It hasn't, by any standards, been a classic year for F1 so far. Sebastian Vettel's on course for a fourth consecutive title, and while the sport hasn't quite plumbed the depths witnessed during the last period of dominance by a German driver it's been at its weakest for some time, the racing only kept interesting as the playground politics seep onto the track in action that's blandly artificial. So it makes some sense, then, that the debut of this year's tie-in game shifts the focus away from the contemporary tedium of fast-degrading tire compounds to an era that's more famous for its full-blooded exploits. For the first time in Codemasters' tenure on F1, classic cars are making an appearance.
It's an addition that's been a long time coming. "We've been trying to do it since we first got the Formula One licence," explains creative director Steve Hood. "Every year we've been doing them people have been asking do we have classic cars and classic drivers, and every year we're saying no. It's quite disappointing to say that, but we have been working on it in the background, to try and sign these licence deals and explore the possibility of creating an event around classic cars."
And so there are no half measures in the implementation this time out (even if, frustratingly, it's being divided by the arrival of a new premium-priced 'Classic Edition'). There's a new mode dubbed F1 Classics, from which you can access Time Trials, Grand Prixs and Time Attacks - plus another couple of modes that are yet to be announced - and it's possible to take some of the older machinery to the 2013 roster as well as returning classics long excised from the calendar such as Jerez, Imola, Estoril and Brands Hatch. Unfortunately existing tracks won't be available in their more classic incarnations - so it won't be possible to recreate the heroics of Keke Rosberg's 160mph lap around the brilliant Silverstone before its majesty was blunted by the introduction of chicanes, and well before its more recent and more dramatic mauling.
Also unfortunate is the fact that you won't be able to play through campaigns of entire seasons past. Rather than modelling blow for blow past campaigns, the classics mode in F1 2013 is trying for something else. "It's almost like a recreation, like Goodwood Festival of Speed," says Hood as he alludes to the annual gathering of famous stars and machinery in Sussex. "It's some of the old manufacturers coming back, some great names and it's about getting the old cars out of storage."
Right now three manufacturers are confirmed, with Williams, Ferrari and Lotus onboard, and they're to be piloted by some evocative names. "What we've tried to do is try and incorporate everyone who's still alive," says Hood. "All the teams have two drivers - usually an original who drove for the team back in the day - but then we've tried to pair them with drivers who are famous for driving for that particular marque. It enables us to have drivers who that perhaps are a little more well-known than the second drivers." That means no Senna, unfortunately, although it does mean Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi will be joining the likes of Nigel Mansell, Eddie Irvine and Alain Prost.
They're the top-tier of the sport, so it's odd to find them driving cars that aren't exactly steeped in glory. The classics garage is divided into 80s and 90s cars, yet some of the choices are hardly classics - Williams is represented in the 80s by Alan Jones' championship winning FW07, and also by the less spectacular FW12, the awkward result of the one-year partnership with Judd that saw the team stumble to seventh in the constructor's title on the back of a series of winning years. There's also the Lotus 100T, a car that in the hands of Nelson Piquet and Satoru Nakajima began the downfall that would eventually result in one of the sport's great constructors packing up and leaving F1 forever.
The heritage may be questionable, then, but their implementation on track certainly isn't - these cars are a muscular delight to drive. The 100T's turbo-charged Honda provides a short, sharp punch in the back when it finally comes to life, and introduces the counter-intuitive trait of turbo lag. Put your foot down coming out of a corner at low revs and nothing will happen, only for an almighty force propelling you towards the scenery to kick in two to three seconds later. Aggressively blipping the throttle is one way to keep the power close to hand, a technique that's a world away from the more readable cars that make up F1 2013's contemporary garage.
Adrian Newey's FW14, the dazzlingly complex creation that mastered the concept of active suspension and took Nigel Mansell to the 1992 crown, is a more predictable drive, its electronic wizardry allowing it to corner as if on rails. It still requires a different kind of craft, however, unable to generate the levels of downforce routinely created by modern cars. And those cars themselves have also benefitted from slight revisions, though they're hard to decipher over a couple of laps in Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus E21. F1 2013's to introduce enhanced AI, some visual uplifts as well as a mid-session save, although it's fair to say that any upgrades to the core package in F1 2013 are fairly slight.
With the inclusion of classics, though, Codemasters series is getting a small but significant addition - and with the rich history of the sport, it's one that should keep on giving should the team choose to explore if further in future games. It'll take a while longer with the bulk of F1 2013 to see if it's enough to halt the malaise that's slowly crept up on the series, and whether it can make it all feel fresh again. As a last hurrah on the current generation, though, this should at least consolidate the good work Codemasters Birmingham has put in since it started work on F1 in 2010.
And on the horizon, too, is a change for the sport that's going to be reflected in a new direction for the games when they look to make their debut on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 next year. "2014 is a game changer, and it'll be nice for us to change the rulebook for F1 and turn a page to do something very different," says Hood. "Maybe in 12 months we'll be back here talking about that."