In 1996, chubby little Michael Passingham first laid eyes on a racing game. It’s fitting that this first game was Pole Position, a Windows port of the 1980s Namco title. It was brutal, even more so than the death traps (by today’s standards) of real 1980s F1 cars. If you ran slightly off track, you’d hit a billboard and explode. Even if you kept it on the black stuff, your rivals would also send you to hell in a fireball. Brutal.
But not a day has gone by since then that I haven’t been obsessed with racing games. So I figured I should probably make use of this vast wasteland of a blog to talk about some of my exploits, past and present. I didn’t want my first post to be my life story, so instead I’ve jumped in at the deep end to write about my latest purchase, the Ricmotech G25 load cell brake mod.
Before I walk you through the pain and suffering of me fumbling around with screwdrivers, Allan keys and stubborn wires, we first have to understand why I spent a far-too-large amount of money on this piece of kit.
In conventional racing cars – and most road cars for that matter – when you press the brake pedal, the force you apply directly affects how quickly you slow down. The harder you push, the more friction there is between the brake pads and the brake discs. This isn’t some special effect; it’s a physical connection between your leg and the brakes.
In sim racing, it’s extremely hard to recreate this effect because when you push the brake pedal, you’re not actually connected to anything physical, just wires and the magic of technology. More expensive pedal sets, such as the £200+ Fanatec ClubSport pedals (right) have solved this problem with load cell technology. The brake on this pedal set is stiff, and doesn’t have a huge amount of travel. When you push on the brakes, the load cell sensor can tell how hard you’re pushing, and this affects how the virtual race car slows down, which is about as close as you can get to real life.
In cheaper pedal sets, like those which came with my Logitech G25 (it cost around £120 for the wheel, pedals and gear shifter in 2008), the feel of the brake pedal is defined simply by a spring, with a sensor called a potentiometer installed into the pedal telling the game how far the pedal has been pushed, not how hard.
In a race car, the brake pedal is not just about slowing down; it’s a tool to unsettle your car as you go into a fast corner; throwing the car’s weight onto the front tyres, unweighting the rear wheels and adding a touch of controllable oversteer. There are very few tracks where a dab on the brakes won’t help you at some point on the circuit. The problem with doing this on a potentiometer-based pedal is that it’s difficult to train your muscles to remember how far you pushed the brake pedal, and much easier in terms of muscle memory to remember how hard it was pushed. In my experience, this made for slower, more inconsistent laps.
The second disadvantage of potentiometer-based pedals is that heel-toe gear changes and throttle blips (where you use your right foot to brake and to blip the throttle to equalise the revs of the engine with the gear you’re about to select, increasing stability – see below) are impossible because the brake pedal moves so far.
Armed with a tiny bit of knowledge, about a month ago I did some research into how I could solve this problem on the cheap, and stumbled across the G25/G27 brake mod from Ricmotech.
Ricmotech’s kit (new edition pictured right; I bought one of the last original versions, gosh damn it), which cost me about £100 with shipping and import taxes included, consists of a load cell, a spring, some cable ties and a two-sided A3 sheet of instructions. I believe the most expensive part of the kit is the load cell, as these bits of equipment have to be super durable. Nonetheless, this was a large investment and quite a big risk.
I’m not exaggerating when I say the installation of the kit was a nightmare. It’s partly my fault, but partly the fault of the poorly printed black and white instruction sheet, which made things extremely difficult to understand. But it was mostly me; my coordination with small tools and unfamiliar electronic components is poor.
The product specs say it should take about 30 minutes to install; it took me the best part of three hours of trial and error to get them working, mostly because not all the pieces quite fitted together as I’d hoped.
Feel the force
Once I’d re-assembled the pedal set (after ensuring it was actually working), I fired up iRacing to see if I’d made an expensive mistake. By the end of that day, I was around one second per lap quicker than I’d ever been, simply because of my newly found brake-dabbing ability in high-speed corners. Driving the Star Mazda open wheel machine at Circuit of the Americas, the benefit of this new, incredibly stiff brake pedal was very apparent.
When I say stiff, I mean rock solid. The pedal has about half an inch of travel before it hits the load cell, at which point it’s all about force. It does take some getting used to and one week in I’m still not 100 per cent happy with how I have it set up; I even had to switch to a different, lower chair for sim racing because I needed to put more of my body weight behind my foot when hitting the brakes. My office chair with wheels was no longer a potent part of my sim racing setup; I wanted to move around in the game, not scoot around my room in real life. I know that my next inevitable sim racing expense is going to be a full-on wheel and pedal mount. But that’s for when I move house. For now I’m happy in the knowledge that it’s no longer my equipment that’s slowing me down: it’s now 100 per cent my lack of skill.
Next time, I’ll probably write something about a sim racing game that brings back fond memories. In other words, TBC.