At some point later this afternoon in Abu Dhabi, history will be made. Whether Lewis Hamilton clinches his eighth title and pulls clear of the record seven crowns claimed by Michael Schumacher or Max Verstappen takes his first remains to be seen, but whatever the result we're about to witness the end of an era. With a new ruleset designed to bunch the pack up and slow them down - temporarily, at least - we're about to say farewell to the fastest racing cars to have ever graced the planet.
So it's somewhat timely we've just received what I'm certain is the most advanced F1 sim commercially available, thanks to the partnership between iRacing and the Mercedes AMG Team that saw the W12 E arrive to the service earlier this week. I can't pretend to have much by way of first-hand experience of this most muscular iteration of the hybrid era, but I've been lucky enough to be trackside a few times and this certainly brings the supernatural speed and performance of the fastest F1 cars ever to life more vividly than any other title.
Before delving into more detail, though - and the detailing of the W12 in iRacing is sublime - it's worth giving credit to Codemasters, should they be feeling sore about their own take on the car in F1 2021. By design that game has a much broader appeal, yet the underlying feel is the same - there's the same ability to change direction at neck-breaking speed, how it transitions in an instant and how it greedily gobbles up all that tarmac with such outrageous pace. It's just told here in a slightly different way.
A decent set-up helps, and maybe I'm cheating by playing in VR with all the added immersion that entails (although maybe it's about time Codemasters added VR support to its F1 games, but that's a point for another day). Sitting in that same cockpit that's served as Sir Lewis' office 22 weekends this year brings with it a bit of a thrill - the dash readout is the same, the brake balance taking over in big angry numbers whenever you adjust it, while the buttons are all accurately mapped out and, in many cases, serve the same purpose as they do on the real thing (the infamous magic brake button is also there, putting some extra heat into the front tires should you need it, or more likely leading you to lock those fronts just like Lewis did when he hit it by mistake in the Baku restart debacle earlier this year).
All of which is to say this is an outrageously complex thing, with multiple systems to manage to see it perform at its peak - though thankfully it's easy enough for idiots like me to still get some idea of what it's capable of. There's a gentle knack to harvesting and deploying battery power that's easy enough to get your head around; the battery depletes when you're at full throttle, with a handy indicator of how much charge you've got in the centre of the dash, so as you wind up for a fast lap it's just a case of keeping it at nine tenths before unleashing all that power.
And oh my what power. Simple lap time comparisons will tell you that this is the fastest breed of F1 car ever, but that doesn't quite convey the astronomical acceleration (and deceleration, for that matter) of these things, and returning to tracks I know intimately from the inside of a GT3 cockpit is an eye-opening education. Go to Spa-Francorchamps and feel the compression of Eau Rouge be soaked up: dive into Pouhon, which normally requires a downshift and a deep intake of breath, and the W12 will dare you to take the double left-hander completely flat. It is exhilarating.
It's a surprisingly easy thing to drive, too, though I should say rather it's a surprisingly easy thing to drive at leisure. To drive this thing on or near its limit takes superhuman reactions matched with acute concentration. Match that with the physical stresses driving one of these rocket ships must place on the driver, and that aren't replicated in iRacing, and I've got an even deeper respect for the craft and sportsmanship of F1's finest. After a dozen laps with a direct drive wheel my shoulders are aching from holding on to the wheel so tight, my eyes peeled back in lingering shock at the spectacle of all that speed. Heaven knows how the likes of Max and Lewis do it, racing wheel-to-wheel while enduring the incredible physical forces that result from these cars' outrageous performance.
Abu Dhabi will host the farewell, then, and I'm glad we've had a season that's befitting these magnificent beasts (and fingers crossed we get a finale befitting too, without some of the excessive drama of recent races). I'll miss these cars when they're gone, and I'm sure in time they'll be remembered alongside the turbo-charged monsters of the 80s and the howling V10s of the early 00s as F1 at its excessive best. It just makes me all the more grateful that iRacing's latest addition allows me to appreciate this brilliant breed of F1 car in such fidelity and detail.