F1 2019 preview: Freshening the formula
Customisation, esports, the F2 series ... the developers of Codemasters' new instalment of the racing franchise explain why it's much improved from last year
ANNUAL franchise updates often degenerate into a game of numbers: “We’re giving you X more of this and Y extra that”. It often serves to disguise the real lack of progress elsewhere when the marketers are reduced to shouting about incremental digits.
It’s something the F1 series has been guilty of in the past, particularly during the shift to the current generation of consoles. F1 2019, though, has been in gestation for almost two years at veteran racing studio Codemasters. The Birmingham-based operation – which has handled the franchise since 2010 – has been split into a pair of teams, with one scoping out the following year while the other works on the current iteration.
It all bodes well for the release next month of F1 2019, one of whose biggest additions involves, ironically, a number: F2 to be exact. Not content with simulating the top level of the sport, Codies now also simulates the next lower tier called Formula 2, which features a different roster of drivers and slower, heavier cars. All cars use the same engine, chassis, and tyre supplier, making the skills of the driver paramount.
Still, it sounds an odd move until you realise that F2 is the feeder system for F1, with three new drivers on the 2019 roster coming from F2.
Thus, with the new F1 2019, you can start your career in F2 and work your way into the big league for a more rewarding experience, building up rivalries and friendships along the way that increase the drama.
All of this was explained at a preview event last week in Hamburg, where Codemasters showcased the latest build to journalists. Hosted by the automotive museum Prototyp – well worth a visit for petrolheads on a visit to the northern German city – the preview gave us hands-on with the near-final version and interviews with project heads including game director Lee Mather and David Greco, handling group lead.
The 2019 update focuses on several key pillars such as F2, esports, livery customisation and improved presentation. If you’re prepared to fork out €20 extra for the Legends edition, you also get some head-to-head challenges between the great 90s rivals Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
F1’s ruling body, the FIA, is notoriously strict about the presentation of the sport, so it’s little wonder that Codemasters sticks to reality year after year.
“If there's something we want to do in particular, we can go and propose that,” says Mather. “But ultimately we've got to make a strong representation of Formula One and as a Formula One fan myself I would be somewhat disturbed if it deviated too much from being a Formula One game. But there are things that you can do. Some of the little challenges that we add to the game – for example, the rivalry, things like that are threads that are derived from Formula One.”
The Senna-Prost rivalry challenges include eight scenarios such as pursuit and overtaking. Mather suggests other classic duels could be on the cards in future editions depending on the reaction of fans.
Esports has reached such critical importance that F1 2019 gives it its own menu on the Start page. Indeed, the whole F1 industry takes it very seriously, with pedigree teams such as McLaren and Mercedes expecting to find the next big thing in real racing among the sim drivers while competing for the $500,000 prize pool.
Mather is cautiously optimistic that drivers playing his game could make it into upper echelons of the sport. “I don't think there's any doubt that we're gonna see them certainly graduating into real forms of motorsport,” he agrees. “I think that leap to Formula One's always going to be a big one, though.
“But we're already seeing it now I mean [19-year-old two-times F1 esports champion] Brendon Leigh was racing only the other day in a single-seater [driving a Formula Ford at Snetterton in England]. So you know that's already a huge move for somebody who had never driven a car to winning our F1 esports to actually competing in real motorsport and showing skill in it.
“So it's only just gathering pace now and what we're looking to do with the esports in the game and the way that the game's structured – in particular with the leagues stuff that we're putting in this year – is to get more people able to race online in decent lobbies with good drivers and to actually hone their skills.”
Mather reminds us that some professional drivers already get involved with esports. He points to Scotland’s Graham Carroll, who used to drive in Formula Ford and now competes in the virtual league for the Red Bull team.
Mather’s colleague David Greco used to compete up to Formula Three level after starting in sim racing. Now the Italian is responsible for punching in the numbers that determine how the cars respond to the player’s input in F1 2019.
“I was one of the drivers who liked to spend more time with the engineers than with all the drivers,” explains Greco. “So I learned a lot from engineers in real races. I do a little bit of coding but I'm not a programmer. I am the one that puts the numbers themselves within the physics engine.”
Greco seeks out the opinions of the real F1 drivers to ensure the Codemasters team are getting it right, saying most of them have played the sim over the years. “I spoke personally to [new McLaren driver] Lando Norris a few times so he has given me some feedback.”
Also new to the series this year is the ability to customise your driver’s gear, from the suit to the helmet, gloves and boots. Going even further, F1 2019 offers a custom-made 2019 spec car that can be further tinkered with by the player. This car – which is intended for use in multiplayer – was designed by F1’s actual technical team Ross Brawn and Pat Symonds, whose job it is to tweak the rules to make the sport more exciting.
“We had this concept of bringing customisation to the game and we weren't sure how to do that because obviously we can't show favouritism for any other teams,” says Mather. “We don't want to go taking somebody's car and then making changes to it. So we came up with the concept of: could we create a car in cooperation with Ross and Pat Symonds?. Between our car team and between those guys we created a car that's basically built around the letter of the rules of the sport.
“Then they helped us by saying, for example, well, that wing shouldn't look like that, it needs to look like that – that aero component should look like that. So it was a great opportunity to do that and I think it gives us another grounding for continuing to build on that multiplayer side of things.”
• F1 2019 releases on June 28 for PS4, Xbox One and PC. Buying the Legends editions grants early access on June 25