new cockpits with various racing titles to try out, but the setup that caught our eye was the side-by-side pair of wheels attached to a pair of Xboxs running Codemaster’s F1 2011 in head-to-head competition. We would like to be able to say that it was the challenge of racing head-to-head with a live player that first attracted us to that particular opportunity, but that would only be half of the story. The other half of the story is that Thrustmaster had populated the press event with a number of attractive models. And by “models” we mean “pretty girls,” not cars. When one of the gals challenged us to a race, who were we to decline?
Our first impression of the cockpit was that the degree to which it could be customized to fit our personal preferences for the positions of the wheel and pedals was excellent. In fact, it was far easier to find a comfortable racing position with the cockpit than it is to do so with a wheel attached to a desk. The wheel itself was comfortable in our hands and the buttons fell readily under our thumbs. The wheel felt substantial in our hands, but it would never be mistaken for the feel of the larger, more robust wheels like the F1 Integral 500. That is to be expected, of course, as the Ferrari 458 Cockpit is targeted at a much more casual user and at a much lower price. That said, the lack of true force feedback in the cockpit somewhat dampened our enthusiasm as we consider good force feedback to be vital to allowing the player to truly feel as one with the simulated car.
We drove a few laps of racing with the pretty model, but truth be told we didn’t find her to provide much in the way of competition. Great company, yes. Great racing? No. That problem was soon resolved, though. As we were sitting in front of the controller wondering who would step up to the plate to provide us with a good race, the event organizer came by with a solution to this dilemma in the form of Mr. Oriol Servia, professional IndyCar driver. You may have heard of Mr. Servia: he finished fourth in the 2012 Indianapolis 500. And he wanted to race!
As you can imagine, this was a bit more competition than we had been hoping for. After all, what chance would we have against a guy that makes his living in one of the most competitive auto racing series in the world? Somewhere between ‘little’ and ‘none’ was our first thought, but maybe....
We were offered our choice as to the track we would be racing at and what assists would be allowed for the race. Our favorite F1 track, by far, is Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. We would be unlikely to gain any competitive advantage over Mr. Servia with this selection since it would be a rare open-wheel racer indeed that wasn’t familiar with such a famous track, but we thought that we might be able to gain some advantage by turning off all assists. After all, being able to drive an Indy car does not exactly prepare one for driving a simulated F1 car, and we could always hope that Oriol’s first experience with F1 2011 would result in a damaged car. We were not too proud, after all, to accept a win by default should he break his car.
And it almost worked! While we got away to a clean start, Oriol struggled with getting a grip on the recalcitrant F1 Ferrari, spinning no less than three times on the first lap. By the end of the second lap, we had built up what seemed to be an insurmountable fourteen second lead. All we had to do, we thought, was not crash in the next seven laps and victory would be ours! It was right around this time that we remembered why we were at the event in the first place and paid a little attention to the wheel. It is a testament to the wheel, in fact, that this was the first time we had thought to even notice it. We were having none of the control issues that so plague us when using the standard Xbox hand controllers and we felt that we had perfectly adequate control of the car, although it is our opinion that the F1 2011 controller configuration would have better suited our style had it been set to a more linear progression.
So, back to the race. We were still in the lead on the sixth lap, but we had started seeing notifications that Oriol was going purple (setting the fastest lap time) each lap. At the time, we were turning 1:55 laps. Oriol was down to turning 1:53, 1:52, and finally, 1:50 laps. We stepped up our game, but could only do 1:53. It was clear that he was going to catch us. Not too proud to try a less than honorable tactic, we tried to distract him: "Hey, how does that push-to-pass button work in the Dellara? Does it just override the rev limiter, or does it do something like closing the turbo waste gate to create more boost?"
His answer: "It gives us more revs." Clearly, he was not going to let us distract him.
Damn. Now what?
Well, nothing. He was right on our tail early in the 7th lap. All we could do was try to keep our car tight into the apexes of the turns and leave him no room to pass. That plan fell apart in turn 10, a downhill, reverse camber, 180 degree turn, when we went wide and drifted into the gravel. That was it; we were done - there would be no catching him.
Except... he slowed down on the track to let us take the lead again.
He said, "That was too easy. I want to really pass you."
And he did, just half a lap later. Trailing him again with only a couple of laps to go, our only hope was to goad him into making a mistake:
"Hey, are you going flat through Eau Rouge?" we asked.
"Really?? I am!" If there was anything flat-out, it was that shameless lie.
"Okay, this time I will go flat," he said, picking up our gauntlet.
We had to hide our grin: we had him now! There was no way he was going through that turn flat out and come out the other side still in the lead.
Yeah, well, you see this coming, right? He did it! He ended up beating us by a little more than four seconds.
Thus ended our hands-on introduction to the Ferrari 458 Cockpit. We are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a review unit so we can provide a more in-depth review, but we do so knowing full well that we will never have a race like that one again!
Note: Thrustmaster paid for airfare, lodging,transportation, and food for the trip.
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