This is the Thrustmaster T 500 RS, a £500 professional-grade wheel and pedal set for the Playstation 3 and the officially-licensed wheel for the Gran Turismo 5 game. Can any gaming console peripheral be worth that much money? We take the T 500 RS home, attach it to the console and find out...
Driving games: from toys to virtual motorsports
Modern racing games have come a long way since 1974, when Taito Corporation's Speed Race was the first car game to appear in arcades. The Gran Turismo series alone has sold over 50 million copies since the first game arrived in 1997 for the Playstation, with the latest edition, GT5, taking several years of development and a budget of around $60 million to produce. Meanwhile console rival Microsoft has produced its own flagship racing title with Forza Motorsport, and iRacing has taken PC simulators to a new level which has resulted in professional racers competing on a regular basis, including Dale Earnhardt Jnr and Juan Pablo Montoya,
In fact, virtual racing has become serious business. For several years I’ve competed in online racing events organised to the same level as real world motorsport. Indeed, The Online Racing Association is recognised as a governing body by the Motor Sports Association, which is responsible for governing all major forms of motor racing in the UK.
Thrustmaster T 500 RS: heavyweight gaming peripherals
But even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for the first impressions when the Thrustmaster box was delivered to my front door. For starters, it’s a substantial and well-made piece of kit, as the struggling delivery driver would back up. The pedal set-up is completely metal construction, and weighs around 7kg alone, with the wheel adding a further 4.5 to 5kg to the box.
And when you open the box, the new car smell and the impression of quality is immediately apparent. The 12 inch wheel is metal, as are the sequential gearshift paddles and the whole three-pedal set-up, whilst the plastic parts feel almost as solid.
Thrustmaster T 500 RS: set-up and technology
Inside the wheel unit is an industrial motor to provide more powerful and quicker force feedback than any rival product – and it definitely works, allowing you to really feel how your car is handling corners and judge when the tyres are starting to lose adhesion. It really opens up a new dimension and justifies the time and effort which goes into creating in-car views in racing games. Having previously played console games mainly with the standard joypad, I’ve always tended to race with a view from behind the car, and found my laptimes dropped by several seconds in car. But with the T 500 RS I actually set a personal best around two or three circuits, and came away feeling more like I’d spent time at a trackday than in my living room with the family asleep upstairs.
The wheel allows for 1080 degrees of rotation (three full turns), allowing you to cope with any situation, and besides the fact it’s the most precise wheel I’ve used, Thrustmaster also state that it won’t get any less accurate over time due to a contactless magnetic sensor. And if you’re not sure whether to believe them, one look at the pedal set-up will probably convince you.
The pedals are definitely my favourite part of the package. The construction and design of the pedals, and the adjustable braking resistance really completes the feeling of realism, to the point that I actually put my shoes on to drive in! The pedals are also adjustable for height and spacing for those of us attempting heel-and-toe braking with smaller feet, and probably my favourite trick is that the unit can either be floor-mounted for an F1-style position, or suspended for a GT position, which makes more sense with limited floor space. You do need to spend a little time setting everything up with an allen key and fitting the brake resistance unit, but it’s pretty straightforward and well worth the time and effort.
Driving with the Thrustmaster T500 RS
The T 500 RS is the only wheel licenced for Gran Turismo 5, and it really allows you to feel the difference between the 1031 cars in the game. Rather than just the look and engine note, you can actually feel the weight of heavier cars fighting you in corners, or the benefits of the lightweight sports cars as they flick through turns. It really enables you to benefit from making the right car selection to suit the track and getting the set-up of your car right. I’ve also found it’s helped me to enjoy close racing with other online drivers without the occasional collision due to the inaccuracies of some other controllers – if you do swap paintwork, it’s purely driver error from now on.
But I’ve actually saved one of the biggest benefits of the Thrustmaster kit for last. After overcoming their initial shock at the price and specs of the T 500 RS, I’ve noticed a huge effect on friends and family when they’re given the chance to try it. Obviously my social circle tends to include a lot of fellow motoring enthusiasts and they’ve all jumped at the chance to have a go – but the big difference for them is that quite a lot of them were terrible when presented with a joypad to steer. Letting them use a wheel and pedals that feel as if they’ve been ripped from a GT racer meant that they’re instantly able to put in a decent performance and actually enjoy the game. And the same is true of even devout non-gamers, with my partner able to translate the experience of driving my son to school into letting her manage a reasonable job of GT5’s Nurgburgring (Also helping me to persuade her that a trip to the real Nurburgring would be fun for the family!)
Thrustmaster T 500 RS: the downsides
Now there are some small caveats to buying the T 500 RS. First up is that although it works perfectly with Gran Turismo 5, it isn’t guaranteed to work with every game, and some won’t enable force feedback, so it’s worth checking your favourite games are compatible if you’re not intending to just play GT5.
Considering the realism, there’s a potential gripe that there’s no manual gearbox supplied – sequential paddles are fine for modern cars, but for a classic experience you’ll need to wait and purchase a forthcoming manual gearshift separately, potentially adding to the £500 cost. Although to be honest, once you’re underway, the issue of using the paddles isn’t a problem as they’re more convenient, and you probably won’t give it a second though in the midst of the racing action.
The self-assembly isn’t a major problem, but finding a suitable location can be. With quite a heavy wheel, it comes with adjustable clamps for stability, but you need to plan for a substantial table or desk to mount the wheel comfortably, and it really won’t work otherwise.
After all that, I’ll admit that for a little more than the cost of the Thrustmaster T 500 RS, you could find yourself an early-90s Japanese sports car. But speaking from personal, bitter, experience, I’d honestly recommend the T 500 RS as giving you more enjoyment, and less time spent on the hard shoulder waiting for a recovery truck. You’ll be able to appreciate the ever-growing catalogues of cars available in multi-million pound racing games, and the level of realism that they offer. You’ll be able to convert friend and family to understanding why for many of us, our dream garages and motorsport careers take place virtually. And if you appreciate motorsport furniture, the T 500 RS does make a damn good addition to a home office or living room.>>Would you spend £500 to get proper controls for your driving simulator game, or put it towards real-world driving? Share your thoughts in the comments section
Dan Thornton has combined obsessions with motoring and video games for over 25 years, and runs http://www.onlineracedriver.com, which is dedicated to online racing news, reviews and tips.
Get 3 issues of CAR magazine for £1 - Click here