2020 has been hurtling down the grid in turbulent air. You know something’s gone awry when Codemasters release the latest in its annual Formula 1 series in line with the beginning of the real F1 season. Usually the developer’s fashionably late; this year, thanks to a worldwide pandemic delaying the start of the season, it’s downright punctual. We’ve become accustomed to seeing modest changes to the series on an annual basis – there are only so many things you can change to an already superb Formula 1 simulator, after all – and the same is also technically true this year. However, given that this is the only way to get a full season of the motorsport in 2020, perhaps this is a more important release than usual – especially for fans.
All of the official 22 tracks are present in F1 2020, including the revived Dutch grand prix at Circuit Zandvoort, with its long, intense, high-speed right hand turns which make for an exhilarating drive, and the brand new Hanoi Street Circuit in Vietnam, which is like a greatest hits of many race favourites. Both of these tracks were scratched off this year’s calendar due to COVID-19, but they’re both included here as though we’re in an alternate timeline. Perhaps inspired by real life events, this year you can also toggle off many of the tracks and run a stripped back championship if you wish to maintain realism. As with the other tracks we’ve already fallen in love with, the two new additions have been recreated with exemplary attention to detail. The brief overhead helicopter flights prior to the race, as David Croft and analyst Anthony Davidson read out their – admittedly sometimes stiff – commentary, reinforce the spectacle.
One of last year’s successful additions was the junior Formula 2 series, although it was bare bones and more of a contextual tool than anything else. This year we have the option of a full or half Formula 2 championship, where you can test your mettle against the likes of Mick Schumacher and Giuliano Alesi, before progressing into the big time. We’re delighted with this addition, but it unfortunately comes at the expense of the light story we had in last year’s entry. We think this is a shame because, despite it being little more than a predictable cameo in 2019, it showed promise and provided context for our driver’s career. We had hoped to have a more fleshed out narrative this year, but instead it’s been entirely removed.
On track, however, the game is as excellent as ever. You really feel the difference as you upgrade your car with new parts, and as tyres wear on the track. Even when you spin out for kissing the apex a little too enthusiastically, the cars just feels right. In many ways, it’s so accurate that the game enhances your understanding of the motorsport.
In the absence of the real deal over the last few months, professional drivers, celebrities, and YouTube influencers have been battling it out on track in esports tournaments, showing just how accurate and enthralling a simulator it can be. Even away from the online community, the computer AI is as competitive as you would expect it to be. It’s the kind of game that pushes you to your limits, requiring concentration and skill – especially when you dial up the difficulty with a comprehensive suite of assist toggles and a sliding AI difficulty bar. With this, even for newbies, you can work your way into the game, gradually increasing the difficulty as you get to grips with your car.
Speaking of which, you really can have your own car in F1 2020. In the new My Team section, you have a whole separate Career-style mode in which you make up the eleventh team on the grid. This means creating your own team from scratch, deciding your team name, setting your team colours and livery, recruiting drivers, and managing all of the commercial agreements and the expectations each of them place on you. Truth be told, it’s a complicated mode – you’re responsible for everything you would be in Career mode, such as directing the car’s research and development, testing, and racing, in addition to a whole lot more. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the text on screen, even though the game tries its best to remind you of what needs doing through voice over prompts. It perhaps feels a little bit too F1 Manager to us, preferring the more focused driver Career mode in the longer term, but this is clearly a welcome addition and your mileage may vary.
In the absence of a driver story, we feel more acutely than ever the possible improvements that could be made to what surrounds the sport away from the track. Interviews with reporters are nice, but how about setting the scene with a pre-race walking interview down the grid? When your car livery is revealed before the season starts, how about a press corps taking pictures? During R&D development, perhaps the engineering team could ask us questions, tweak the results and have them succeed or fail based on our collaboration rather than a percentage chance? Rivalries that are developed on the track are great, but contextually, wouldn’t it be cool if you could see these relationships spill over in the trailers after the race? For such a team-focused sport, there’s sometimes an odd sense of isolation which perhaps doesn’t do justice to the spectacle surrounding the sport. But we’re nitpicking. Where it matters most, F1 2020 truly excels as a simulator of the motorsport and it makes for an extremely complete package overall.
This is the most complete series entry to date, with a full Formula 2 season, followed by up to 10 consecutive senior campaigns in an enthralling Formula 1 career. The new My Team mode allows for an even more personalised pilgrimage, and on track everything sings. It’s a shame we’re missing the story introduced in the previous entry and we hope Codemasters return to this and flesh it out in future outings. But all things considered, F1 2020 includes a frightening amount of content that makes this an essential for fans of the motorsport. This is, after all, the only complete Formula 1 season in 2020.