I never ate spinach as a child. Despite years of parental threats and cumulative hours spent staring at it on my plate as I was forced to “sit there until I tried it,” I simply could not get over the idea that I would hate it. Popeye’s amazing cartoon experiences with it notwithstanding, spinach had the look and reputation of being something wholly disgusting.
Later in life, I actually tried it and it turned out that I had been missing out on something pretty good.
This is similar to my experience with the SimRaceway S1 steering wheel, a clever device built by SteelSeries working in collaboration with the SimRaceway.com online racing service. It wasn’t the appearance of the wheel that turned me off, though; it is actually an extremely attractive wheel that looks like it could have been stolen from any of the current crop of Formula 1 cars. Buttons and knobs abound, and the grips look as if they would feel terrific to the hands. No, it wasn’t the construction of the wheel that bothered me, it was that the wheel was attached to.... nothing. Nothing at all. You simply hold the wheel out in front of yourself, very much like you would do if you had one of those goofy Wii controllers that kids use with Mario Kart.
No mount? Sacrilege! How can this possibly work?? After all, we really aren’t talking about Mario-level racing here. We’re talking the big time: F1 2011, iRacing, and of course the newly formed SimRaceway.com. How could a wheel lacking in even the barest of basics like force feedback, separate gas and brake pedals, and a sturdy desk mount provide the level of feel and control required to race competitively? One could argue that force feedback isn’t essential, but with no centering force, wouldn’t the driver end up swerving down even the straightest of straightaways?
Well, I’m nothing if not open-minded (Shut up, Chuck!) and couldn’t see the harm in giving it a try, at least in ‘Test’ mode on iRacing where I wouldn’t be putting my hard-earned iRatings at risk if I found car control to be somewhat lacking. My first impression upon looking over the package was quite favorable. The SRW-S1 comes enclosed in a transparent plastic container that does a great job of showing off the attractive detail and apparent quality of the construction of the wheel. When placed next to my new standard of measurement, the SRW-S1 weighs in at 2/3s the size of a bottle of Maker’s 46. Unlike most packaging today, it didn’t require a hacksaw, cutting torch, and an environmental impact statement to get the thing open. In just moments, I was savoring the light yet substantial feeling of the wheel in my hands. I couldn’t resist testing the feel of the buttons, all of which fell readily to thumb. The knobs also had a satisfyingly substantial click to them when turned. I was immediately imbued with the idea that this was truly a well-made piece of equipment, fully on par with my experience with other SteelSeries products.
Eager to get a feel for the way the wheel operates, I plugged the lengthy and robust USB cord into my PC, which welcomed the SRW-S1 like a long lost friend. It immediately recognized the wheel without any demands for drivers to be loaded from CD/DVD or downloaded. My natural inclination was to get started right away in iRacing since I consider it to be the gold standard of PC-based racing sims, so off we went to do some laps in the Star Monza at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, my local track. This was where the rubber would hit the road, so to speak.
After a quick setup routine to calibrate the steering and tell iRacing where to look for accerlator and brake inputs, it was off to the races. As I had expected, it took a few minutes to adjust to both the idea of holding an unsupported wheel out in the void in front of me and to the operation of the throttle and brakes through the use of paddles on the back of the wheel. It wasn’t the paddles themselves that confused me, having used them for shifting for years now, but the use of paddles for gas and brake was very, very jarring. It just didn’t seem natural. Perhaps, I suppose, because it isn’t. I had to set that aside for the moment, though, because the Star Mazda is a quick little car and turn 1 at Mid-Ohio is right at the exit of the pits. Having made it through the first turn, I was delighted and surprised to find that I had no trouble at all tracking a precise line up the long straightaway that leads into the Keyhole.
It was in the braking zone into the Keyhole that I discovered a problem that was to plague me throughout my entire experience with the SRW-S1. I want to pause to state in no uncertain terms that I believe this to be MY problem rather than a problem with the wheel, but I simply could not brake and downshift at the same time and maintain any level of accuracy over either. I would either downshift more than I wanted or lose the ability to brake with any level of finesse whatsoever. Trying to convince the fingers of my left hand to work independently of each other just would not work for me.
It’s odd that I had thought that the inherent weakness in the design of this wheel would be its lack of a mount and any kind of centering force when its Achilles Heel, at least in my experience, turned out to be the lack of pedals. In the interest of fairness, I modified the difficulty settings to enable auto-shifting and tried again. Without the burden of shifting to contend with, I found the fine control provided by the gas and brake paddles to be exemplary. Within a half dozen laps, I was within two seconds of my best time driving with the Logitech G25 that I normally use. Some of the two second gap came down to the penalty imposed by auto-shifting, and the rest came from the lack of force feedback and a centering force. I think that with sufficient practice, that gap could be narrowed considerably.
The iRacing experience, while positive, left me wondering if there was a situation where the SRW-S1 could actually surpass the experience of the Logitech G25
. This is a critical question when you consider that the difference in purchase price between the SRW-S1 and a Logitech G27 is only about $100; as long as you have a desk to mount it on, why wouldn’t you go for the far more competitive wheel? To find out of there was a place where I would willingly trade my G25 for the SRW S-1, I launched a SimRaceway session. As I worked through my garage of cars, I found the same result: I was faster with the G25. Until, that is, I tried the SimRaceway Kart at the Infineon Kart track. With that car and that track, the SRW-S1 was the hands down winner. The tight turns and lightening quick reactions required to throw a kart around the track combined with the direct-drive (no shifting!) made all the difference.
Unfortunately, this also showed the SRW S-1 to be a single-purpose tool, something that I try to avoid. While I remain impressed with the quality of the unit, I find myself struggling for a reason that I would buy one other than as an attractive shelf decoration. Seriously, it really does look that good. Perhaps if I was racing on a laptop and simply did not have room for a full size wheel, it would make sense to me. Another thing that would most assuredly compel me to grab one of these would be if it worked on the Xbox or PS3, but most especially with the Xbox which has a deplorable and regrettable dearth of quality options for the console-based racer. Alas, the SRW S-1 works with neither.
The market for PC racing wheels is quite crowded and SteelSeries clearly was aiming to fill a very precise niche, but I question whether their chosen niche is large enough to justify what was clearly an expensive development process. For those whose needs do fit with the design of the SRW S-1, however, I can assure them that they will not be disappointed with the quality of this controller.