'F1 2018' Is a Great Sports Role-Playing Game About Calculated Risk

Learning what it takes to succeed in the most demanding motorsport in the world.

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Aug 22 2018, 5:16pm

Screenshots courtesy of Codemasters

Here’s an apocryphal story from Formula 1 history. It’s the early 2000s, and the marriage between the Ford Motor Company and Jaguar is headed for the rocks. One of the major sources of friction is Jaguar’s struggling F1 racing team. A corporate accountant comes to the CEO, William Clay Ford, concerned about something he found in the company’s payroll records. It might be a massive screw-up in budgeting, or maybe even embezzlement. He shows the latest scion of the Ford family his findings about his company’s highest-paid employees and there, above all the C-suite executives and technical directors who command the biggest salaries in the company, is someone that nobody in Detroit has ever heard of. Ford looks at the ledger and blurts, “Who the fuck is Eddie Irvine?”

The company would sell the F1 operation to Red Bull a couple years later and Eddie Irvine—Jaguar’s driver with a proverbially eye-watering salary—would go on to work in luxury real estate. But I love the story because it neatly encapsulates the culture clash of the Ford-Jaguar Formula 1 operation. The Ford company, synonymous with rapacious practicality, encounters the completely impractical pinnacle of motorsport and literally can’t compute the resources it consumes. Who the fuck is Eddie Irvine and—unspoken but very much implied by the question—what could a single driver possibly do that makes them so important?

F1 2018 is preoccupied with that latter question. It’s an F1 game that acknowledges that the race itself takes up a fairly small percentage of a driver’s track time, and that it’s not wheel-to-wheel duels that make a driver useful and important to their team. It’s consistency and precision. The ability to drive a lap that will actually let you know whether a different wing saved a tenth of a second or lost it. The ability to adapt their technique to whatever resource the team’s strategy most badly needs to to conserve at a given moment: Fuel, tires, battery power, and time. Any fool can go fast around a track, but finding someone who can stay fast while also being told not to use the accelerator too much, or the brakes, and maybe don’t turn so sharply? A driver who can somehow do all of that and stay competitive is worth their weight in carbon fiber.

It’s also, increasingly, the bare minimum of what a driver is called-upon to do during a race. I’ve not seriously played the Codemasters F1 series for a couple years, so I was taken aback by just how much systems management I had to do during every single race. In most racing games you’re just minding your tires and trying to stay on the racing line. In F1 2018 you’re constantly flicking through settings trying to wring a little more efficiency from the turbo-hybrid engine, and changing your driving approach to match.

But in order to do that you need to have practiced, and that’s where F1 2018—like last year’s edition before it—really shines. If you play a full F1 racing weekend, you’ll have three practice sessions during which you can run different testing programs for the team. The Track Acclimatisation Program is just about learning the track and best speed and positions from which to attack each corner. But things start getting interesting with programs around tire wear, fuel conservation, and the Energy Recovery System (ERS).

Your reward for successfully completing these tests are points for further R&D to improve your car, but that’s not the real payoff. The real payoff is driving the same track several times over, in several different ways. Before you ever drive a lap of the race, you will have a feel for what it’s like to drive the circuit using lift-and-coast techniques to save fuel, to have min-maxed your energy recovery system for maximum boost at minimum drain on the battery, and to have used the kind of smooth, fluid style that places little wear on your tires while preserving most of your speed. During the race itself, as different situations arise, you’ll be able drawing from these experiences as you mix-and-match different techniques to fit your immediate circumstances. It’s intoxicating, playing a racing game that teaches you the kind of extensive and granular intuition that it takes to compete in Formula 1 these days.

The counterpoint to this is in F1 2018’s extensive collection of vintage F1 cars. If you go back and drive a Ferrari 312—the Italian team’s prancing workhorse of the late 1960s—you’ll find a car that requires absolutely nothing of the driver except driving. There are no systems to manage or tweak on the fly, there’s just the purity of driver, machinery, and circuit. Of course, that simplicity is massively deceptive: Modern F1 cars may leave you with more systems to mind and manage, but they won’t try and murder quite as relentlessly as the rattle-trap classics of F1’s carnage-filled “golden age” in the 60s and 70s. The older cars have massive combustion engines without any electronic supervision to help manage torque and wheelspin, their aerodynamic elements are crude or nonexistent, and so they are always just one minor mistake away from catastrophe. They are machines to master and survive, unlike their optimization-focused descendants.

F1 2018 also tries to bring out the personal side of being an F1 driver via a more role-playing focused career mode. In essence, this amounts to doing occasional interviews with an F1 pit lane reporter where you choose from a small menu of responses. In essence, they amount to either: Complaining about the car, bragging about yourself, or praising the team. It’s probably the biggest new feature of 2018, but it’s really just a thin RPG layer that you can use to tweak the expectations that your team places on you, the performance of its various R&D divisions, and to create some narrative explanation for which teams will become more interested in you and which teams will cool towards you.

It does lead to some occasional neat moments, however. In one race, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo touched wheels with me and sent us both into the pits for repairs. The reporter asked about the collision and I chose the, “Yeah, it felt like I was an idiot-magnet out there,” response, and instantly torched my reputation with Red Bull. It’s not a fully fleshed-out system, but beats like that do get at the ways that frustration, short tempers, and blunt interviews can fuel F1’s never-ending supply of soap-opera drama.

There’s still plenty of drama in the machines themselves. Formula 1 is enjoying its most competitive season in at least ten years, and F1 2018 brings that excitement across beautifully. I’m not sure I’ve ever had the feeling of being in a live race the way I have with F1 2018. Other drivers make mistakes and suffer mechanical failures at a rate that seems pretty consistent with what you’ll see at an actual race. Often, a flickering yellow-orange caution light in the distance is the only warning you’ll receive before you round a blind corner and stumble across a wounded McLaren or Red Bull, belching smoke and struggling to hobble back to the pits.

Other drivers will make the kind of understandable mistakes that you will. At a deliciously tense Azerbaijan Grand Prix, as a rainstorm blew across the track in the final two laps, I was trying to hold onto my spot on the podium. My tires were already spent, the track was flooding, but I was too close to the end of the race to pit for rain tires, so I wrestled my car around the narrow, twisting medieval streets as best I could. Nipping at my heels were two Finnish drivers whose tires were somehow holding out far better than mine, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen

On a long, gently arcing back straight, Bottas finally got a run on me as we approached the corkscrew turn at the end of the straight. He burst into view along my car’s left side, with the inside angle on the turn. As I tucked myself into Bottas’ draft, Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari pulled past me to the right. I just tried to hold a straight line as the two drivers pushed clear of me and began their approach to the corner. Then Bottas hit the brakes, and his car just… twitched.

It wasn’t much. Nothing really. But his back end slipped in the soaking track, and his slick left tire wobbled into the wall at 220 kilometers per hour. There are no small bumps at that speed. His car fishtailed wildly, then went into a sideways skid. I goosed the brakes and cut inside to make the turn, somehow managing to avoid the front wing of Bottas’ helpless Mercedes. Raikkonen had already committed to the outside line that was now full of Bottas’ car. As I made the turn, Mercedes and Ferrari exploded into a shower of carbon fire behind me. I surfed my car through the corner, my wheels spinning helplessly for grip, and only managed to hold onto my podium finish because of the traffic jam caused by the accident behind me.

Neither Bottas nor Raikkonen had done anything really wrong. They’re raced remarkably cleanly, whereas in previous editions, one or both of them might have tagged me from behind repeatedly until I was finally knocked out of the race. This year’s AI drivers are much more respectful and sensible behind the wheel, but they are capable of those aggressive, daring lunges that overtaking in F1 so often requires. When they make mistakes, they’re not of the sort that leave you rolling your eyes at slot-car AI. They’re the kind of mistakes that racing stewards look at every week in Formula 1 and decide to let pass as a “racing incident”.

Because all that practice and training before a race makes drivers intimately familiar with both a circuit and the limits of their car’s capabilities, but great F1 drivers are also expected to know when to push those limits. If F1 2018 spends much of its time hammering home the importance of consistency and preparation over simply going as fast as possible, its final lesson is in knowing when the moment has come to overrule caution and force your way through. Being able to set up that moment, recognize it, and execute in a situation with zero margin for error is the F1 racer’s craft, and it’s the one that F1 2018 cultivates in every aspect of its structure and design. It’s a good racing game, but it’s a great game about being an F1 driver, and all the intangibles that they have to put on the balance sheet.