I think from the discussion one can see why the direct control scheme seems to connect one closer to ones ship.
It is not uniform, predictable. It controls some hardware on the ship directly.
By directly connecting mouse movement to the thruster the player experiences the hurdles the ship does. The player notices how he has to move more, work more, when the ship encounters resistance. Be it from outside or from its own mass.
And one can see its drawback.
It is not uniform, predictable. (It controls some hardware on the ship directly.)
Virtual heading would be uniform and predictable ... (v)Joy would also be, but only if it would control acceleration instead of thruster impulse.
So if you add (v)Joy to bigger ships but still have it control thruster impulse you would still get that connection to the ship. The difference is that instead of constantly having to move the mouse, you just set and forget ...
By that one can see that the struggle having to reset the mouse also plays some role in connecting with the ship.
Concerning competitiveness. I think a game should never just be competitive or just be casual. It should, and can, cater to both by either being modable or providing presets for servers.
Now if you fear minimum playerbase. Competitive people can train by playing the Default preset. But when playing a serious match they always will disconnect from a, for instance, I-Novae server and connect to their whitelist/password competitive server. There they should be able to control enough parameters of the game in order to level the playing field.
In BF2142 you could unlock stronger weapons. Competitive players created a mod that would only allow the standard starting weapons. It also added quality of life features.