How to choose a sim racing seat
Here are some important considerations when choosing the perfect seat for sim racing
Updated November 2021 by Martin Ellingham
Choosing the perfect sim racing seat can be difficult. There are many things to consider such as fixed/non-fixed back, style, size, shape, material choice, cockpit compatibility and more. Here we will try and make it easier for you to find your perfect seat.
This article is aimed at people who are buying their first dedicated sim cockpit seat for a dedicated sim racing setup. If you are not using a cockpit or rig, then your options may be wildly different to what is talked about here. This is not an exhaustive list of considerations, and we recommend that you do further research beyond this article.
Why is it so difficult to choose?
It is incredibly difficult to choose a sim racing seat. Aside from there being many options to choose from, you also have the added complication that it is difficult to sit in them before buying, and virtually impossible to compare them back-to-back.
Different styles of seat
I consider there to be 3 distinct types of seats for sim racing.
Firstly, you have your “fixed back GT style seat”, secondly a “formula style seat” and thirdly a “adjustable back” or “recliner” seat (sometimes called a sport seat).
There are pros and cons to these options, as well as a myriad of different considerations when it comes to individual products. We will go into as much detail as we possibly can in this article, but please bear in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, so continue to do more research.
What’s in a fixed back GT style seat?
Often referred to as “bucket seats”, they are a great option for sim racing. They are defined by their fixed back style (meaning that there is no ability within the seat itself to recline). This doesn't mean that you cannot recline the seat, but it does mean that you will need to use additional brackets to gain this ability. The type of brackets used will determine how much adjustability you have to recline. Some cheaper bracket systems, particularly those that are bundled with the seat have no ability to recline the seat at all. Take a careful look at the brackets to make sure that there are additional mounting holes to pivot the seat forward or backward so that you can get the optimal angle for your setup.
The lines of a GT style seat are going to be comparable to what you see in most GT race cars, touring cars, rally cars and other sports cars. Many of them look very similar and it is not until you look at the details of the underlying fibreglass or carbon seat itself that you can really understand how is designed to be sat in and used.
GT style seats or any bucket seat for that matter typically hug you at the hips and torso. How much so depends on the individual design set out by the manufacturer. Some come with additional head restraints or high sides around the leg area if those are high at-risk areas. These seats are designed this way depending on the intended use on a racetrack. Obviously in the sim racing world we do not have the same requirements. This then leads to some of these features being at best redundant and at worst annoying and cumbersome. When racing a real-life car obviously safety is paramount, and these features ensure the driver is always kept safe. Also, due to the intensity of driving in real life, particularly when you have a fireproof suit, helmet, gloves, boots, etc. you do not notice these drawbacks to comfort. Obviously when we are sim racing, we do have time to notice things that affect how comfortable we are.
One note on virtual reality headsets, these are often impeded if the seat has additional head protection so these are best avoided if you want to use virtual reality.
The Sparco Circuit and Circuit II are mighty fine seats, but not a great option for VR due to the fixed head restraint
Finding the perfect seat for you
All of this is not to say that you cannot find a comfortable GT style seat, but it is very important that you take these things into consideration and allow for them as you browse for a seat to purchase.
This also extends to the size of the seat. In a real race car, you are obviously looking for a seat that fits you perfectly down to the millimetre. In a sim racing cockpit we may spend an extended period of time in the seat, be it watching replays or helping team mates in an endurance event. My advice is to always go on the larger side. A seat that is too small for you will be uncomfortable, hot and detract from the overall experience.
I mentioned earlier that the lines of a seat and the overall design can vary between manufacturers and individual seat styles. Literally every single dimension can be different from manufacturer to manufacturer and between each style. Even seats that look the same at a quick glance can often be drastically different when you sit in them. If you get the chance to try the seat beforehand, do. If in doubt, go bigger.
If you intend on using motion with your sim racing cockpit, then you will want to ensure that you are retained by the seat as much as possible to avoid injury or discomfort.
Why choose a “fixed back GT style seat”?
A fixed back seat can really help with your braking. You will find that with a fixed back seat you have less flex in the seat and therefore your braking will be more consistent. This is the primary reason, for me at least, to go for a fixed back style seat.
If your primary driving is within sports cars, GT style cars, etc. Then of course it will be more immersive to have a GT style seat.
They are usually comfortable for most people. A well-fitting seat will support you for the entire length from your thighs to your shoulders. Extra padding can be added for small areas of the seat that are not supportive, often fixed using Velcro.
Why choose a “formula style seat”?
It goes without saying that if you are driving a formula sim on a regular basis then you may appreciate the additional immersion of a formula style seat. It is not just the laidback nature of the driving style, but also the way in which your legs are pitched up in the air so that your legs are perpendicular to the pedals (as in a real formula car) which can only be replicated fully by using a formula style seat.
Sparco GP, a formula style seat for sim racing
You do need to be careful about formula style seats in terms of how comfortable or supportive they are. I have heard a few stories of people having back or neck issues after long periods of time in the sim. This doesn't surprise me as when you think about how in real life there are not really races where you're in such a position for more than a few hours. In a sim rig you can easily exceed this amount of time, on multiple occasions, in a single week. Extend that out over a longer period and it could cause to be problematic. It really will depend on your genetics, flexibility, and amount of use your sim cockpit receives.
Why is there such a cost disparity between different seats?
There are many reasons why different seats cost different amounts. Here are just some of them.
Original and unique designs such as those developed and patented by the large brands in the seat industry require a lot of upfront investment in R&D. This needs to be paid back overtime by recouping the cost on each seat. Seats that are mass produced, are not of a unique design or under license from another company will typically be easier to make. This means that the cost is spread out over a larger number of seats and so the per unit costs is decreased. Mass produced seats are often not certified for race use.
Race seats are a niche product, and they are typically produced in small production runs. This particularly applies to seats that are certified for track or race use. This certification process itself costs a lot of money each year for the manufacturers to recertify different styles of seat. Therefore you may see two very similar seats from the same manufacturer, one with a slightly higher cost than the other. For example, Sparco have a few different seats that are virtually identical except that one has been certified for race use (and has an FIA stamp) and the other does not. This reduces the cost on each seat by a small amount. This does not necessarily mean that you are receiving less of a seat than you otherwise would, but it does mean that you're not paying for a certification that you do not need on your seat.
Full blown race seats and even the sim racing equivalent have varying levels of material quality. For example, seats such as Cobra and Sparco may have self-extinguishing lining, or breathable block fabric, depending on the use case. This is obviously not an absolute requirement in sim racing, but you are paying for it by going for one of these seats.
There are also features that exist on race car seats that you wouldn't necessarily need for sim racing. One example of this would be non-slip fabric to restrain the shoulders during high G force turns.
One final thought on cost and price. Typically larger seats are more expensive. This makes sense because there are more materials used to make the seat, but it is also due to the lower production numbers. Larger seats are typically produced in lower quantities and may disrupt production lines disproportionately. This adds to a manufacturer’s cost and therefore needs to be passed on to the customer.
It is possible to re-sell race seats. If you chose the wrong one or your requirements have changed then there is definitely a market for second-hand seats. It is worth mentioning some key points when re-selling seats. Anything that has adjusted the seat structurally will obviously be a big nono to people wanted to use the seat in a real race car. FIA certifications also run expire; they have a five year expiration date after the construction of the seat. If you are going to sell an FIA seat, make sure you do it within that five year period and keep the stamp on the seat.
Why does the same seat cost different amounts in different parts of the world?
One of the common questions we are asked is why does a seat cost more in one part of the world than another? It is a good question and I'm sure there is more to it than just this simple statement, however the main reason is due to the size of the seat and the accompanying shipping costs that requires. A good comparison would be to say a mobile phone. A mobile phone can be the same cost around the world (give or take) because it is small and light and so shipping long distance has a smaller effect on the overall price. A seat, which may only be seven or eight kilogrammes, has a disproportionate footprint to its weight. Most seats are shipped in metre long boxes with a large width and depth as well. Especially in today's world, this increases the cost of shipping relative to where it is made. Therefore, you will see European brands dominate in Europe, and American brands dominate in America.
Other considerations when buying racing style seats?
It is to be expected that you will be getting in and out of your seat more often than you would the race car it was designed to be used for. To get in and out of either a GT or formula style seat, typically, unless you are a gymnast, you will be supporting yourself in and out of the seat using your hands on the side of the seat. What this means is that these areas are often the first to wear, get grubby, and cause issues with the aesthetics of the seat. Add to that sweaty palms and oily fingers and it can often be the difference between an immaculate sim racing setup and one that looks quite second-hand quite quickly. Some manufacturers have put additional reinforced materials in these areas so that you do not have the worry about constant use and the wear and tear associated with it. Look out for little features like this that may make your day-to-day enjoyment of the rig higher.
When it comes to size there are obviously many things to consider. height and weight will typically determine the width of the seat not just at the waist but also the hips, legs and shoulder areas. Height will obviously be an important factor, particularly if you are on the taller side, when it comes to the overall back length of the seat.
Some manufacturers produce seats in different sizes. This means that the overall lines and design of the seat are the same, however the dimensions of each are tweaked. Some manufacturers do not have different sizes for their seats. Some manufacturers only choose certain seats to have different sizes. It is all very confusing at times.
There is no universal sizing between seat manufacturers, so check the numbers carefully
Sometimes the naming conventions are not consistent even by the same manufacturer. A good example of this is Sparco. The “Evo” range of seats comes in three different sizes standard, large, and extra-large. This is denoted buy an L and XL in the seat name. However, the “Circuit” range of seats is simply named “Circuit” and “Circuit II”. With the II (or 2) meaning that this is the larger of the two seats. The difference between a standard and a large or any other size can also be different even within the same manufacturer. What is meant by this is that an Evo as a greater spread of dimensions then a Circuit.
One of the reasons why there is so much variation in this area is down to what footprint the seat could occupy in a real race car. Some seats have been designed to be ultra-compact so that they can fit into the smallest race car cockpit. This is less of a concern for sim racers but will have an impact on the internal dimensions of the seats which in turn has an impact on comfort.
How about needing to change the distance from the pedals to the seat, or steering wheel to the seat? One consideration that you have is whether you need to fit a seat slider. Seat sliders are sometimes universal and will fit many types of seat, others will be manufacturer, brand, or seat specific. It is important to cheque the compatibility of the slider before purchasing a seat even if it is from the same manufacturer.
How does the seat mount?
I mentioned previously that most seats fit with brackets to your sim rig. This is not always the case and some have mounting points on the bottom of the seat allowing them to be mounted without the use of additional brackets this is rare but it can happen. Most seats are side mounted which typically gives the greatest range of options in terms of adjust ability. One thing to be careful of if buying a seat that is bottom mounted, is that it often does not allow for an adjustable angle to be set on the seat, like a side mounted seat would have.
The weight of a seat does not typically matter in a sim racing scenario, but it may do if you are intending on adding motion to your rig. For most of us, the weight of the seat will only matter once, during the installation. The main difference for why a seat weighs more or less than another seat is obviously due to its construction but not just in terms of the amount of material used or the size of the seat, but also the material choices that have been made.
Traditionally race seats have been constructed with a steel frame. It is now far more common for the more expensive seats to be constructed out of 100% fibreglass or on the higher end, carbon fibre. Plastic seats are there and are used but are seen less in the sim racing world for the obvious comfort issues that they bring.
Like everything there are trade-offs when manufacturers choose materials for making seats. In a race car ultimately mass is king, the lower the mass, the faster you are. By choosing lightweight materials such as fibreglass, regardless of how it is manufactured, may not be as strong as a material with a higher mass. This is not a rule, but it is what is commonly seen in the products that are on the market today.
A premium feature seen on some seats is the ability to change the padding on the seat. Either by moving any pads that have been supplied with the seat as standard, or replacing them entirely for new pads. You may wish to do this if either the supportive nature of the pad has reduced over time, or you are seeking less height or more height in the seat (or on the sides if the diet is or is not going to plan).
Why choose a reclining seat?
It is not just the obvious reclining function that sets apart a reclining seat. They are also very different in both that construction, weight, cost, material choice, etc.
A reclining seat will often feel more familiar to those who drive on the road and can often be paired or matched to what you drive in your real car. The same can be said for bucket seats, but this is obviously a very different use case.
The Sparco R100 is a popular reclining seat
Reclining seats are often more forgiving in terms of how much they hug your body. The legs, sides and shoulder areas are often more open, less deep and fit a larger range of body shapes and sizes. One of the big advantages here is that if you are kind enough to share your rig or cockpit with others you will find little problem in accommodating a variety of bodies.
One thing to be careful of with a reclining seat is how much flex the reclining function may add to your sim racing cockpit. This may not affect you if you have a soft brake setup. It will certainly affect you if you have a hard load cell or hydraulic pedal setup, where braking forces are much higher than entry level pedal setups. As you put your foot hard into the brake pedal, my high school Newtonian physics knowledge says that the force must go somewhere. If the seat requires less force to flex than the pedal takes to depress, then it will be the seat that gives in first. This is more than just an annoyance, it can also introduce inconsistencies into your braking technique, losing you time on track.
If, like me, you do need more space to accommodate your body shape then a reclining seat is a good option, however, don't assume it is the only option. The Spaco Evo XL is an extremely accommodating GT style bucket seat and is a popular choice for those who either need or simply appreciate having more space without having to resort to a reclining seat with its compromises.
The Sparco Evo XL is very generous in its sizing (both widths and height)
A quick word on seat brackets. I mentioned earlier that seat brackets are not all universal. This means that you need to be careful if buying seat brackets from different manufacturers to your seat. If you look closely at a seat bracket you can usually tell if it is universal by how many drill holes it has for mounting to either the car’s chassis or to the sim rig. Lots of holes typically equates to being universal. For the side mounting, where the bolts are fitted to the seat to hold it in place, most companies now standardise around a 290 millimetre spacing between the mounting holes. This is not the case with every manufacturer so it is best to check.
Seat brackets can vary wildly in cost. Normally you will find seat specific brackets costing a lot more than the universal type. Again, weight has a big impact on cost, just like the seat. Strong but lightweight brackets will often cost more than their heavier counterparts. For sim racing there is obviously an aesthetic choice to be made as well. Most seat brackets are made of either 3 millimetre steel or 6 millimetre aluminium and are powder coated either for a gloss or matte finish.
3mm obp Motorsport seat brackets allow 24 combinations of adjustment due to its numerous mounting slots and holes
Seat brackets can have more or less adjustability depending on the number of mounting holes. It is typical to have between 12 and 24 different combinations for height and angle (calculated by multiplying the number of holes on the left with the number of holes on the right). Take note of the overall height of the brackets, where the mounting holes begin relative to the height of the bracket as this will ultimately have an impact on the height of your seating position. Seat brackets are typically sold in pairs and come with a left and a right bracket. The ‘slot’ hole is for the front, and the round hole is for the back.
Car seat conversions
Many people have successfully converted a seat made for a road car into a sim race seat. The process at a high level is reasonably simple. You find a seat that fits you comfortably, and then you find a way to fit it to the rig. This second part can be much trickier than first thought. Many car seats have special sub-frames (frames underneath the seat) that attach it to the car they were made for. Some of these are very simple frames and can attached to a sim racing cockpit easily. Others are more complicated and do not easily mount to a sim rig.
How difficult this will also depend on your sim racing cockpit itself. Knowing how the seat mounts to the rig (or car) is where to start, but also knowing your rig mounting options is a must. Aluminium profile rigs typically offer the most flexibility in this area but check before buying the seat with the rig manufacturer. They may not always know the answer, but they can typically ask some basic questions (or request photographs / measurements) to help determine if it will be a good fit.
Electric functions will (obviously) need power to run, such as recline, lumbar, height or even heated seat function! This is not an area I am overly familiar with, so I won’t go on to say much about it. If you don’t intend to hook up power, make sure the seat is in the correct position for you before removing it from the car!
The seat provides a constant reminder of whether or not you made a good or bad choice. It will always be there every single time you use the rig. Take your time to consider all the options. Think of what you need and then of the compromises you will need to make. There is no such thing as a perfect seat, however there is such a thing as the perfect seat for you. Some manufacturers are very happy to talk directly to customers or potential customers but be aware that they will have both a conscious and unconscious bias towards their own products.
Talk to us. We don't make much money from selling seats, we do not manufacture them and so our margins are very slim. But we care that you are in the right seat. A bad seat will put a quick end to the enjoyment. The performance of your sim rig also depends a lot on choosing the right seat, getting that comfort level right, and ultimately feeling confident in your purchase.
What thoughts do you have around choosing the perfect seat? Please let us know and will be happy to include additional thoughts, comments and opinions. Let us know if we missed anything.
Check out our range of sim racing seats by clicking here.