The Bahrain International Circuit is my track. I'm not exactly sure why: I enjoy driving more old-school venues like Canada's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and Japan's Suzuka more. Yet, I'm particularly fast at the Sakhir event, and I always feel very comfortable in the car there.
Alas, there's a problem. Like most Formula One circuits, Bahrain has a long front straight. And the team I've signed onto for my rookie season, the illustrious McLaren outfit, has fallen on hard times in recent years. The biggest issue is that their Renault-built engines produce considerably less power than those of the leading Mercedes and Ferrari teams.
That means that no matter how acclimated I've become to Bahrain, no matter how perfectly I nail that twisty second sector, I always get smoked on the straights. If this race wasn't the second of the season, I might have time to direct my R&D team to bolster the crankshaft in our cars and find a better solution for cooling, to hit even higher top speeds. But to earn the resources for those necessary changes, you have to win first.
This is the mindset I've been immersed in for the better part of a week, since I picked up F1 2018 ($59; Xbox One, PS4 and PC) last Friday. This is the 10th iteration of the official F1 game since esteemed racing studio Codemasters secured the rights to the sport a decade ago. Likewise, it's the developer's most comprehensive simulation of motorsport's highest class yet. And if you begin your Sunday mornings glued to the TV like I do, you'll love every minute of it.
F1 is a tremendously complicated affair, and this year's installment of the game feels more authentic than ever before — largely because Codemasters has simulated more of the sport's nuances than ever before.
In other words, the challenges don't start and end on the asphalt. Players have to keep a watchful eye on the wear and condition of the engines and gearboxes in their cars, as F1 has a strict policy on the number of components that can be replaced each season. Tire management and pit strategy again play a central role to any victory or defeat. There's also weather to be be mindful of; time a switch to wet tires when the forecast looks grim, and you'll have a massive advantage over your rivals for a lap or two.
"There's simply no end to F1 2018's depth — it puts all the on-track excitement in context, and makes the game tremendously thrilling for racing fans."
And that's to say nothing of the RPG-style skill trees that ultimately determine how the performance of your car improves throughout the course of a season. You can invest R&D credits in various aspects of your car to ensure you're able to keep pace with the rate of advancement of the other teams. And just like in real life, regulation changes introduced at the end of every season could shake up the field — meaning that if you've made considerable progress with respect to your chassis' aerodynamics package, you could lose or benefit greatly depending on the direction the rule makers decide to go in.
How you answer the media also determines the morale of your team, in addition to your own reputation — which, along with your race performance, dictates your ability to negotiate contracts with teams going forward. There's simply no end to F1 2018's depth — it puts all the on-track excitement in context, and makes the game tremendously thrilling for racing fans. Thankfully, there are tutorials and options to automate aspects of the campaign if you're less well-versed in all the intricacies.
Truly authentic racing
All that pedantry is well and good, but none of it would matter if F1 2018 wasn't a delightfully invigorating ride that handles naturally and runs like a dream.
I've never piloted an F1 car and likely never will, but there's enough texture to the physics, whether you're playing with a gamepad or a dedicated racing wheel, to make the experience a rewarding and believable one. Once you become aware of your tires' limitations, how the curbs at certain circuits interact with your car, and the immense stopping power of your brakes, you'll feel right at home.
You won't have to worry about everything coming to a crashing halt at decisive moments, either. F1 2018 runs at an unflinching 60 frames per second — even if there are loads of cars rendered on the screen at once, and even if rain is thrown into the mix. It looks beautiful, too, especially when storms roll in. Puddles form in the appropriate sections of the track, rival cars kick up spray that blinds you as you attempt an overtake, and sections of the road dry up while the pack repeatedly follows the fastest line through the corners.
A love letter
A little secret about F1: Historically speaking, most titles can't touch F1 cars, either from the present or past, because the league's rights holders are extremely protective of the licenses.
The result is a massive chunk of motorsports history that typically goes underrepresented in the medium. And that makes it a really big deal that Codemasters included 20 retro F1 cars in this year's rendition — because you'd never, ever get the chance to drive them anywhere else.
Finally, I can live out my dream of piloting the most dominant F1 entrant ever, the McLaren MP4/4 — the car that legends Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost steered to 15 of 16 possible wins in 1988 — for the very first time.
"I've never piloted an F1 car and likely never will, but there's enough texture to the physics to make the experience a rewarding and believable one."
There are newer and older rides as well, from the wild and experimental aerodynamic designs of the '70s, to modern vehicles current fans will recognize, like Sebastian Vettel's 2010 championship-winning Red Bull RB6. The majority of them were in last year’s installment, but the continued expansion of the roster has built an impressive chronicle of F1's past.
Most of them also feel otherworldly to drive compared with the more rigid and hypersensitive cars of today. If I had one complaint, I'd like to see a handful of retro tracks to properly drive home the immersion — but perhaps that's for next year's product.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that I'd recommend F1 2018 to all fans of the sport. But I'd even go as far to say that anyone who enjoys sim racing should give it a chance.
Genre mainstays like Forza Motorsport 7 and Gran Turismo Sport are tremendous fun in the moment, and Project Cars 2 trades some of the polish for a more varied representation of many different racing disciplines. However, regarding authenticity and depth, you could argue that nothing touches F1 2018 this generation. It's a sports management sim on top of a driving one, and it excels at both.
Now excuse me as I head back to the paddock. The Monaco Grand Prix is up next, and wouldn't you know, they're calling for showers.
Image Credit: Codemasters