F1’s bold new era is just hitting the halfway point of its inaugural season, and it turns out it’s a lot like the F1 of old; a different team dominating, perhaps, and a slight shuffle of the running order, but there’s a feeling 2022’s regulations have introduced as many problems as they’ve fixed, and that the positive impact of the new ruleset won’t really be seen for some years to come.
F1 22 isn’t exactly a bold new era for Codemasters’ long-running series, and a familiar racer it most certainly is. It features the cast and cars of the new season – including Ferrari’s achingly beautiful F1-75, perhaps the best looking race car to roll out of Maranello since Enzo himself was calling the shots – plus the season’s new track that runs around the car park of downtown’s Hard Rock Stadium (if you’re wizened enough to remember the Caesars Palace race, first off condolences – but also isn’t it funny how what’s old is new again?)
The race in Miami always felt like the endgame for F1 owners Liberty Media’s initial push for the sport – a push that, of course, has seen the face of F1 change immeasurably, and mostly for the better thanks to the swell of new fans introduced via Drive to Survive and a new breed of social media savvy drivers.
F1 22 reflects that, for better but mostly for worse, with its new F1 Life feature that lets you kit out your avatar with fresh threads while decorating your pad with gaudy artwork on the walls and a supercar on display in the living room. I love the idea of embracing the more glamorous side of the sport, but rather than having the luxury of browsing the rails of a Monaco boutique it feels like you’re rifling through the bargain bin at Sports Direct with a handful of Puma t-shirts and EA Sports-branded caps and not much else in between to choose from.
It’s a bit pointless, basically, and certainly nowhere near as engaging as F1 2021’s ‘Braking Point’ story mode that’s on hiatus this time out, but the introduction of F1 Life does bring a small selection of supercars into the mix – a welcome addition that lends some variety to a series that was previously solely focussed on single seater machines. They’re very different beasts, demanding a more lairy approach to driving and always inviting you to throw the rear end out in an act of bravado. The challenges within often ask as much, modelled lightly on the Pirelli Hot Laps that use the downtime on a circuit over the course of an F1 weekend to fling lucky passengers about.
The supercars work well enough, and while they’re not going to be troubling the likes of Assetto Corsa and Gran Turismo when it comes to how they feel I’ve been impressed with how Codemasters – and, more specifically, handling guru David Greco – have adapted a game that’s historically had a very different focus. There’s weight and momentum, matched by the impressive scream of a Ferrari Roma or the throaty thunder of a Mercedes-AMG GT. As a foundation for wherever Codemasters wants to take them next it’s promising stuff, but most importantly as a temporary distraction from the single-seaters they more than do the trick.
There are changes to be found in the single-seaters, much of that necessitated by the new ruleset – and here’s where things get a little trickier. F1 22’s cars are faithful to a new flavour of car that are at present – the gorgeous aesthetics of that Ferrari aside – not a particularly endearing bunch. They’re bloated, occasionally graceless things, and that’s before you get to the porpoising and bouncing issues that have at times made a mockery of what’s supposed to be the pinnacle of engineering in motorsport.
That porpoising and bouncing that’s blighted a majority of the field this season is absent in F1 22, perhaps wisely so – though even without the unpleasant effects of being violently buffeted you can tell straight away these are a stiffer, less supple breed of machine to do battle with. There’s a new stiffness to them as they clatter along kerbs (not enough to give you the back pains suffered by the likes of Sir Lewis after Baku’s grand prix, but enough to give you an ache in your hands after a mid-length race) while you can feel that extra weight in low-speed cornering. In mid to high-speed corners, meanwhile, you can feel the ground effect sucking the car to the tarmac, meaning they reward a certain amount of confidence.
It’s impressive, but placed in direct contrast to last year’s offering it never feels quite as engaging and underlines the suspicion that this new generation of F1 car has presented a field of – to borrow a purely technical term – shitboxes. That’ll improve over time, and you can’t fault Codemasters for being faithful to the sport as it is today – indeed, one of the issues the series presents is that in reviewing the latest model of F1 game you can end up reviewing the sport itself, so intertwined have the two become.
The relationship between the two has been strengthened further with driver ratings that will now reflect real-life events (and that make for some fun viewing on the F1’s official YouTube channel as the drivers learn their scores for the first time). It’s all very FIFA, basically, and if last year’s model felt free of the influence of Codemasters’ new bosses at EA Sports that’s not necessarily the case this time out, with a selection of contemporary music now accompanying the menus that makes it clear what stable this is from.
Becoming motorsport’s answer to FIFA need not be a bad thing, of course, and let’s not forget that when it comes to delivering the fundamentals of the sport nothing really comes close to what F1 now offers. This isn’t a sim – for many obvious reasons – yet it offers sim elements the likes of iRacing and Assetto Corsa would die for. There’s dynamic weather, yes, but also a full-on take on F1’s deep, often incredibly complex ruleset while mechanical failures are present, tied in with the upgrade and development system. Play a fully-fledged career mode – either by creating your own team or overseeing an existing outfit, with the very welcome option to dip into a season at any point – and you’ll be managing your limited amount of power units, with seemingly everything bar the new budget cap now simulated in-game.
There’s the safety car, a staple for some time but now presented in a new broadcast mode that brings more of the flavour of the real thing while still offering up the same tactical opportunities that arise when the race is neutralised – just as you can now fluff your pit entry, or how the full formation lap is now presented in cut-down form that drives home the all-important atmosphere of those final moments before the lights go out on the starting grid.
For an F1 fan it’s a dream, and I love how adaptable these games have become. There are three-lap sprints playable on a pad via splitscreen for those looking for a quick blast, or perhaps a full-length race that can be played out on a beefy rig and headset now that VR support is finally included (and included well, it’s worth saying, with full support across the board that should run well on medium to high-end PCs). For the true nerds there’s something truly heavenly about nursing a poorly car on a long Sunday afternoon to a lonely 10th place – and a truly heroic sensation when you manage to bring it home. I don’t think any racing game has nailed the essence of the sport as accurately as F1 22, and for that it deserves some serious applause.
And yet for all that there’s a nagging sense of overfamiliarity, of running the same races in slightly more bloated cars in what’s now a slightly more bloated game. F1 22 is a remarkably broad game too, it should be pointed out – one that can be enjoyed by the growing audience the sport now enjoys. It’s a remarkably familiar one too, mind, that through no fault of its own never really feels like the measure of last year’s model – a predicament the sport finds itself in now, as it struggles to match the fireworks and fury of the classic that was the 2021 season. In that way, perhaps F1 22 is a little too authentic for its own good.