Life is complicated at the pinnacle. Everyone wants to get there, but very few can. Once there, everyone wants to stay there. Again, very few can. Getting there usually involves taking the place of someone already there. Staying at the pinnacle just as often means a constant struggle to prevent being knocked off by someone else, using whatever defensive means required. And even at the pinnacle, there is yet another hierarchy; the climbing is not done until you are the best of the best. Political intrigue, temporary alliances, and no holds barred competition are the hallmarks of life on the top. Secrets and lies, battles within battles, and a never-ending chase to be the best: that is the complicated life that one can expect when the whole world is watching to see who will wear the crown.
This is the life of a Formula 1 racing team.
To the casual observer, Formula 1 racing looks just like any other kind of racing. There are loud, fast cars, driven by loud, proud drivers. There are glitzy sponsor logos affixed to every available surface like barnacles, shrilly advertising every product or service known to a global market. There are well-funded front runners, there are cash-deprived back markers. There are vivid personalities, there are blood feuds, and there are hangers-on. And first and foremost, there is money. A great deal of money.
What differentiates Formula 1 from every other class of racing is not the presence of those traits, it is the staggering magnitude of them. The demands are extreme, the pressure to win is immense. Every detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, matters. A few hundredths of a second can mean the difference between a shower of glory or the pain of defeat. As with a diamond, marketable value comes only as a result of constant, intense pressure. To the experienced observer, Formula 1 is much more than who won a given race. It is the races within the race that the veteran fan watches with equal fervor to the on-track action.
For example, a Formula 1 team has hundreds of support personnel, but only two drivers. The sponsor livery on both cars is identical; the sponsor doesn’t care which of the two cars wins, they just want to see their brand be the first across the finish line. This, combined with the fact that each team designs and builds its own car in compliance with the current design rules (the formula), means that there is only one easily determined metric to decide who is the better driver: a driver’s performance relative to his team mate. A driver’s team mate is the only other racer that is driving an ostensibly identical car, so it is the only real apples-to-apples comparison or driver capability. This results in a strange dichotomy: a Formula 1 driver’s primary must-beat opponent is his team mate. This pressure to beat the team mate is exacerbated when it comes to the apportioning of R&D dollars - the better driver often has more input on the question of where the R&D efforts should be concentrated and also is usually the first to receive upgraded equipment. The second driver gets leftovers and hand-me-downs.
All of this is to say that the true Formula 1 experience is far more involved than just driving the cars. Drivers are competing with other teams’ drivers and their own team mate. The teams are competing for the constructors championship as well. The front running teams and drivers will get the lion’s share of attention from the TV broadcasters, but the middle- and lower-tier teams are engaged in equally fervent battles with their peers. Just because a team isn’t in the race for a podium position does not mean that they aren’t still in a race for their lives. Overseeing all of this day-to-day competition is the Formula 1 organizing body which is responsible for the setting and enforcing of technical and racing rules. Those rules are constantly changing as teams find ways of gaining an advantage, and the enforcement of the rules is not always consistent. The upshot of this is that the teams also often feel as if they are in a competition with the rule makers.
It would be difficult to find a racing environment more difficult to capture as a video game. Note that I use the word ‘environment’ - there is no shortage of mods and other games that do a more or less suitable job of simulating the F1 driving experience, but there is only one that pays equal attention to the overall experience of being on a Formula 1 team. Codemasters has spent the last year polishing up F1 2010, their already superb foray
into Formula 1, paying particular attention not only to critical elements such as the driving feel and the technological rule changes, but also to the show-within-the-show: the politics and pressure that permeate the team environment. This year’s release, unsurprisingly named F1 2011, is a top-to-bottom evolution over last year.
Subtle examples of these improvements abound, but I will select a few that I found especially noteworthy. One that made me raise my eyebrows in appreciation happened when I was sitting in the car, preparing to head out to the track for a few practice laps. My crew chief directed my attention to a display that showed that I was only a few championship points behind my team mate. He urged me to push a little harder in order to get ahead of the other guy because we were nearing the halfway point of the season and the R&D allocations for the following year would need to be discussed. If I was the leading driver on the team at the halfway point, I would have significant input into the decisions as to where the research dollars would be spent. At the time, I felt that just getting a KERS system installed would be the best decision. I could have used the extra grunt when accelerating out of the apex of a slow turn since I have a tendency to get too slow on the tight corners.
Another example came in the rain at Monza. Actually, there were two outstanding touches that struck me at just about the same time. The first came when I moved left, into the slipstream of the car in front of me. That was a horrible idea! The spray of water being thrown into the air by the other car immediately blinded me. At 200mph, blind is the last thing you want to be! I quickly moved off to the right side to get a clearer view of the track, and just in time too: we had just about reached the first gear chicane at the end of the front straight. As I braked into the turn, the trajectory of the rain drops shifted from angling straight into my face to falling almost vertically as my forward speed was bled off. As the rotation of the front tires slowed, the rain started splattering off of the top of them rather than just blowing by as it had been. Rain also started beading on the canopy sill next to me. As I accelerated out of the turn, the beaded drops blow off of the canopy sill. It was bloody marvelous!
As I said, these little environmental touches are baked into the very DNA of the game. No more does my crew chief tell me over the radio that the leader of the race has changed; that is of absolutely no interest to me, mired back in twentieth place. Instead, this year’s crew chief tells me things I want to know, such as my team mate entering the pits for the third time, and me on a two-stop strategy. He keeps my up to date on the status of my limited sets of tires, and which of the two choices I will receive on my next pit stop. Just at the start of the aforementioned Monza race, he came on the radio to tell me that the Race Director had officially declared a “wet start,” thus mooting the requirement to use both tire compounds at some point during the race.
I have just scratched the surface of the non-racing aspects of F1 2011, but the most amazing thing is that the simulation would be excellent even without them. The updates made to the driving model have made the cars much more controllable. In 2010, there were times when I felt as if I had triggered a piece of code that looked something like “Car_Spin = true” - the car would enter a spin and I was powerless to stop it, almost as if it was an animation. In 2011, I still managed to spin the car now and then (typically by forgetting that I had activated the DRS system before a gentle turn), but even while doing so I still felt as if I could “feel” the track surface and that my often futile attempts to catch the car were at least making some slight difference.
Visually, the tracks are absolutely superb. The stark lighting and heavy contrast of the Singapore night race in particular was so attention-grabbing that I was often at risk of causing a huge pile-up while sightseeing. Every aspect of the driving experience is included; even pit stops are fully animated. As you pull into your pits in order to return to your garage, the pit crew come out to push your car back into the stall. Rather than disrupt the in-car experience to work with menus, most of them are accessible through the video monitor placed on the front of your car.
Eye candy, that, to be sure, and not worth a fig if the racing itself is not up to snuff. The racing is the most important aspect and, in the world of console games, the hardest to get right. There is a delicate balance between authenticity and playability. Too much attention to authenticity would result in a super-realistic racing environment that you would be unable to use. Consider this: there is a reason that Formula 1 cars are not driven with tiny little control sticks and triggers. Erring on the side of too much playability would be just as bad: if the cars are too easy to drive, there isn’t enough of a challenge to allow those with better skills to earn their positions on the podium.
This is, of course, just an opinion, but F1 2011 seems to have achieved a very good balance. Take as an example the first turn of a race: this is an area that is rife for carnage. The cars are all bunched up and jockeying for position and it is not uncommon at all for half a dozen of them to get knocked out of the race before even seeing the second turn. There seems to be a little more forgiveness built into the melee at the first turn; either that, or I was just exceedingly lucky in being able to survive most of the time. Later in the race, though, it seemed as if I had to be much more careful around the other cars, lest I find myself pitting for a new front wing, although even then the cars are far, far less susceptible to damage than their real world counterparts. Another perfect example of a nod to playability over authenticity can be seen on this very topic: the proximity arrows that show you where a nearby competitor is did wonders for collision avoidance. Of course, this is really just a workaround for the entirely useless side mirrors, but it’s better than nothing. All in all, the forgiving damage model and the proximity indicators stray pretty far from authenticity, but in a good way. There will undoubtedly be purists that are frustrated with these compromises, and I would probably be as well if I were playing on a PC and had access to a good steering wheel, but for a console version these tweaks towards a less challenging race are simply a recognition of the limitations of the platform.
Single-player offers up three primary ways to race, each having its own merits. Naturally there is a career mode wherein you start out in one of the lower-tier teams and hopefully rise through the ranks and win a seat with one of the premier teams. There is the risk that being forced to start with a low budget team could become frustrating since you really have no hope of winning, but F1 2011 accounts for that by providing the realistic environment that I’ve been going on about. As in real life, it is no secret to the team or the sponsors that you are not racing against the top teams and that you are really racing against the other teams at the lower rungs. This translates into achievable objectives being set for each race. As you are just getting started, the team will be thrilled with your performance if you can qualify 20th or better and finish 18th or better. And make no mistake, this will not be easy to do!
If you want to get some experience with one of the more notable teams without having to work your way through the ranks, you can do so my just choosing a single race event. You can choose an actual Grand Prix weekend, or you can opt for a practice session where you can measure your performance against a ghost car. The ability to practice at all of the tracks is not realistic since in-season practice is strictly curtailed in Formula 1, but you really need to be able to do it in order to be competitive in the multiplayer mode.
Online multiplayer in racing games is a mixed bag. For quick pick-up races, F1 2011 offers a game lobby that will easily get you into a short race with up to fifteen other cars, but the experience is, as is common with unorganized online racing, really more of a crash-fest than anything else. Counter-intuitively, the best strategy is to hang back at the start and pick your way through the inevitable debacle at the first turn. For those with predictable schedules and sufficient patience, getting into an organized racing clique is probably the better approach. Having neither of those, my online experiences were limited to the shorter quick races. For the most part they were fun, but there was quite of bit of visually disconcerting car behavior caused by network latency. New for 2011, though, is local multiplayer split screen. I found this to be much better suited to my tastes, particularly since it offered the option of racing mano y mano, without a gaggle of AI driven cars to get in the way and there were no latency issues to deal with.
For what it is, F1 2011 does a masterful job of providing an insight into the intense pressures and challenges that go with the honor and privilege of racing in the world’s premier leagues. That having been said, it is not going to appeal to the sophisticated purist, and it may be utterly incomprehensible to the complete Formula 1 novice. All of the bits and pieces are there for the cognoscente that know what the DRS system is and does, but newcomers would be best served by familiarizing themselves with some of the more distinctive elements of F1 racing before giving it a try. And for the staunch purists that insist on 100% authenticity? Well, life is complicated at the pinnacle.