While the quality of the racing was debatable as were some of the off-track antics - including an incredible Spinal Tap-esque underground ramble to the podium and that fake marina - the weekend’s Miami GP felt like something of a watershed moment for F1, as the sport finally cracked the US audience. It’s been over 30 years since the Phoenix GP failed to bring in as many fans as the Ostrich derby happening in the next town over, and it’s incredible to see the progress that’s been made.
Just as it’s dazzling to see how far the F1 series has come since Codemasters took over. I remember the reveal of the studio’s first take on the licence, the hastily put together but nevertheless admirable F1 2009 on Wii, all taking place in a scruffy function room above the modest but loveable White Horse pub in Silverstone village, with the stuffy F1 powers that be at the time refusing to give up prime paddock space without charging an extortionate amount. Liberty’s takeover of the sport in 2017 helped move away from all that and open up the sport to a new audience, the likes of Netflix’s Drive to Survive and a renewed presence on social media leading to the packed stands of well-informed, highly enthusiastic fans we saw in Miami over the weekend.
Codemasters’ own F1 series has been a beneficiary, too: Charles LeClerc’s onboard lap in F1 22 of the new track - a sort of distant cousin to the infamous race around the Cesar’s Palace car park of the early 80s - was pushed heavily ahead of the event to help set the scene, while the game itself feels as much a part of the fabric of the sport as Netflix’s highly-watched series.
So it’s no surprise to see F1 22 become further entwined with that world, with Sky Sports presenters Natalie Pinkham and Alex Jacques joining the in-game presenting team, and for it to make more moves to align itself with more of the details that make up a race weekend. There are broadcast versions of activities like pit stops, safety cars and formation laps that build up that all-important sense of atmosphere; to placate those who like to get up close with such details there’s now more impetus on getting your pitstop right and nailing the entry lest you overshoot your mark and slow down your mechanics’ work.
Cause them a headache and it won’t be ‘Jeff’ - a fixture of the series for some years - castigating you, the fictional mechanic being replaced by Marc Priestly - not a household name, perhaps, but an engineer with notable experience of their own (which you can read about in Priestly’s often salacious and always entertaining The Mechanic, one of the best insights into modern F1 on the market). Priestly even recorded his lines using an F1 headset for that added dash of authenticity - though his presence alone helps no end there.
It also speaks to the tough balancing act F1 22 has on its hands - Priestly’s there to placate the hardcore, while also providing a thread through races for the relative newcomer. More work has been done here to play to the broad audience F1 now commands, with new entry levels for My Team and career modes allowing you to come in as a newcomer, midfield challenger or title contender while a new adaptive AI promises to bring the field closer to your ability level should you be struggling.
Given the inclusion such features are there to welcome new audiences you would have thought sniffy traditionalists can’t get too upset, though the lifestyle elements also being introduced in F1 22 might be pushing them a bit far. Personally I’m delighted at the new ability to deck out your driver’s flat with lush furniture and disgusting artwork - though I’ll draw the line at hanging a printout of some Bored Apes JPEGs up on my Monaco pad, thanks - and as someone who’s become freshly obsessed with the fashions paraded by drivers in the paddock on a Friday morning I think it’s an enjoyably quirky new feature.
It also excuses perhaps the biggest change for F1 22 which is the introduction of supercars, the car collection an extension of your virtual trophy cabinet but also a neat way to mix up the automotive offering. Some inspiration has been taken from the Pirelli hotlaps that keep race tracks busy in-between races on an F1 weekend, and have been modelled as such with events such as drifting, autocross and hitting targets in average speed zones (I found it interesting that rather than leaning on the work of the team on stablemate GRID, Codemasters’ F1 team has gone it alone and leant on the considerable expertise of its own handling expert David Greco for its all-new, slightly more pedestrian rides).
It also means, in a series first, a playable safety car, with both Aston Martin and Mercedes models available (as deluxe bonus items, it should be clarified) to participate in time trials. Will you be able to perform safety car driver Bernd Maylander’s role in online races? It’s something I asked F1 senior creative director Lee Mather in jest, though it’s not really a surprise to learn I’m not the only one with that particular request - so maybe there’s a chance the feature could make its way in at some point in the future, with the daunting prospect of 20 angry drivers barking at you to go faster so they can maintain some heat in their tires.
As headline new features go the addition of a whole new type of driving is a significant one, though there are a few concessions along the way. Last year’s headline feature - the entertaining if brief Braking Point story mode - has been excised, with the understandable excuse that there’s a two-year turnaround on such a mode, while F1 22’s reluctance to go all the way with adopting the new ruleset and having something akin to a budget cap in career mode feels, for now, like something of a missed opportunity.
It’s going to be fascinating, too, to see how Codemasters’ series adapts to a running order that is, by design of the new regulations, meant to be more fluid - even if the current preview build reflects the resurgence of the Scuderia and the more miserable fortunes of the Mercedes team (and porpoising, the aerodynamic effect that’s become a major talking point, isn’t currently in there as it took Codemasters by surprise just as it did teams like Mercedes who’ve been impacted by it the most). Perhaps it could find its way in later, alongside crossplay which is confirmed to be coming post-launch in what’s sure to be a widely celebrated move.
It’s fascinating, too, to see how Codemasters continues to find a balance between more sim-minded players and the many millions freshly turned onto the sport by the likes of Drive to Survive. F1 22 seems well-weighted either side, with concessions to the hardcore such as the long-awaited VR implementation and an added layer of detail and authenticity, while for the masses it presents an approachable racing experience that doesn’t quite go the same extremes of 2012’s fun but flawed F1 Race Stars. It’s hard to say right now exactly how well it’s pulled off that particular balancing act, but once again it looks like Codemasters is set to deliver a game that’s worthy of the spectacle and drama of a sport currently in its pomp.