The Formula 1 racing season almost ended before it began. Just three days before the Australian Grand Prix was set to open the 2020 campaign, with the teams already gathered in Melbourne while the coronavirus pandemic was exploding across the globe, the sport’s governing body finally made the decision to cancel the event. A member of the McLaren team tested positive for the disease at the same time, the races in China and Bahrain had already been cancelled, and so the teams broke camp and headed home to deal with both an immediate health crisis and a financial crisis for the sport.
Over the next two months it wasn’t at all clear that there would be a Formula 1 season, but it was crystal clear that the sport was facing financial disaster. The McLaren team used its collection of classic F1 cars as collateral for a loan, and a company executive offered the dire warning that perhaps half the teams in the sport might be in danger of ceasing operations. The coronavirus exposed the lack of sustainability and resilience across a variety of businesses, so of course it threatened this most excessive and unequal sport of haves and (relative) have-nots with destruction. The situation was so bad that the teams were finally motivated to impose real cost controls for upcoming seasons, likely a crucial step in restoring the sport to competitive health.
In F1 2020, the game, none of this has happened. Like any annual sports sim, the latest Codemasters game was designed to follow the planned schedule for the 2020 season. The season begins in Australia as always, and then the longest F1 season in history unfolds across 22 races around the world, hotly contested by a competitive field. A recent patch added the black-and-silver Mercedes car livery that was adopted as a response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, there are no references to the sport’s End Racism campaign nor depictions of the pre-race ceremonies that have proven depressingly divisive among drivers. It is now a period piece about the sport’s recent past, not its present or future.
The game’s biggest new feature, a Team Manager mode, lets you run your team while also driving for it. The audio recorded for this mode, featuring commentator David Croft and F1 interviewer Will Buxton, includes tons of politely incredulous lines about how preposterous this business-management model would be in today’s F1. But Codemasters F1 series is a sports series, and so it now has a management mode where you create your team livery, recruit drivers, and then sign with sponsors who shower you with money and give you performance bonuses. In hardly any time at all, your scrappy, underfunded F1 outfit can be dueling with the giants of the sport—though as you invest more in your team, the upkeep on it becomes increasingly burdensome. Success breeds success but the most insightful thing F1 2020’s My Team mode has to say about modern F1 is that it also makes it increasingly challenging to maintain competitiveness after even modest strings of setbacks.
By widening its lens to encompass more of the team-management aspect of the sport, Codemasters’ more egalitarian view of F1 competition begins to look a bit threadbare at the seams. The game has always struggled to present the differences between the cars on the grid, in part because the series has largely been defined by the successive dynasties of the Red Bull and Mercedes racing teams, both of whom enjoyed long periods of near-unchallenged dominance in the sport. The unflattering treatment the game received from many of its current drivers during its delayed-season esports series hinted at how tenuous a relationship there was between behavior of the sim F1 cars versus their real-life counterparts. The last game never captured the squirrely Williams car of the 2019 season, whose drivers complained behaved so erratically they could never trust it, nor the bizarre tire problems that have plagued the Haas F1 outfit. Here in the 2020 season, it has brutally clear how much better a car the Mercedes team has put up against its rivals, but the character of the individual cars always feels muted.
The clearest example of this problem is how F1 2020 depicts the current Ferrari. While Ferrari briefly looked like it had the most powerful engine in Formula 1 last year, its performance declined precipitously after other teams asked some pointed questions about the legality of its engine. While nobody outright said Ferrari cheated, and the settlement the team reached was mostly sealed, it was compelled to assist Formula 1 in helping ensure a very particular kind of rules infringement could be detected and prevented in the future. Probably not coincidentally, the 2020 Ferrari is one of the most underpowered cars in Formula 1. But in F1 2020, the Ferrari has one of the best straight-line speeds in the game, and in My Team, the Ferrari engine has the highest power rating when you go to choose your engine supplier. This situation would cry out for a ratings patch in another sports game, but it highlights the tension between game design and the reality of the sport that Codemasters has always wrestled with. Up and down the F1 grid are teams that have thrown fortunes and teams of engineers at the problem of designing a good race car, and they end up with a hopeless jalopy or something just good enough to occasionally get a glimpse of the Mercedes in the distance ahead. Would the game be fun if you could do everything “right” and regularly get your ass kicked?
F1 commentator Martin Brundle remarked last week, watching qualifying at the British Grand Prix, that the worst car on the modern F1 grid is a better car by miles than anything he drove during his own racing career. What does “bad” mean in F1? In F1 2020, it never means problems, only slight absences at the upper edges of performance. The way you feel a slower Williams car lose the racing line in a corner, or the way a Red Bull always loses a step powering down a straight..
Still, I find myself wishing the cars were just a bit harder to drive in F1 2020, especially in My Team mode where—at least at the start—you almost have to shortchange critical parts of the car. If you go all-in on power and engine upgrades, aerodynamics and chassis upgrade trees are sure to suffer. Couple that with the fact that an under-resourced team has a higher failure-chance for each upgrade you buy on the tree (meaning you’ve effectively flushed research points and the engineering time down the toilet) and you can end up with a car that’s fast in a straight line but slow through corners of every stripe. Yet even at the start of my F1 2020 My Team campaign, with all the assist settings turned off, my brand new F1 entry felt… great. As long as I didn’t step on the throttle too hard, it was one of the easiest drives I’ve ever had in a racing sim.
Making the job a little easier seems to have been a priority headed into F1 2020. According to Codemasters’ Lee Mather, they got feedback from Lando Norris about the fact that their handling model was too twitchy, and that their fuel-energy management systems were too involved compared to what drivers actually do on the racing circuit. The result is an edition of F1 where the cars feel a little less lively compared to a lot of other racing games, and a lot less complicated. That fact that F1 2020 simplifies things at a time when the sport’s licensing executive has admitted they might want to make a serious racing sim comparable to iRacing feels like a sign that, longer-term, the Codemasters approach might stop trying to split the difference.
I’m not sure I find that direction as interesting. I was taken aback, for instance, by how much I hated the simplification of the energy recovery system (ERS). In last year’s edition, you had about six settings you could choose for the ERS: you could set it to do nothing but harvest power from the brakes and heat exhaust and deploy no battery power to give your car a boost, or you could activate the max-discharge “hotlap” setting where the car effectively recovered no power and would span end all its electrical power over the course of a single lap. The ebb-and-flow of harvesting energy, changing driving style to make the most of your settings, and even min-maxing these settings over the course of a lap made driving the cars in F1 2019 fascinating and demanding.
F1 2020 scraps this system, in part because of that same driver feedback they received. According to the feedback they got, drivers don’t really mess with those systems in such a detailed way. Instead teams give them their settings and let the drivers know when they have “overtake” available for extra power. So instead of this plate-spinning exercise that you could micromanage with every lap, you now have a single button that toggles the “overtake” setting.
I don’t know how accurate this is. In-car cameras suggest that F1 drivers are doing more micro-management during their laps than this game now allows for, but that’s neither here nor there. The question is not whether this is what the driver bothers with or not, but which system makes for a better F1 game. My feeling, having played with both systems, is that F1 2019’s fussier settings made for a better game because it allowed you to run race strategy more from the cockpit. After all, sports games aren’t just about controlling quarterbacks or forwards: they’re about making the decisions that the coaches and managers make. F1 2019 used energy settings as a way for the player to adjust pace and set up attacks that unfolded across extended distances. Those decisions might not be drivers’ decisions, but for an F1 fan, the sport is as much about race strategies as it is about lap times.
One place F1 2020 can’t fairly be faulted is the chasm between its schedule and the reality of F1 in the maelstrom of 2020. The game has all the tracks Formula 1 was supposed to race at this year, including two newcomers to the series: Hanoi and a rather soulless Zandvoort, whose iconic rolling dunes have been somewhat tamed and blocked-off by the special safety measures required to run cars of the staggering speed of F1. That the series is not racing at either of those venues, nor any of its circuits in Asia or the Americas, could not have been imagined when this game was beginning development, nor the fact that the season would need to be salvaged by venues the sport spent years trying to extort or abandon.
F1 2020 undeniably offers more than F1 2019 did, and it’s easy to recommend to anyone who missed last year’s offering. But 2020 is a year that seems definitively to be bringing the curtain down on an era in Formula 1 and ushering in a “new normal” for a sport whose dysfunction appears increasingly unsustainable. F1 2020 is, through no fault of its own, ends up capturing a moment of complacency that was shattered months ago. It sands down the few rough edges that remained in 2019, and paints a picture of Formula 1 where good racing is always rewarded, and the driving has never been easier. The result is a good, fun racing game, but one that I wish grappled more with the aspects of the sport that make it so often an unfair or unequal contest. Part of being an F1 fan is knowing that the game is a little bit rigged, and loving it in spite of that. A perfect F1 game wouldn’t be afraid to face that.
Source : Rob Zacny Link