As a general rule, annual sports games get just that little bit better with each passing year, and that's certainly true for Codemasters' Formula One series. The officially licensed sim racer has been gradually improving each summer, and with F1 2021, the studio has made some wonderful additions that make this year's entry one of the best.

Let's start with the basics first, though. Fundamentally, it's incredibly hard to fault this game when it comes to the main attraction: the driving. On the track, the sense of speed and danger is immense. We mostly played on a standard level of difficulty, and even with some assists on, it feels like you're always a hair's breadth from ruining your chances — it's an exhilarating and engrossing motorsport, and racing requires your full attention at all times. The handling model is brilliantly flexible; whether you're new to F1 or are prepared for full simulation, you can fine tune the game to suit you, more so here than in any previous iteration.

That's one of the things that's impressed us the most about F1 2021. The level of customisation you have over your own experience is extensive. Casual, Standard, and Expert race styles give you varying access to all kinds of options, with the latter giving you control over pretty much all aspects of the game's simulation, assists, and weather. It lets you make the game as realistic or as easy-going as you like. Obviously you can't turn it into Need for Speed, but Codies makes its sim racer about as friendly as can be for newcomers.

Speaking of newcomers, the best place to start is undoubtedly Braking Point, the game's all-new story mode. It introduces you to the world of F1 really nicely, even if the narrative itself isn't particularly arresting. Starting off as Aiden Jackson just as he's promoted from F2 to F1, he signs to one of the lower end teams and joins Casper Akkerman, a seasoned driver, and you guide them both through two dramatic seasons. Again, the story isn't anything to write home about; the pair lock horns while antagonist Devon Butler watches on with punchable arrogance. It's the events themselves that make it worth a play — unique objectives, like not letting someone overtake you, or finishing the race with a faulty gearbox, act like a sort of tutorial, getting you up to speed with how to drive, and what to do in certain situations.

It's all valuable knowledge you'll carry over into one of the career modes. The excellent My Team variant is back again this year if you want to add team management tasks to the racing action. It's an impressively in-depth career that has you not only racing for the driver's championship, but optimising your facilities, finances, and teammate to compete for the constructor's championship too. If you're not too fussed about all that, the regular Driver Career is of course available, letting you sign to an existing team. You'll still tinker with the revamped R&D to help develop the car during the season, but it's a slightly simpler mode overall.

Another new addition this year, though, is Two Player Career. This is exactly what it says on the tin — a full career mode that lets you play either cooperatively or competitively with a buddy. We've not been able to fully experience this mode prior to release, but it appears to operate very similarly to the standard Career, with R&D, contracts, and everything else you'd expect. If you choose Co-Op, you'll always be on a team together even if you move, while Contracts has you driving independently, meaning you'll more often than not be working against each other for points. It's restricted to online — no split-screen career, sadly — but it's a fantastic option nonetheless.

Codemasters hasn't stopped there, either. Practice sessions have been given more purpose with development boosts. During Practice, you can now work towards simple objectives that, if fulfilled, will help speed up R&D, meaning you'll get a slight edge in developing your car. Quick Practice lets you skip the driving itself but still secure some of those objectives if you're in a hurry, which is a convenient feature. Elsewhere, Real Season Start lets you begin your career at the same point as the real life season. This simulates all the real world standings and data up to the point you begin, and from there you can take over. For example, you could choose to start from Azerbaijan, take over as Lewis Hamilton, and prevent Max Verstappen from stealing first place. It's another neat feature for F1 fanatics, and something that will grow in value as the year goes on and Codies updates all the stats.

Visually the game is very solid, with tracks being convincing representations of their real life counterparts. Of course, the vehicles look particularly good, but character models are less impressive — there's still work to be done there. When it comes to technical performance, it's wonderfully smooth on the track, but surprisingly dicey elsewhere; interviews with the press and other scenes outside the car are laced with screen tearing. It's not the end of the world, but is a blemish on what is otherwise a very slickly presented game.

Conclusion

With a bunch of smart additions, F1 2021 is a cracking simulator for both die-hard fans and newcomers. The Braking Point story mode doesn't have a particularly compelling narrative, but it's a brilliant gateway into the motorsport and a primer for the wider game. Two Player Career, the Expert driving style, Real Season Start, and more make this the most customisable and accessible iteration yet, allowing you to play how you like across the game's excellent career options. Of course, the driving itself seals the deal, and it's a winner on that front. This is a no-brainer for F1 fans, but it's also a fantastic entry for newbie drivers to start with.