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Kimi Raikkonen goes outside to overtake Williams in the first turn at Sakhir

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F1 2021 doubles down on realism — both on and off the track

More realistic tires and handling support new co-operative/competitive modes and a deeper narrative

Kimi Raikkonen goes outside Nicholas Latifi’s No. 6 Williams for the overtake in turn 1 at Bahrain International Circuit.
| Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts

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Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

So, the gravy train in Bahrain is over.

Taking a spin with a work-in-progress build of F1 2021, I quickly realized that, once the game launches next month, I will have to put in a lot of work setting up my Formula 1 car for an early season racetrack where I’ve always run in the top 10. In F1 2020, I could even poach a podium finish at Bahrain International Circuit, even with the difficulty set in the high 90s (out of 110), with the low-rated debut car for the game’s new My Team career mode.

Bahrain International Circuit is a fast course that lends a hand to upset-minded drivers in real life, but previous versions of Codemasters’ brilliant F1 racing series didn’t quite capture the track’s real difficulty. In setting up my car, I’d always read that Sakhir is a “rear-wheel limited” course — meaning my back wheels should have difficulty maintaining grip, and I would need to give them greater downforce with the rear spoiler or risk oversteering into a spinout. In the video game, Australia’s season-opening track has done a better job of imposing rear-limited demands on me, yet I rarely encountered them in the second event at Bahrain, even driving with the game’s braking assist at medium and the traction control off.

Racing at Bahrain several times for Alfa Romeo and Aston Martin in F1 2021, I plugged in my racing setup from F1 2020 and wiped out in turn 12 — a gradual, uphill right — every single time. Then, using the game’s stock, “balanced” setup, I got around the track easily, just a lot more slowly. Clearly, I needed a steeper angle on the rear wing; my 2020 setup set them for higher speed because I could get away with less grip last year. Now, it felt like the game had caught me cheating all these years.

“Funny enough, I’ve had exactly the same feedback from other people who’ve had the build,” Codemasters’ Lee Mather told me, “which is they used to just turn the [rear wing] down to one [the least downforce], and they could still get around the circuit without any problems. But now, there’s obviously less aero, and with an edge to the tire, the car is harder to handle on those settings.”

This is all a good thing, as it speaks to an F1 2021 that still pushes for simulation quality even as it opens its tent to an increasingly curious audience. Mather, the F1 franchise director, credits the relationship his studio has had with F1’s racing teams, who have taken increasing interest in the video game, much like racing fans have.

“We had a really nice meeting recently with one of the F1 teams, and their esports drivers — and their real drivers — gave us feedback on the setup on the cars from 2020 and 2019,” Mather said. “They were saying that, basically, that there’s probably one setup which is the quickest setup for most circuits. But now it’s much harder to pinpoint. And it requires a little bit more extra skill and research into which are the best settings.”

F1 2021 will launch in July with an additional single-player mode, some co-operative multiplayer options for the career, and plenty of other off-the-track and quality-of-life changes. But it still has to improve on core expectations from an audience that has been following it for most, if not all, of the past 13 years. Mather says those players will, like I did at Sakhir, notice a stouter but still surmountable challenge, coming from the tires and the handling.

“It does make it a little more spiky,” Mather said, meaning that tire wear will more resemble the “cliff” that drivers fall off when they go from plenty of grip to almost nothing on a worn set. “But it kind of makes the car feel more nimble and more darty as well.

“We’ve actually grown the physics team over the last 12 months,” Mather added. This means the team doesn’t have to choose between iterative improvements in the game’s core systems, and flashy new additions like a story mode or racing team customizations.

Last week’s preview build didn’t include any looks at Braking Point or the new cooperative/competitive option available in the career mode. Those will likely be the two biggest back-of-the-box features selling F1 2021. But it still showed a structure and gameplay loop that will support and improve pretty much everything I saw over hundreds of hours in F1 2020, including the all-consuming time vortex that is the F1 video game career.

Not only will F1 2021 get a second, much deeper narrative mode called Braking Point, the custom team career called My Team is back to take advantage of the game’s overall changes to car development and pre-race practice. And for those who want to play as their own created driver, instead of Braking Point’s Aiden Jackson, or My Team’s fictitious team director, the standard career mode will let players team up with or compete against another human player in the same F1 season.

“This is something that we’ve been looking forward to for some time,” Mather said during a press preview event last week. “This will bring into play all of the cool features that we’ve got in the career, that you’ve experienced over the previous games, in the single-player experience. So, driver rivalries, you and the press, developing the car — all those things will play out as part of the two-player career, something which the fanbase have actually called for for some time.”

Players can enter a two-player career as teammates for the same real-life F1 team, or as competitors on separate ones — though they could end up on the same team as they progress, take new contracts, and potentially switch sides. Few other sports video games have this same kind of contemporaneous career with another human player; actually, I can’t think of one that does. But in a career mode where experienced players have found it easy to score at every event, even against difficult AI with back-of-the-pack racing teams, having a skilled human rival ramps up both the challenge and the emergent narrative coming from their season.

Braking Point, which has been teased previously, is a much longer narrative than the three-race Formula 2 “taster” experience from F1 2019. Mather said players will go “on a journey from Formula 2 into Formula 1 in 2020, before progressing into Formula 1 in 2021.

“We wanted to do a lot more of the character side of things, as well, because we believe that’s what Formula 1 is built upon, isn’t it?” Mather said. He and Codemasters are hoping to capture the increasing mainstream attention given to F1 racing, particularly here in the United States, thanks in part to the acclaimed Netflix series Drive to Survive, whose third season premiered in March. “I think that’s probably been one of the biggest contributors as to why this sport’s picking up popularity with a wider demographic.”

Mather said much of the story and most of the scenes for Braking Point were written and shot before Drive to Survive became a breakout hit for Netflix. The plan, Mather said, was always to wait a year after introducing a story mode — this let the team focus on the My Team implementation in 2020 — before revisiting it. That also let Codemasters analyze fan response to the characters introduced in 2019, and your sneering rival Devon Butler plays a big role in Braking Point for just that reason.

McLaren fan favorite Lando Norris racing at his home track, Silverstone
“We wanted to do a lot more of the character side of things,” F1 franchise director Lee Mather said. “I think that’s probably been one of the biggest contributors, as to why this sport’s picking up popularity with a wider demographic.” Fan favorites like McLaren’s Lando Norris (above) have certainly helped.
Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts

“We were really, really pleased with how people gelled with Devon,” Mather said. “We always said we wanted to cast somebody who’s got a face you wanted to punch. And the guy who did the voice [Daniel Ben Zenou] and the guy who did the motion capture [Adam Sanderson], both absolutely nailed the performance. … Sometimes it makes someone likeable, because they become someone strong, very notable, very iconic. And Devon’s certainly got that way. After 2019 came out, people were creating fake Twitter accounts for him, even.”

F1 2021 launches July 16, 2021 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. Mather promises that the game will have a lot more to it than the small slice previewers got over the past two weeks. My Team, whose delightful customization options let users sink themselves into the world of an F1 team principal, gets even more for the second go-around, including a decal for the rim of the protective halo.

That said, three of the tracks — Imola, Italy; Portimão, Portugal, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — must be added in as free, post-release content. Two of those events (Imola and Portimão) have already raced in real life, so day one career players will not have them on their calendar. F1 2021 will have an option called Real Season Start, which simply picks up where the current, real-life schedule sits, with the real-life results and driver performances factored into the season’s state.

“The benefit of Real Season Start is, as the new tracks drop, we can insert them into the calendar as well,” Mather said. It’s suboptimal, but to be fair to Codemasters, constructing a race course in-game takes months (if not more than a year), and Imola and Portimåo were last-minute additions to F1’s real-life calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For that reason, also, China’s Shanghai International Circuit will appear in F1 2021 despite the fact this year’s Chinese Grand Prix is canceled.