Formula 1 as a sport turns seventy years old this year. That’s quite a momentous occasion to celebrate. I used to be a huge F1 fan, mainly through the eighties and nineties with Ayrton Senna being my favourite driver. Then, the blackest race weekend that was Imola 94 happened and for me, F1 died. Still, I’ve always enjoyed playing F1 games even if I really don’t follow the sport itself much anymore.
So I thought, to celebrate seventy years of Formula 1, that I would look at how F1 games have evolved through the years. From the first ever F1 game right up to the latest in 2020. Now, I’m not going to cover every single F1 game as there’s quite a lot of them and when you get into the latter games, they’re really just yearly updates. But I will be looking at some of the more notable F1 games to see how they’ve changed over the decades. Plus, a lot of the early games may not have been officially F1 licensed, but it’s very clear they were definitely F1 influenced. There will be links aplenty to gameplay footage of many of the games, a big thanks to the various YouTubers who complied the gameplay.
So anyway, here we go on an F1 trip through gaming, spanning six decades.
The first ever Formula One race was held in 1950 at the famed Silverstone circuit. Italian driver, Emilio Giuseppe Farina would go in to be crowned the first official F1 World Champion. I don’t have to go back to the fifties (especially as video games didn’t exist then) for the first ever F1 game, but what could be considered the first F1 themed game is still very early in gaming history.
1972’s Pong is often considered the first ‘proper’ video game. It’s certainly the one game that kick-started the whole arcade and video game revolution in those early days. Back then, gaming was in its infancy and games were very simple. Perhaps the first F1-ish game could be Speed Race from 1974.
Developed and released by Tatio in Japan (Midway in the US where it was called Wheels), Speed Race offered some very simple gameplay. You controlled an F1-like car on a fast vertically scrolling road. Given just ninety seconds to make it as far along the road as you could. Along the way, you’d have to weave in and out of other racers. The arcade cabinet itself was a stand up thing with a steering wheel, simple hi-low gears and an accelerator peddle. The game itself was very basic and may not have offered much in the way of F1 thrills, but it’s cabinet design screamed F1. I believe that Speed Race was also the first ever vertically scrolling video game.
Also from 1974 was Gran Trak 10, developed and published by Atari. This wasn’t scrolling like the previous game, but instead had you racing around a single screen track. Gran Trak 10 was a bit more in-depth compared to Speed Race. It was another stand up cabinet with peddles to accelerate and break, but this one offered multiple gears, including a reverse. There was only one track available in the game and you had to race through checkpoints to extend your limited time. Do as many laps of the track as possible before the time runs out.
A lot of those early seventies racers followed a similar gameplay style. Simple weave in and out of traffic, or complete laps within a time limit. Titles such as Sprint 2 (it wasn’t a sequel, the number just reflected the number of players) was the first in a long running franchise Night Driver and F-1 were further early examples of such games with similar ideas. The latter using a unique miniature diorama and projector system to create the illusion of racing over standard graphics. But it was perhaps Sega’s Monaco GP from 1979 which could be considered the first ‘proper’ F1 game.
Where as the previous games mentioned may have had an F1 art style to the cabinet with some F1 questionable influence, Monaco GP was unmistakably Formula 1… mostly. This one played very similar to Tatio’s Speed Race, it just had fancier graphics and a few new gameplay additions like night driving, ice roads, etc, all those things not seen in Formula 1 . Still with that vertical scrolling, race against time thing while dodging other cars. It certainly wasn’t a revolution in gameplay, but it was definitely trying to engage the F1 fans of the day. I mean, it was called Monaco GP, named after one of the most popular and famous races in F1 history. Plus, once again the cabinet was F1 themed especially the sit-down version.
If the seventies was the infancy of the Formula 1 game, then the eighties were its teenage years. The first few eighties F1 games still carried the same ideas and concepts from the seventies, not too much evolution really going on. Then 1982 happened and Namco released Pole Position. Just reading that title should spark off memories of many an older gamer and if it didn’t, this screenshot will:
Pole Position was perhaps the defining Formula 1 game of the eighties. Playing from a third person perspective, you raced around a (for the time) accurate recreation of the F1 Fuji racetrack. Before you could race, you’d have to ‘prepare to qualify’, as the digitised speech would tell you. Put in a good time for a lap and then it was on to the actual race. Here it was you against several CPU controlled opponents in a championship race. Overtake other cars, try not to explode by crashing into billboards and come first. Pole Position was the first F1 game to depict a real race track and also the first to feature a qualifying session and actual racing instead of just overtaking endless opponents. The following year in 1983 and Namco followed up with Pole Position II. Very much more of the same with some minor graphical refinements. Plus it added three more tracks, taking the total to four. Though the gameplay between the two games was identical.
By now, and thanks to the success of Namco’s two Pole Position titles, F1 racers were fast becoming hugely popular in the arcade and even at home. The rise of cheaper hardware saw consoles and computers in the abodes of avid gamers around the world. 1983’s Chequered Flag for the ZX Spectrum was an early example of a F1 simulator. You got to chose from three F1 cars, two called Ferretti and McFaster (Ferrari and McLaren) and race around six representations of real F1 tracks and four fictional circuits. There were no other cars to race against, just you trying to put in fast laps… oh and you had to avoid on-track hazards like oil slicks and broken glass, just like real F1? Chequered Flag also featured a pit-stop game mechanic, the first game to feature pit-stops where you could repair and refuel your car.
Grand Prix Manager from 1984 on the ZX Spectrum was the first ever F1 management game. Putting you in charge of a Formula 1 team. Chose your difficulty, number of races, sponsor, driver, hire mechanics and then it’s away you go. You have to keep an eye on your team, the car, drivers as you advance through the season. Grand Prix Manager was basic, very basic stuff, but it did the job well enough, for the first ever F1 management title.
By the mid eighties, there was a great mix of arcade style racers, more simulation style F1 games and even a few hybrids of the two. Atari released Super Sprint in 1986, a sequel to their long running Sprint franchise. 1985’s Formula 1 Simulator, despite it’s name, was less a simulator and more a Pole Position clone for the home market, even though Pole Position saw several home ports. Pitstop and Pitstop II (1983 and 84 respectively) offered some simple but fun F1 action for home computers. The latter of the two, me and my brothers spent many an hour on racing each other on our Commodore 64.
The late eighties began to see the rise of the officially licensed Formula 1 games. Satoru Nakajima F-1 Hero for the Famicom from 1988 was one of the first licensed F1 games. It saw a release outside of Japan on the NES as Michael Andretti’s World GP, which actually made little sense as Michael Andretti wasn’t an F1 driver, he raced in IndyCar. Though he did eventually race in F1 for the 1993 season. Anyway, the game was one of the first to offer a playable full F1 season, complete with all the real races and ‘drivers’… though pseudonyms were used. Then there was Nigel Mansell’s Grand Prix for home computers from 1988. This one was much more simulation-like and even allowed you to try full race distances. It also offered recreations all of the sixteen Formula 1 circuits of the time.
Arcade titles such as 1987’s Continental Circus and Final Lap, 1988’s F-1 Dream and 1989’s Super Monaco GP (the sequel to the Sega classic Monaco GP from 1979) began to push just what arcade games could really do. Buttery smooth and fast gameplay with exciting race action to boot. But then, as the eighties began to end, a real game changer was released. Namco had already established themselves a great arcade racer developers, but in 1988, they unleashed a genuine beast of a game. Winning Run was was a revelation in arcade racers, F1 themed sure, but it was the titles amazingly impressive 3D shaded polygon graphics that really blew people away. Giving you a choice of two difficulties (cars) but only one track. You have to complete a qualifying lap before going up against twelve other racers to fight for first place. Winning Run opened the doors for 3D polygon racers, both in the arcade and at home.
Well this is it, the decade where Formula 1 game really took hold and began to show just how good they could be. There were more F1 games released in the nineties than any other decade. The arcade format began to grow a little tired of the Formula 1 racers and started to look at other racing disciplines for games to be based on, but the home market was a very different story, you could hardly move for F1 themed games for home consoles and computers. It was 1991 when one of the finest Formula 1 games ever was released with Formula One Grand Prix.
At the time, Formula One Grand Prix, from game designer Geoff Crammond was THE definitive F1 game for home computers. Its impressive 3D graphics were highly detailed for the time and the game offered a very, very in-depth, simulation representation of the 1991 season. Though the game was not officially licenced by the FIA, Geoff still made the game as authentic as he could. All the correct tracks were there and so were the drivers and cars… kind of. The driver helmets and car liveries were in the game, but the names were not. However, Geoff was smart enough to add an editing tool in the game so you could change the names with ease. There is so much I could write on this one F1 game alone (like it’s online and modding community that still exits) that this article would go on for days and I have so much more to cover… like this game’s sequels. But I will finish by adding that this game was the one that not only got me into racing some, but also F1 as a sport much more deeply. Yeah I watched and enjoyed F1 before this, but it was all the car set-ups, track info, etc from this game thatmade me want to understand the sport more.
Two of the biggest F1 drivers in the sport of the era got in on the whole licensing thing in 1992 when they had games released bearing their names and likenesses. Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing saw you able to play a full F1 1992 season as the mustachioed one himself. This was much more arcade-like but still offered things like pit-stops, minor car set-ups, tyre choices and the like. Even the greatest racing driver of all time ever got in on the action with Ayrton Senna’s Super Monaco GP II from Sega, a licensed version of their long running F1 series of games. This one was based on the 1991 season and Ayrton himself even helped with the development of the game. He not only allowed the use of his likeness, but Ayrton pops up though the championship offering you driving advice and tips for each track, all of which was written by the man himself. Plus he helped with how the cars should handle and even designed two fictitious tracks for the player to drive on, Ayrton even had a few voice samples in the game too.
There really were a slew of Formula 1 games in the early nineties, they were everywhere. Titles like F1 Pole Position, F1 Hero MD, Formula One World Championship: Beyond the Limit, F-1 Sensation (which was actually fully FIA licenced), F1 Grand Prix: Nakajima Satoru, F1 Circus Special: Pole To Win to name just a few, were all released between 1990 and 1994. I just need to give special mention to F-1 Grand Prix Part III from 1994 on the SNES. One of my favourite F1 games on any console at the time as it melded a really great racing game with some light management elements, allowing you to create your own F1 team. But 1995 saw Geoff Crammond return and vastly improve on F1 game when he released the sequel, Grand Prix 2… only this time, fully licenced by the FIA. All the races, drivers (with the exception of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger for obvious reasons), and teams for the 1994 Formula 1 season were wonderfully recreated and the simulation feel of the previous game was exceed ten-fold.
But it wasn’t all about heart pumping racing as Grand Prix Manager and Grand Prix Manager 2 saw releases in 1995 and 1996 respectively. Two very good and solid F1 management games full of options and variables as you take your chosen F1 team onto victory over a ten year career. To be honest, the games do feature some very questionable AI and overall simplistic gameplay, not exactly in-depth for management games, but still offered some good gameplay along the way.
1996 saw the release of Formula 1. Perhaps one of the most important F1 games to ever be made. This was the genesis of the F1 games we have today. Formula 1 featured the most accurate representation of the sport to date at the time. Fully licenced cars and drivers, tracks designed using actual real-life data and telemetry, TV style presentation including Tag Heuer timings. It even had commentary from the legend that was Murray Walker. This wasn’t quite as simulation heavy as Geoff Crammond’s games, but it was the first F1 game to get the whole feel and presentation of the sport right.
Formula 1 as a sport already had a rich history worth exploring in the nineties, and one game broke from the norm of trying to make the most recent season the star of the game. 1998’s Grand Prix Legends took the sport back to the sixties, in particular, the 1967 Formula 1 season. The tracks were tighter, the cars didn’t have the safety features and the sport on the whole was far more dangerous an this game tried to capture that. A full on simulation of what it would’ve been like to drive and F1 car back then, Grand Prix Legends was brutally realistic, a trait that turned many gamers off and the title didn’t sell well. But it is a game sim fans look back on with fondness.
As the nineties came to and end, the F1 games did not. F-1 World Grand Prix, Formula One 99, Monaco Grand Prix: Racing Simulation 2, Grand Prix World and Official Formula One Racing were all released in the last coupe of years of the decade. And believe me, I’ve not even covered half of the F1 games released in this decade.
As the next century began, F1 licenses became more strict and the games began to thin out in an quality over quantity kind of way. That’s not to say there still wasn’t a good few F1 games released. Kicking things of right was that man again, Geoff Crammond, with the third of his brilliant F1 games.
Grand Prix 3 followed the 1998 season. Yes, that is two years out of date. Though it was given an update in 2001 for the 2000 season via an expansion pack. Much like Geoff Crammond’s previous F1 titles, this one once more offered a fantastic racing experience and some in-depth simulation options. Electronic Arts got in on the F1 act using their famed EA Sports (it’s in the game) label, releasing multiple titles. F1 2000, F1 Championship Season 2000, F1 Manager, F1 2001, F1 2002 and F1 Career Challenge all offered a more acradey feel to the racing over a deep simulation. Except for F1 Manager which was obviously a management game.
Grand Prix Challenge from Infogrames was a decent attempt at an F1 title, though it strived to be more simulation-like, it never really felt like it. Williams F1 Team Driver from 2001 put you in the driver’s seat of a young driver trying to make it into F1. Starting out in go karts before Formula 1600cc, Formula 3, and finally onto Formula 1. An interesting title that was doing things a bit different from the usual Formula 1 games a the time, but overall, it was pretty disappointing. 2002 saw Geoff Crammond release his final F1 game with Grand Prix 4. This was pretty much more of the same from Geoff, still a good F1 racer indeed. But the problem was that other games on the market were beginning to get better and better, meaning these, once standout games no longer stood-out.
Formula One Arcade from 2001 did exactly what the title suggested. It was a much more arcade-like game wrapped up in the official F1 licence. As far away from a simulation as you could get as the races featured power-ups like speed-boots, large high-grip tyres and even shields. This was all about high-octane, OTT racing.
By 2004, F1 games started to just became yearly update affairs. Sony secured the official F1 licence back in 1996 and made plenty of games from it too. Fourteen games in total released between 1996 and 2007. Other studios made F1 games, sure, but by the mid 2000s, Sony monopolised the market. Then in 2008, Codemasters were the ones to pick up the licence, though they didn’t use it proper until the next decade. There were still a very small handful of Formula 1 games released. For instance, F1 2009 was published by Codemasters, but developed by Sumo Digital. It was in 2010 when Codemasters released and developed their first Formula 1 title.
The Twenty-Tens And Twenty-Twenties
Yup, from this decade onward, Codemasters had exclusive rights to the official F1 licence. Meaning only they could release ‘proper’ F1 games. I don’t think it’s really worth going into all of their titles as they are basically yearly updates over the previous game. From F1 2010 to the most recent F1 2020, Codmasters have given us a decade of solid F1 simulations. Their F1 games over the last ten years have been great and easily offer the best Formula 1 racing around. All fully licenced with all the tracks and drivers representative of their respective years. I reviewed the most recent game only a few weeks back too.
Codemasters did release a little curiosity of an F1 game back in 2012 that wasn’t part of their F1 sim games. F1 Race Stars was a more kart-racing-style arcade game, Full of power-ups, weapons and crazy track layouts that included jumps and even loops. Far and away from the simulation games, F1 Race Stars was actually really good fun and it even featured the official FIA licence too. Yup, you could drive as any of the twelve teams and twenty-four drivers from the 2012 season around OTT tracks inspired by the real circuits.
Other games have offered F1-like racing in some of their games. Rockstar introduced F1-style cars and races in GTA Online and the Forza Motorsport series has also included Formula 1 cars and tracks. As too does the Assetto Corsa franchise. Though in these cases, they are either fictional cars or historical ones due to Codemasters having exclusive rights to the current F1 season.
And so, that’s pretty much it. Formula 1 games from the dawn of the sub-genre in 1972 right up to today in 2020. From simple arcade racers to more in-depth, realistic simulations and even management titles. F1 has seen a real evolution in terms of games that has spanned six decades. As much as I love the Codemasters F1 sims, it’s a shame they have exclusivity over the licence. I’d like to see more studios making F1 games like back in the eighties and nineties. I’d like to see more variation on the sport too instead of these yearly updates. Codemasters’ own F1 Race Stars was good fun and showed you don’t have to always make 100% serious Formula 1 titles.
I’d love to see more historic F1 games. Why not relive the career of a legend like Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher? Start out in karts, before moving through the ranks of the Formula Ford 1600 Championships, Formula 3 before moving into F1? There could be a real-life comparison kind of thing where the actual career of Senna/Schumacher is going on in the background and you have to try your best to match it. I’d like to see more F1 management games, a sub-genre greatly underused. I’d like to see more acradey-like games and so on, titles that push the imagination of F1 beyond the simulation genre. There’s so much scope to be had with the sport, yet all we are getting are yearly updates of (admittedly) great F1 sims and cameo roles in other driving games.