Auto-racing so often comes off as such a personal sport in video games, whether it's in the realistic first-person views of Assetto Corsa or in the mad juggles for first place in a game like Super Mario Kart. Sometimes such games will tease at the larger truth beyond with menus that let players choose from multiple cars and tinker with features like rim styles and differentials, but the safe approach has always been to keep that under the rug and champion the illusion of personal glory.
Motorsport Manager, a simulation game for PC, Mac, and Linux that casts you as the manager of a Formula 1-style racing team, tosses that personal focus aside to emphasize the big picture and emerges the better for it. For anyone not fully familiar with racing, it can be humbling to see just how big that picture gets. It's not just about cars and parts (though there is that), it's about securing sponsorships and finishing a race in a certain position to score payouts, it's about balancing travel expenses and catering to the egos of drivers, and it's about hiring whole teams of people, juggling emails, and sometimes even hoping an inspection team doesn't find an illegal part you snuck in for a win. All that, and it's greatest strength is that it rarely feels overwhelming.
But it can be disheartening. Motorsport Manager's extensive tutorial seemed intent on starting off by rubbing in how much I didn't actually know about the sport, as it tossed me almost immediately into a full race with a scripted rainstorm that forced me to watch helplessly as my two chosen drivers slipped ever closer to last place. This, despite my best calculations based on the tutorial's explanation of watching the forecast to time the changing of tires for different road conditions. This, despite successfully risking a shorter pit stop with an added chance of mistakes.
Video games tend to emphasize wins, but even my best tutorial playthrough seemed designed to highlight the astounding degree of loss associated with racing, particularly when at least one driver on my team doesn't come in better than fifth and a big sponsor withdraws that $250,000 bonus I was counting on. On top of that, the drivers berated my incompetence over the radio. Few if any games do such a good job of emphasizing the importance of small victories for staying profitable in racing or how devastating losses can be.
This, that first lesson seems to say, is what racing's really like. It's a strange way to start a game, but it works because it waits until after that tough round to pull back the curtain to reveal how many options are on hand for success. Racing comes off like something more akin to chess, as so much hinges on the setup. Several days go by before each race, allowing for practice rounds, the careful maintenance of egos for a team of divers, hiring designers for upgrades, and weathering the mood of a rich chairman who may fire me and end my career for sustained ineptitude. I'd always had an idea this stuff went on, of course, but seeing it laid out in such sweeping form will no doubt inject my next visit to the nearby racetrack with a sense of drama I'd never felt before.
The important thing, though, is that I got it. I still won't say I'm exactly good at Motorsport Manager, but somehow developer Playsport Games managed to design its piles of menus and buttons in such a way that they made sense even to a noob like me with a touch of practice. My progress improved enough to lead me to believe that mistakes were actually my fault rather than the work of a malevolent or faulty AI, which always ranks as a good sign with this type of game.
I sometimes worry, in fact, that it might be a little too user-friendly for motorsports enthusiasts considering dishing out the full $35 price tag. Motorsport Manager originally started life as an iOS and Android mobile game, and beyond the splendor of this highly polished version's gorgeous tracks and intuitive interface, its roots sometimes poke through the manicured surface in the form of simplified menus for car parts or the unsatisfying facility upgrades. Most annoying, there's no way to save setups, leaving me to use a pencil and paper scribble out the names of drivers and tires that had worked for a track before for future reference. Generally, though, I found its better parts far outweighed these minimal shortcomings.
Unfortunately, the absence of any licensed material means it lacks the personality of Football Manager, publisher Sega's other big sim with licensed playable heavyweights like Manchester United or Juventus. Its great sponsors aren't Mobil or Coca-Cola; they're "Shimizu" and, well, Football Manager. I'd hoped the driver screens would help me learn the stats and traits of current Formula 1 greats like England's Lewis Hamilton or Germany's Sebastian Vettel, but Motorsport Manager only fills its ranks with ad-hoc no-names like Dieter Wexler and Niilo Saarinen. Perhaps that's for the best. When Motorsport Manager's personality does shine through, it's chiefly through the new stories, emails, and fan reactions that relate scandals without the danger of offense.
Racing, Motorsport Manager tells us, is actually tough, grueling work, and Forza Horizon 3 and its ilk be damned. And this is no doubt with some of the most annoying and tedious bits removed for the sake of a game, which still leaves players with the juggle of deciding the strategies for two cars in a race while also paying attention to the needs and concerns of each driver. When it all comes together, it's fantastically rewarding, but my time with Motorsport Manager was enough to prove that I'd never want to do this for a living.
Some people may find joy in its charts and numbers, much as some people may find more fulfillment in EVE Online than in EVE Valkyrie. I merely left with respect. When it comes to future racing games, I'll be content with the driver's seat.