F1 2020 arrives in the middle of some very strange times. As I write this review, the sport is experiencing the first weekend of racing so far this year, all under the cloud of the strict social distancing, mask-wearing and empty stadiums COVID-19 conditions require. Out goes the atmosphere, in comes awkward interviews with mics on poles, F3 drivers trying to drink champagne through masks and fines for not covering faces.
None of which are in the game, thankfully. Faced with calendar changes, delays, early driver market swaps and sponsor drop-outs in real-life F1, the task of replicating the circus must have been challenging for Codemasters, especially with no reference point for team form. Kudos for the end result, which maintains momentum for the series.
We’ll begin with the biggest, most anticipated and (thankfully) best feature in F1 2020: the ‘My Team’ career mode. As an F1 fan, you should be ecstatic about My Team more.
In F1 2019 you were able to create yourself as a character, join an existing F1 team (ousting an established driver) and then work your way through multiple seasons before becoming world drivers champion. You could either stay with the same team throughout and develop the car through earned resource points, or be poached to join somewhere else.
For My Team, you create your own, 11th team, building it from the ground up. I could, and did, spend hours tinkering with my car’s livery, sponsor deals, beating rivals, hiring young F2 upstarts to my squad and juggling resources. They all combine to provide the richest, deepest and most satisfying structure yet seen in an official F1 game.
Cash is king as you try to march up the standings. You earn it being selecting a primary sponsor, which will pay out sums based on various results e.g. scoring points for the constructors championship. Using these bonuses alongside the recurring weekly revenues, you are responsible for paying the salaries for your teammate and employees. If you run low, departments may be frozen to cut costs.
You will have to select which departments to improve, where investing in the marketing team will help sponsor relations, while providing facilities will help reduce the resource points needed to add new aero parts to the car. You’ll also need to constantly juggle what happens between races, with training or PR events that can boost the morale of departments or improve your driver’s Acclaim level.
Ah yes, Acclaim. Your team has an overall Acclaim level which improves based on on-track performance, and so does every driver on the grid. As levels increase, new paths to success will open. Getting to team level ten, for example, enabled me to get a third sponsor, which meant more revenue. In order to sign the most reputable drivers on the grid for season two, your team needs to have enough Acclaim or Lewis Hamilton will snub your approach. Matching a drivers reputation with your team’s stance is a tactical play you’ll need to get right, otherwise you may end up with Giuliano Alesi, and you don’t want that! Oh, and don’t forget to save enough cash for the end of the season in order to afford them.
Elements from the Driver Career transfer across, like invitational events in classic cars, only they now boost your Acclaim and thus feel more worthwhile. Meanwhile, you can select a shorter season with as few as ten races and customise which tracks are included, although you cannot select the same track more than once. There’s even a driver perk system where you can unlock additional answers for post-race press Q&As.
Elsewhere, things have been tuned with the aim of attracting more casual players. You’ll find more assist options so that, like GT Sport, you can now select how slippy going off the circuit is and the menus offer more explainers to help ease you in. This is a good thing, and I’ll tell you why; with F1 esports having been shown on mainstream TV, my father is considering buying his first PlayStation to play the F1 game. He’ll need all the help he can get!
The fundamental handling is much the same, but perhaps with a sprinkle of additional understeer. Mildly less lively then before, the cars are slightly easier to handle, but that also places greater emphasis on tuning out the front push in order to rotate the chassis more keenly – something which will now be more essential in ranked online play.
The hybrid Energy Recovery System (ERS) is much more straightforward this year, based on feedback from actual F1 drivers, now acting as an overtake button with a finite amount of available energy. The effect is much more pronounced and leads to more tactical use in online races especially. Making sure you have enough left for a last lap overtake is essential. Not to be overlooked, this is the biggest change on-track. The structure of the online gameplay, however, remains identical. Which is to say weekly challenges, leagues, ranked and unranked options, plus F2 is available from launch this time.
There’s a couple of new locations for this game – not this season, of course – with Zandvoort in the Netherlands alongside the Hanoi Street Circuit in Vietnam. After watching the preview footage, I was underwhelmed by Hanoi. It looked like an amalgamation of former F1 tracks Valencia and Korea International Circuit. In practice, there are a couple of clumsy corners, but once you’ve learnt the layout I actually found myself enjoying it. Not an instant classic, but also not as dull as Sochi Autodrom.
All of the tracks have been given a boost in vibrance, with some now sponsor decals and a more audible crowd (ironically), but are otherwise exactly the same. I mention it every year, but the representation of Spa is still wonky and what’s with the bumps upon entry to Lesmo 1 at Monza or the lack of bumps at Circuit of the Americas? Your engineer, Jeff, is still monotone and as non-essential as ever. The new-for-2019 interview segments look absolutely identical this year.
A given with a new F1 game, the latest driver swaps are also present and most of the livery updates are here. The post-ROKiT Williams design is included, with McLaren and Mercedes updates to follow due to the lateness of their changes. As with F1 2019, last year’s F2 season is here for now, with this year’s season coming later. The F2 cars remain a fun aside that provide driftable oversteer missing from the 2020 F1 cars.
But, where does F2 fit into the ‘My Team’ career? It doesn’t, sadly. You see, the main career from last season is now siloed into a separate area entitled Driver Career. Here you can select up to a full season of F2 with your rookie driver before progressing into an existing Formula 1 team. Except, last year there was a story, of sorts, with cutscenes showing a rivalry between you and two other drivers fighting for glory. I thought this was a good addition that ended far too soon. For 2020, it’s notable only by its absence and therefore I’m not sure why you would want to play Driver Career instead of My Team. This feature seems redundant to me now.
The car development tests to earn resource points during practice sessions remain the same familiar trudge, apart from ERS which is slightly different, but simply requires you to drive a lap without using any electrical energy. I’m less motivated to push through these again than Sebastian Vettel must be to race this season.
With a new Podium Pass that lets you unlock special gloves or podium emotes through earning XP in races or buying them outright with cold hard cash, and things like split-screen couch-multiplayer racing (with ugly reductions to visual fidelity), it feels in some areas that F1 2020 is padding out for time until the next generation can arrive. The tracks and tweaks to the vehicle handling are modest refinements, with many of the changes here are icing on a familiar cake. Hopefully, both can take a large step forward in 2021.