At 3:45, I pad out to the living room and turn the television to SPEED before starting a pot of coffee. The pot's ready just as the feed cuts over to an overcast race track in Malaysia. I unmute the speakers and watch Formula 1 cars rolling off the starting line near Kuala Lampur while I sit here in the dark listening to dry English sportscasters.
Bob Varsha isn't calling this race, but when he does he usually begins by yelling like Howard Beale, "The lights are lit! Turn up your speakers, wake up the neighbors for the start of the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix!" As the five red lamps go dark, 24 cars and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment and talent blast across the starting line. It's another F1 season, and as usual I, l am alone with the racing, as are many of my scattered tribe of fellow enthusiasts.
Formula 1 racing is redesigned more than any other sport, a deadly-serious game of Calvinball run by corporate kings, racing princes, and priests of engineering. This season they instructed the new tire manufacturer, Pirelli, to bring softer compound tires than we've seen in years. The idea is that the tires will wear more quickly, leading to more pit stops and a shaken-up field, two ingredients for more passing.
Passing is a perennial obsession in F1. The interests of engineers, drivers, and fans diverged decades ago. If the goal were to create the fastest cars possible, there is a long list of banned F1 technologies that the governing body could reactivate: traction control, active suspensions, ground-effect aerodynamics, and anti-lock brakes just for starters. But the sport's development is governed by three main factors: safety, money, and spectacle. Some techs were banned because they could result in horrific accidents when they failed, others because they made it impossible for anyone but the wealthiest teams to compete. But some of these changes also made it harder to have the kind of wheel-to-wheel action fans love.
For instance, F1 cars hardly ever draft anymore. You won't find them rocketing up the slipstream behind an opponent, because the warm air from the leading cars' exhaust can overheat and damage the pursuer's engine. That's a time-honored overtaking method out the window. Their aerodynamics are so sensitive that they handle badly whenever they are near the disturbed air cause by another car, further complicating passing. This is where technology and cost concerns have led the sport.
To fix the problem, F1 has turned to what I can only describe as game mechanics. This season, F1 cars can use a pair of tools that function like speed boosts. The first is the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, which takes energy that is typically wasted under braking and cornering (in the form of kinetic energy) and uses it to build up a charge. Drivers can use that energy for bursts of extra power. The other weapon is the Drag Reduction System, which opens the rear wing and allows cars to go faster on designated straights. The catch is that it can only be used to overtake, and the device can only be triggered if the pursuing car is within one second of its prey. It's down to the pursuing driver to get within striking distance, and the DRS can help carry him past his opponent.
It will be interesting to see these devices make their debut in the next F1 game from Codemasters, if only because they already seem like they belong in a videogame alongside red shells and mushrooms. In the meantime, I've returned to my alternate life as a driver for the Lotus team in F1 2010.
It supports Track IR now, adding a layer of immersion that wasn't available last year. The effect is revelatory. Little things, like being able to lean over to glance at a mirror, or looking into a sharp corner, has already resulted in better passing and tumbling lap times. But it's really the way my feeling of physical presence of the game completes the illusion that retroactively turns F1 2010 into one of last year's best games.
F1 2010 is different from Codemasters' other games, and most any other sim-lite racer, because it take a holistic approach to its subject. Race weekend starts on Friday with the practice sessions, and that's where the opening battles take place as teams take each others' measure and that of the track. Qualifying sets the stage for race day, and has as much impact on the final results as the race itself. When the drivers race on Sunday, some confirm what they've spent the weekend proving, others to defy the odds and steal improbable positions. F1 2010 is about that rhythm: the slow build through the weekend that reaches a crescendo on the opening and closing laps of the grand prix. It's a game from a team that understands the dreams of the people who wake before dawn to watch a qualifying session.
Playing F1 2010 as the 2011 season unfolds, it dawns on me that the distance between the two is shrinking. To be a better racing series, F1 is becoming more like a game, and Codemasters have produced their best racing game yet by making it less like a game and more like a sport. I hope Codemasters can keep it up, because with every new season, Formula 1 racing becomes a brand new game.