The Story of the First Steering Wheel Compatible With Both a Racecar and a Sim Rig

Fanatec BMW M4 GT3 Steering Wheel 17 photos
Photo: BMW AG
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Thanks to BMW and Fanatec, motorsport enthusiasts who can’t afford an M4 GT3 will be able to buy its steering wheel, connect it to a sim rig, and take German manufacturer’s latest racecar for a spin in the virtual world.
Sim racing has been around for some time now but with the rapid development of more complex rigs and games, it has risen to new heights in recent years. The esport has become so popular that many carmakers have established factory-backed sim racing programs and events.

One such event took place in December 2020 at BMW Welt in Munich where the best sim drivers that took part in a BMW-sanctioned racing series met for the season finale. Apart from the 30-minute race around the virtual Nürburgring, the event hosted the debut of the M4 GT3’s digital version as well as the unveiling of its steering wheel.

Decorated works driver Philipp Eng took to the stage in the racecar prototype, got out of it with the steering wheel in his hands, and then proceeded to mount it on a Fanatec rig. For a moment, people didn’t understand what just happened, but then the presentation kicked off and everyone was pleasantly surprised to find out that this was the world’s first steering wheel compatible with both a racecar and a sim rig.

This fascinating feat was the result of a pioneering project that started in 2019 and became the subject of the documentary “Fusion: The Fanatec steering wheel for the BMW M4 GT3” which you can view below.

It all started when Fanatec CEO Thomas Jackermeier presented this bold idea to members of BMW Motorsport’s development team who were initially very skeptical. They viewed Fanatec as a toymaker and couldn’t really see how it could develop an advanced piece of equipment for an actual racecar.

That all changed when Jackermeier showcased the company’s products, which, as sim racers know, are anything but toys. Blown away by the race-spec quality of Fanatec devices and the complexity of the proposed design, the BMW team decided to give the project a shot.

In the early days of GT racing, the steering wheel was grossly neglected but nowadays that has dramatically changed. It has become one of the most important components of a racecar and often receives the same amount of attention during its development process as an engine or a gearbox.

Fanatec made a name for itself as one of the world’s leading sim hardware manufacturers, but designing a steering wheel for BMW’s latest GT3 weapon was no easy task.

Using 3D-printed parts to build several mock-ups and receiving constant feedback from the BMW Motorsport development team as well as its drivers, they worked their way to a final design that provided near-perfect ergonomics and tactile feedback. Once it was approved, the team started building and testing the first fully functional prototype.

It featured 12 illuminated pushbuttons, two paddle shifters, and two additional buttons fitted at the back. They were all integrated into an 8-layer carbon fiber shell that is not only extremely light but also dust and waterproof.

During the same period, BMW was also bringing the new M4 GT3 to life in their workshop. Chassis number one was almost completed when Jackermeier himself arrived with the finished steering wheel prototype which was met with positive feedback by both the drivers and engineers.

Several weeks later, the racecar was ready for its first test runs at the BMW test track. This was also the first time that the Fanatec prototype would be put to the test in a real-world environment.

After a few laps, works driver Augusto Farfus delivered his feedback: the steering wheel was too heavy, some of the switches were too stiff and at some point, the paddle shifters stopped working due to a problem with the car’s steering rack.

Both teams worked hard to fix the issues in the coming weeks and with a revised steering wheel that was tested by Philipp Eng on a Fanatec rig, the M4 GT3 got back on the track for extensive endurance tests.

This time, Circuito Monteblanco in Spain was chosen. During the day, it was driven along the track by Eng and Farfus while a couple of BMW Motorsport junior drivers received the task of testing the steering wheel on a simulator during the night.

This time the device performed flawlessly, passing its endurance tests with flying colors and receiving the green light for mass production.

The M4 GT3 was made available to the sim world in the through the iRacing platform in January 2021 and the production version of the real thing was revealed to the public six months later. Fanatec initially announced that the wheel would be available this summer, but it has yet to officially release it or provide an exact date.

The company didn’t stop there and partnered up with Bentley to create another amazing dual-purpose steering wheel for the latest iteration of the Continental GT3.

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About the author: Vlad Radu
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Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
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