A few years ago, sim racers were glad when there was more than one professional-grade steering wheel to choose from as the market for sim racing wheels was somewhat limited.
In recent years, the arrival from Fanatec and renewed interest in the racing genre has sparked competition a lot as the level of innovation & frequency of new products being introduced on the steering wheel market has increased a lot.
As all major manufacturers now offer wheels that fit the needs of even ambitious sim racers, the companies now move to more advanced features to set themselves apart from the competition. One of these features are replaceable wheel rims and Thrustmaster is the first one to offer a new wheel rim for their acclaimed T500 RS, giving sim racers access to a replica of Ferrari’s current Formula One wheel.
How much immersion does a new wheel rim add to an already excellent wheel? Read the review to find out!
Back when the T500 RS was announced in early 2011, almost nobody (including me) paid any attention to the fact that the wheel’s rim could easily be replaced. Back then, the idea of removable wheel rims was confined to ultra-professional hardware vendors like FREX and nothing that would be available to the masses.
This has changed quickly as both Fanatec & Thrustmaster have shown off replaceable wheel rims in the meantime with the French company being the first to deliver a finished product. It’s no surprise that the rim is Ferrari-designed and licensed as Thrustmaster has long-lasting ties with the Italian car maker.
Thrustmaster has been selling Ferrari-branded wheels for almost a decade now, usually focusing on wheels with a road car design. It’s not their first Ferrari Formula One wheel though, back in 2003 Thrustmaster released the Ferrari F1 FFB wheel, a somewhat close replica of a modern Ferrari F1 wheel with a two-pedal set.
I vaguely remember giving this wheel a try at a friend’s house and even though it was a solid piece of kit, the attention of details to make it look like the real thing was limited.
This review specifically covers the F1 rim and its features. To find out about the T500 RS’s general FFB performance, features and build quality, please visit the T500 RS review.
Design & Features
The Ferrari F1 rim’s design is closely based on the steering wheel of the Ferrari F150, Ferrari’s current Formula One challenger. The wheel features 8 buttons labeled like those on the real wheel, three radio buttons , two D-pads and two rotary encoders at the top.
On the backside of the wheel, there’s a pedal shift unit that adds to the one on the T500 RS’s base once the wheel is put on in normal mode (more on that later).
Since F1 wheels are high-tech pieces of technology, the wheel rim differs from its real brother in several aspects. Aside from some buttons coming with different features (F1 drivers rarely use D-Pads on their wheels….), the most striking differences are the missing display/rev limiter at the top as well as the wheel’s middle section.
Where the real F150 wheel sports the big prancing horse rotary encoder and several rotary switches around it, the replica only offers non-functional dummies that somewhat look like the real thing. The final feature missing are the clutch paddles on the back of the real F1 wheel that can’t be found on the replica.
As the original T500 RS has set quite a high standard for build quality, the F1 rim has quite big shoes to fill. Even though the wheel looked quite toy-ish in the first photos, build quality is not much to argue about.
The wheel rim’s base is made of plastic with a front-plate made of brushed metal, I was actually surprised how heavy the whole unit felt right out of the box. The wheel comes with rubbered hand-grips, the material used on it feels at bit slicker than the GT wheel, providing a nice change of feel.
The paddle shifters are fully made of metal and have a nice click to them, same goes for the plastic buttons that feel more durable than they might look. The three radio buttons at the bottom are solid as well as the whole unit leaves little to be desired in terms of build quality.
Unfortunately, the dummy buttons spoil the overall good impression a bit. While I´m sure there were good technical reasons to make the buttons non-functional, the dummies look a little cheap and give the whole wheel rim more of a toy-feel than it actually deserves.
While the big Ferrari button is nicely made, the fake rotary dials could have needed some more detail to at least make them look real if they´re non-functional to begin with.
Even though the T500 RS base does not have a real quick-release mechanism, Thrustmaster has come up with a pain-free way to allow players a quick change of the wheel rims.
First off, buyers have to update their wheel’s driver software and firmware to accommodate the new rim though.
Once that’s done, the replacing of the rim can start. The original GT rim is screwed onto the base with a single screw securing the rim on the screw-ring.
This screw only has to be removed once as it doesn’t really seem to be serving much of a purpose other than preventing users from accidentally screwing off the wheel rim.
Once the screw is gone, the screw ring can be loosened and the GT wheel comes off. Inside the wheel’s backside opening there’s a PS2-style connector that needs to be put in the matching socket on the base – Then the screw ring needs to be tightened and the wheel is ready to go.
After you´ve done it the first time, changing the wheels will take no longer than 30-40 seconds so it is very well possible to switch wheels for different cars/sims.
Usage & Feel
Once the wheel is put on and the drivers are installed, users have the choice of two different modes – Normal & Advanced.
The normal mode uses the same button-layout as the T500 RS GT wheel and is also used in console mode, giving players 17 different functions to assign. In this mode, both the paddle shifters on the F1 wheel and the wheel’s base are assigned to the same buttons and work simultaneously.
This mode has the advantage of allowing the wheel rims to be changed within the sim as all buttons work on the GT rim as they do on the F1 rim. The disadvantage is that this simpler mode doesn’t quite make usage of all new features the F1 rim offers as the rotary encoders work as D-Pad and the two D-Pads can’t be used independently either.
The advanced mode allows the player to map 29 different functions both on the F1 wheel and the base. In this mode, the rotary encoders can be used to adjust the brake balance for example, the two shifting levers on the base serve as buttons as well as does the second D-Pad.
While this mode is the preferred one for PC usage since it makes full use of the F1 rim’s possibilities, users who plan on switching back and forth with the GT rim will run into problems. For example, you have to adjust your button mappings in the sim every time you switch as some buttons used on the F1 rim can’t be accessed with the GT rim.
Furthermore, every switch from advanced to normal mode requires a restart of the wheel and the control panel, making switching between and forth modes more of a hassle. Most users will likely keep on using the F1 wheel though and won’t run into these issues.
With the wheel installed and correctly mapped, you can start driving. It’ amazing how much the new rim actually changes the feel of the T500 RS. Even though the wheel diameter is the same as the GT rim, the rim feels a lot smaller due to the top and bottom part of the rim being cut off.
While the FFB effects and everything else just feel like with the GT rim on, the rim does add a lot of immersion to driving open wheelers with. I´m far away from being a real F1 buff but even I found driving an F1 car more enjoyable with the wheel. It just adds a bit of realism to activate the DRS by actually pressing the button that says DRS instead of the X-Button and to adjust the brake balance by using a rotary encoder.
It took a while for me to get comfortable with the wheel as the space on the wheel grips is somewhat limited and tight if you have big hands. Once you grab the wheel, there really isn’t any room to move your fingers around, this caused some hand-cramps for me after the first driving session as I seem to move my hands around a bit on the normal rim without even noticing it. The problem quickly disappeared at later runs though as I got used to the hand position on the wheel.
The spacing of the shifting levers is no problem though as Thrustmaster obviously had the F1 wheel in mind already while designing the base unit. Even though the T500 RS has big shifting levers on the base already, even thicker fingers will fit nicely between them and the levers on the F1 wheel.
So, is the wheel rim worth the price of 149€ for the addon-version? For avid Formula One fans it very much is, using the wheel just boosts the immersion factor a lot in a way that is somewhat hard to describe. It’s not as much the practical effect of the wheel but the joy of using it that makes it a worthwhile purchase.
The wheel rim is well-built and thought out, unfortunately the dummy buttons spoil the overall impression a bit. Still, the rim keeps up with the overall high standard the T500 RS has introduced, falling only slightly short in terms of look and feel to the original GT rim which just seems a tad more durable and less toy-ish.
The wheel is easy to install and setup, drivers work like a charm and the overall experience is very pleasant. Players who plan on using both rims for different cars/sims have to be prepared to either use both in normal mode or keep dealing with switching modes and button alignments back and forth though.
Im terms of pricing, players who don’t own the T500 RS and predominately play F1 and open-wheel sims might want to wait for the Integral Edition of the wheel to become available that ships with the F1 rim on.
Fanatec will be releasing their Clubsport wheel base and an F1 rim later this year, their setup will be in a higher price range though as the base plus the F1 wheel and a set of pedals will end up at at least 700€ while the T500 RS now retails for 400€ and it is to be expected that the F1 Integral Edition will reach this price soon as well.
The new trend of replaceable wheel rim certainly is to be welcomed as it brings a new degree of realism to sim racing that would have been unthinkable and unaffordable just a decade ago.