Through the annals of time there have been many revolutions. Some have resulted in crushed empires and industrial progress, some have been much smaller and only affect those with specific interests. For me one was happening at a time when Star Wars and Matchbox were ruling my world.
It was a time where I was unknowingly consuming carcinogenic sweets. It was a time when riding a bike without a helmet was de facto. It was a time when child passengers in a car didn’t wear a seatbelt, a carseat, what? The likes of Keke Rosberg and Barry Sheene were fêted for having a crafty smoke on the grid. It was a time when halting people for drink driving seen as was inhibiting their human rights, the likes of Benny Hill and The Two Ronnies were socially acceptable – their antics and attitudes towards women were a default setting for many men, but behind closed curtains across the nation a secretive televisual pastime was emerging. No, not the one with VHS video recorders and hairy hardcore pornography, but the one with small box shaped electrical contraptions, keyboards and joysticks. The world of home computing.
My first experience with this wonderful new technology was a grown up neighbour playing Sink The Bismark (which sounds like the VHS hobby) on a Spectrum 48K – with rubber keys, of course. It was awe inspiring, breathtaking, beautiful, life changing. It was a simple game with a cannon and a ship. All you had to do was adjust the cannon trajectory to ensure you had the right angle to hit the ship. It wasn’t a couple of blocky sprites on screen, it actually WAS the Bismark! Of course over the next few years – and with the use of a few home computers of my own and my friends – we had access to a myriad of interesting gaming scenarios. Predictably for me this included my first foray into racing games. Machines such as the aforementioned Spectrum spewed forth some addictive offerings that allowed us to become racing drivers of race winning pedigree.
The very first racing game that I encountered in this new age was Chequered Flag by Psion Software for the Speccy. In typical ZX fashion it would be loaded via a cassette recorder with a sound similar to a mid 1990’s dial up modem, fancy add on discs were not part of our world at that point. A crisp intro screen of dancing colours would morph into a picture of a Grand Prix car laid upon a blinding blue set of menu screens. Here you had the chance to choose your machine and circuit. It was your opportunity to belt up and finally see what Nelson Piquet was seeing on his way to his second drivers championship in 1983. It was real, you could soak up the atmosphere of the circuits, and Oh yes they too were real! Brands Hatch, Monza, Monaco, Osterreichring, Silverstone and my personal favourite, Paul Ricard (which is something I can’t say today…..) After choosing the track and number of laps you were given the choice of which machine you were going to thrash the arse off. Apart from the developer’s own Psion Pegasus you could drive either a Ferreti or a McFaster (no prizes for working that one out.) As for the physics, well, at the time we loved it with that curving black strip in the centre of the green screen with a hint of horizon. But as with all software, it was quickly surpassed.
Pitstop II on the Commodore 64, for us at least, introduced split screen racing and AI cars. Far more importantly it incorporated actual pitstops where you controlled the pitcrew to change tyres and refuel the car. It was slick looking and sexy, it immediately became a classic, the pitstop scenario was a fun sidegame that I can’t recall anyone having revisited in this vein. For me, one game became the game of the time. “Formula One.” This Commodore 16 game programmed by Mastertronic, was hideously hard. The company sold almost 200,000 copies, and with the tape trading culture of the 1980’s I’ve no doubt that at least that amount of bootleg versions were shared around. Looking back I don’t think Mastertronic could complain about that though. It seems they didn’t pay for the rights to use the Formula One name….. I spent hours upon hours on this game. To this day I can’t figure out why I did, it was terrible, even by the standards of 1985! When playing a few things were apparent, the racing line didn’t count, the graphics were awful, it didn’t even have a grey area to signify the track surface, just white bollards to show the limits of the course . It could have made a decent horse racing sim…..
Through the late eighties and nineties many more games and systems came and went. Notable highlights included Super Monaco GP from Sega and Nigel Mansell’s F1 Challenge from Konami. But F1 on its own wasn’t enough. Newman Haas Indycar featuring Nigel Mansell kept the mustachioed Brummie at the forefront of racing game fandom, but it introduced that little piece of variety for me – ovals. In a genre where “real” racing games were dominated by F1 it was a nice to get something different. Indycar was the perfect fillip.
Through the nineties the revolution that was the Sony Playstation changed console gaming forever. Formula One, the 1996 game based on the 1995 season was a mind blowing shot across the bows. Monaco looked like Monaco, all the buildings were there, Monza in all her glory exuded with that late summer sunshine associated with the famous park during it’s classic September slot. This actually was real, the company who produced the game, Psygnosis, claimed that every tree at Hockenheim was in the same place as the real ones, and I believed it! The franchise continued with some success over the following years, but other forms of racing had noticed the monetary and fan building results the game was garnering. Other commercial rights holders mad sure their championships were also on the gaming horizon. What we got was a mixed bag of games with a mixed bag of results. On consoles a search for that Indycar fix gave us Andretti Racing and Newman Haas Racing, they didn’t quite fill the hole. Over in the USA the awesome CART game was released, in those pre internet days, and days of Sony locking regions I didn’t even know of its existence. Other areas were trying to exploit the burgeoning genre, we had Le Mans – the game, it handled like a bouncy castle. Formula Nippon was hideous game in it’s own bodged unreality, cars don’t handle like that at all, and they certainly don’t pivot on that central axis when they spin! The NASCAR series had less than half the field on track, and less than half the cars to choose from. It wasn’t ideal with a playstation controller, constant left corrections in an attempt to keep a smooth groove through a turn gave the impression that moonshine was still on the NASCAR menu. Despite all of these failed attempts at hoodwinking the masses into thinking that they were championship material one real gem did arise – TOCA. All the cars, tracks and drivers of the 1997 BTCC season were there, even Croft and Knockhill. Who would have thought that these little tracks would make it into a video game? And what a game it was, on board it sounded like you were in the BBC TV highlights package, the crashes were awesome, and that pesky Jason Plato in his yellow Renault Laguna kept getting in the way. It was the standard setter for console games based on real racing, a template that still stands true today, but apart from F1 it was the only game to truly capture the essence of the series it was inspired by.
The Playstation generation was now heavily in effect. In 1997 the 2nd Psygnosis F1 game – F1 97 – was even being used by Martin Brundle as a pre race track guide on ITV’s Formula One coverage. Sales were going through the roof but it still felt a little unsatisfactory, it was at this time that a friend of mine made a purchase that opened my eyes to a whole new digital world – Grand Prix 2 – For Windows PC. All I knew about this game was that Jacques Villeneuve had used it to learn Spa prior to the 1996 Belgian Grand Prix. I wasn’t at all bothered by it, by all accounts he steered using the keyboard, how 1980’s was that? Then I viewed it in action. It moved the goalposts so far away from anything I’d seen before. It was mind boggling in it’s realism. Developed by legendary (and that is no understatement) racing game developer Geoff Crammond (Revs, Stunt Car Racer) this game was not a game at all. It was a sim. Other games had claimed to be a sim before but nothing I had seen had come this close (I’d missed out on the original Garnd Prix game.) From the setup menu where everything that was adjustable on a real F1 car was actually able to be adjusted, to the monitoring of the car condition and parameters through the race – All real . The crash model felt real, and finally I discovered that what I had previously thought of as being fast wasn’t. In reality though the feeling of speed was more to do with your decision making process, the car was reacting exactly how it should, unlike the console games you had to work at every corner, every steering input, gearchange and braking point. When you finished a race you actually were mentally drained. I had to get a PC. I needed to get this game. The final push from console to PC when my mate said: “Oh, this came with my compute , would you like a go of this?” At this point he produced a giant cardboard box with the title Indycar Racing 2 emblazoned across the top, this was the final selling point I needed.
The next 18 months was tough, without the cash to buy a PC I meandered along with my Playstation, buying up racing games hoping that one would match what the PC was capable of. I felt let down knowing what was just out of reach, endless rehashes of F1, Nascar and Touring Cars came and went until I had the funds to continue my crack like addiction to racing games. The arrival of a shiny new Windows PC (from Time, remember then?) heralded a new dawn in my house, my wife and I decorated the spare room to give our baby a new home, the waiting had been worth it. The reason being that in the intervening time period Crammond had usurped GP2 with……. yes, GP3! I immediately rushed out to get my grubby fingers on this treasure chest that would pave my way to a new promised land. While I was carrying the game around my local game shop (Electronics Boutique) I purchased another game in an impulse buy, NASCAR Racing 4. Thank you Papyrus, when I installed that I ignored GP3 full stop. The branching out into other forms of racing games really was satisfying now. The thing that I loved about NASCAR 4 was one little trick it had up it’s sleeve – skins. The fact that you could go online and download paint schemes that were more realistic than the ones in game, and that you could design your own too. Yep , I was that guy driving a Pontiac Grand Prix in the colours of Marlboro and Camel (and Bear in the Big Blue House.)
When I finally got round to living the intensity of GP3 (literally months later) it all changed. The depth of the game would see me at work standing motionless beside large machines with a contorted look on my face contemplating if a change in camber or tyre pressure would help me through the Esses at Suzuka (still a set of corners I struggle with in any game or sim!). It was while I was searching for some advice for car setup in a GP3 forum that the defining moment arrived. Like a golden light slowly rising above the darkened horizon one little thread title caught my eye – 1991 Carset. Upon entering the page I was faced with a discussion on a level that was beyond me, but I could make out a few instructions here and there. Links to an editor and a couple of zip files were tempting, I took a chance and clicked on the links. Three downloads later and I had the editor, the 1991 season F1 cars, and a couple of extra tracks for the game. To a techno-luddite like myself none of this made any sense but after a couple of posts and responses my PC was configured to run some classic racing. Within a couple of hours I was flying around Pheonix in 1991 in Michele Alboreto’s Footwork Porsche – turned out to be a McLaren beater after all! It was the first step into the world of modding for me, a world that would allow me to race in series that were not financially viable enough for a publisher to base a game upon. The variety of tracks and cars to compete in seemed unending, and as I would discover the variety of quality therein would also provide its own adventures.
As I continued on this GP3 adventure I found myself racing in Champcar, F3000, F3 and historic F1. The quality of circuits did vary as amateur developers of different skill levels produced tracks where the layout and detail was assorted. Some places were immediately recognisable, grandstands, buildings and advertising hoardings were giveaways to the circuit identity. Donnington Park in 1993, ye , you could be Senna recreating the greatest single lap in F1 history. Anderstorp in 1978 as Mario Andretti, that was me. While the tracks were fantastic, 1970’s F1 exposed the greatest flaw in Grand Prix 3. The carshape file, all o the cars were the same. You could get past other faults in a way, the maximum number of laps in a modded game was 100, so the Indy 500 was at best the Indy 250. A maximum length was set for tracks also. If you wanted to replicate the bombastic Nordschleife performances of Jackie Stewart and Juan Manuel Fangio you were stuffed, if memory serves me right no circuit could be longer than a virtual 5 miles. An approximation of “green hell” did appear but it did nothing more than serve the purpose of filling the gap. Having all this extra free content was more than enough compensation for one or two little restrictions. Add on editors for a realistic car failure ratio or to edit points standings to replicate real seasons were well used for the solo gamer, but the carshape problem was still there. 1998 was a year of change in Formula One. A change to a narrow track suspension and grooved tyres had most of the teams designing cars in a similar vein. The advent of high nose cars also had major influence over their appearance. It was one of the most homogenised fields of Grand Prix challengers seen yet. For the Microprose squad this allowed a short cut. Make one carshape for all the cars. Granted, the bitmap artwork did a surprisingly good job of making each car look individual – with polished tobacco free advertising it was a sumptuous and glossy environment, especially when compared to the fare available on console based F1 games. For the mod community it was a major hindrance. While Champcar, IRL, F3000 and F3 were all running either a spec chassis, or a limited number of choices, all that was required was a carshape with various paintjobs, this didn’t extend to classic racing though. The incredibly open design regulations that exploded with wild experimentation in the 1970’s limited what could be done with the game. No six wheeled Tyrell P34 would be used in GP3, the Brabham BT 46 “Fan Car” would be neutered and the classic March 711 “tea tray” would be reduced to a generic period vehicle in an approximate colour.
The limiting factors that were native to Grand Prix 3 were not apparent everywhere. The producers of the NASCAR racing series had unleashed a devil of a game, but if you wanted classic Formula One you could always purchase Grand Prix Legends, which I did. I purchased this game in 2001 when it was three years old. Grand Prix Legends was a high spec game (for my setup at least.) It was far higher than what my PC could handle, but being impatient I acquiesced to my screaming inner child and bought it. Just on the off chance it may wor . Surprisingly it did, rather smoothly. I also purchased a further three games – Spirit of Speed 1937, Sports Car GT and GP500 on the very same day. I’ll touch on them soon but for now we travel back to 1967.
Grand Prix Legends lied to us when it claimed to be a sim. You would have more chance of success if you put a a gorilla into a real 1967 F1 car than left it to its own devices to drive a lap of Monaco. There was no chance of mastering this beast. Well, that is how it went for me. It looked beautiful, it was so exciting to install, it drew you into an evocative era long past promising the testosterone and fuel whetted fantasy of John Frankenheimer’s astounding movie “Grand Prix,” where you could be the hero instead of James Garner. Not a chance in hell though, it was so bloody irritating to me. I just couldn’t get past the 2nd corner of a circuit without binning it. I tried, I really tried on and off for a year or more, I downloaded extra tracks and a couple of extra seasons of mods, but after 15 minutes of crashing and cursing the disc would become a substitute for a frisbee and in would pop a different game. No matter the settings I couldn’t grasp it, the game had the reputation of being a pixelated widowmaker and I gave up, thankfully many didn’t. Still to this day 19 years later the game has a dedicated cult following, it has been heavily uprated, running as high as 60fps, it looks amazing, but I suspect it’s still way above my station. The positive side of this game though is the GPL game engine, its lineage and its descendant games are still relevant now. The GPL engine was the basis for the aforementioned and fantastically developed NASCAR Racing 4 and NASCAR Racing 2003, even today it is in the architecture of the daddy of all online sim games, iRacing.
If GP Legends was difficult and above my station, the other purchases I made that day also threw up a few difficulties of their own. Spirit of Speed 1937 was harder to drive than Grand Prix Legends. To put it simply it was crap. Utter crap. It had the name Microprose on the box, the very same Microprose of Grand Prix 2 and 3 fame but thanks to changes in ownership it was far from the same company that had become an indication of high standards and excellence in racing games. GPL had you spinning into the barriers every turn, SOS 1937 put you in the barriers every turn too. Because it was a struggle to turn! I don’t think anybody would have attempted to crack this game to mod it because was so truly atrocious, which in its own way was is a shame, because pre-war racing has always intrigued me. GP500 on the other hand, that was amazing. Once again a Microprose release, it was meant to be their two wheeled answer to GP3, this was one game they didn’t balls up, but it’s a two wheeled game with no real place for my affections for it here I’m afraid to say, even if it still outstrips any bike racing game on the market now! The other purchase burning my fingers was EA sports Sports Car GT. I already had it for Playstation, it was one of those terrible games I purchased during my pre PC enforced console years an it was unimpressive. The PC version however had, I’d noticed, a whopping great amount of mods available, so I purchased a copy for the princely sum of 99 pence. SCGT was an interesting one. For the add on community it was really easy to get cars and tracks into the game and it had everything, and I mean it had everything. SCGT felt like it had every road course, street track, oval, rally stage and drag strip in the world. Home brew street circuits galore added even more fun. My personal favourite was a circuit that was run down a motorway, back up a slip road and down the other side turn round and back to the start. The choice of cars was phenomenal, for endurance racing fans there was the ALMS series, the 1996 BPR championship, Le Mans 98, Group C and much more. Touring cars, single seaters, stock cars, Detroit hot rods, pick up trucks and even truck racing. Racing a Kenilworth up Pikes Peak? No problem. It was a fun game, a pick up and play game where you’d have fun crashing and powersliding, more akin to Need for Speed than a serious racing game though. It was perfect to unwind with after a frustrating Grand Prix Legends session.
2002 had seen the release of the final Grand Prix incarnation from Geoff Crammond. Grand Prix 4 as a game was far superior to Grand Prix 3 in almost every respect. It was ahead of it’s predecessor in terms of graphics, handling, sound and presentation. Unfortunately for gamers like myself the development of the game had ensured that no dirty little modder was going to break this game and use it as a basis for unwanted add on content. I wasn’t going to pay for the game when I could race the same season on Grand Prix 3! The same went for the upstart F1 series that EA Sports had released (F1 2000, 2001 and 2002.) Little did we realise that EA were releasing one half of a duo of games that would move the goalposts once again. Two games that for my money would be the epitome of the modding community.
2003 was the year that a pair of development teams would see the final year of a license expire. EA Sports was to shock everybody in seismic proportions with a new Formula One PC game. And I do mean PC game, because the console adaptation (F1 Career Challenge) was an affront to gaming racers the world over. While the console game was a dumbed down arcade racer its big brother, F1 Challenge 99-02 was a PC masterpiece. At the same time Papyrus was to give us the flawless (after patching) NASCAR Racing 2003. It blew the doors off NASCAR Racing 4. It pummelled any NASCAR console game that had come before, and even 17 years down the line is far superior to any other NASCAR game yet released. In it’s straight install form it was, and still is, phenomenal. Lapping Daytona in the 500, stuck in the pack drafting, the amount of sweat emanating from your palms is frightening (you could actually get away with a controller on this wth no problems too,) it was a real white knuckled ride. To a lot of people the world over at the time NASCAR was seen as nothing more than roundy, roundy racing. It is far deeper than that. Essentially the high speed endurance race where you will spend 450 mile tuning your car for a 50 mile final dash that is Stock Car racing was the solid centrepiece of the game, and for modders it was open for business.
While NASCAR games in general try to emulate the racing scenario, NR2003 simulates it. A creation of heightened anxiety in those moments when you are in 25th place, 3 wide with cars at both of your bumpers, the compression of suspension as your car enters turn 3 flat out and the Daytona Speedway becomes the tri-oval section is terrifying. Who needs Resident Evil when you have this? Each track is perfect, their foibles accurately recreated. Martinsville, Bristol, Darlington, Dover, Indianapolis. On top of all that for us Brits, ASCAR and Rockingham (the Corby one) also popped up. The physics, tyre wear, in race adjustments and spotter radio was all on a far higher plain than any other game out there at the time. Admittedly qualifying was a weak point, when you had the settings perfect for the race you would easily qualify on pole by a huge margin, but it was in a way a hidden advantage. You would either qualify on pole or at the back with the lap times being so tight. In most games if you started at the back you were going to be involved in a wreck, from the front you’d lap the field quickly, NR2003 had an ace up it’s sleeve, and it could take discipline to master. Adaptive Speed Control, or “catch up.” The program would ensure you wouldn’t race away and easily win, or be left behind. It’s a feature I’ve seen in a few other games but not in a sim, and surprisingly this little tidbit made this sim more worthwhile. Simply, if you started from pole and were lapping a second a lap quicker than the other cars they would travel faster, catch you up and run at your speed. The game also came with a fantastic paintshop for you to create your own design, immediately carsets were online to replace those shipped with the game, the modding had begun. It was the tip of the iceberg.
NASCAR Racing 2003 had an amazing amount of playability, as a stand alone product it had years in it – even if you take away it’s iRacing lineage. The realism was enough for NASCAR rookie Denny Hamlin who used it to learn Pocono in his first full year, he went on to win both races at the track. It would be a distortion of the facts to intimate that this was the sole reason he conquered the notoriously tough circuit, but we were truly approaching a point where racing simulations were being used as real world applications, something that has become an absolute necessity in modern racing. The scope to gain more from NR2003 was there, and a hungry and willing fanbase was ready to consume all that was thrown at it. The two road course tracks shipped with the game – Sears Point and Watkins Glen were challenging compared to other releases. The realism of throwing a fully fledged Winston Cup car around these classic American circuits was a ballache, but it was an achievable and satisfying challenge unlike (Papyrus stablemate) GP Legends. Some clever cloggs spotted this part of the game and the first road courses appeared – ports of the circuits available for GP Legends. It was fun to challenge Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and co to a blast around Silverstone 67 in 2003 Cup cars. The knowledge that tracks could be imported was a good thing, what was to come next was an almost sleight of hand move.
The first full mod that I got my hands on was a Busch series expansion. The second tier of NASCAR had been available as a skin set in NR4 but here the subtle differences were not immediately noticeable. Slightly smaller cars and less powerful engines (mirroring the gap in the real world,) made the handling a little more sanguine, but they were the kind of differences that hardcore fans could now feel. Hot on the heels of this was the Craftsman Trucks series for pickup trucks. Again the comparisons were similar to the real world. They had their slight quirks from one another but the first major shift I encountered (and the best ofthe lot) was the brilliant ASA mod. This short track series introduced a collection of short track circuits utilised by the developmental championship with the cars and drivers of the series faithfully represented. Another top notch mod was Aerowar 88 which was a reproduction of the 1988 season featuring, Earnhardt , Wallace and Martin at their finest. The ease of changing the game physics and handling parameters suddenly had you topping 210mph in the draft while the car wallowed on the edge of adhesion. There were more Stock Car mods and the natural progression to Indycar followed. In the middle of the civil war between Indycar and ChampCar the all oval IRL had been formed and it took nothing more than a couple of chassis designs and track adjustments to be able to simulate the rival championship to NASCAR. Initially it did have a few glitches, the main one being the bottom of the cars sinking below the level of the track in the turns. Minor problems with braking and pitting were cleaned up and we had the running Indycar sim since IndyCar 2.
As I mentioned before the NASCAR Racing game contained a paintshop application, this allowed the gamer to paint any of their own designs on the car of their choice – Dodge, Pontiac, Ford and Chevrolet. Similar to GP3, NR2003 had been limited to four carshapes, the initial thinking was that the game would be limited in scope for modding. Simply applying skins that represented other manufacturers was a decent enough shortcut as the community delved into historic NASCAR racing. Outlandish designs like the Dodge Charger Daytona were to be seen in the 1969 Grand National season mod. It was also notable for bringing legends like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and the Allinson brothers to our monitors. Alongside these American standards we also witnessed the arrival of racing from a broader international spectrum and some of the finest tracks from around the world. The DTM, classic seventies sportscar racing pack and the Group C mods were astounding. Circuits like Le Mans and Trois Rivieres (how many games or sims are there where you can race that?) becoming the new standard for games running the GPL engine. The more euro centric championships were to raise there head somewhere else, and arguably they were more accurate in performance and handling, that was thanks to the immense powerhouse that was F1 Challenge 99-02.
What do you want to race? F1 Challenge 99-02 from EA Sports should have been a lackadaisical afterthought, the company who were the worldwide leader in sports games were at the end of their agreement with Formula One Management to produce officially branded games. The fourth instalment for PC was a masterpiece, containing all the tracks and drivers that raced from 1999 to 2002, it also contained all the cars (44 different individual F1 chassis.) It was a gift to modders everywhere (and it still produces yearly updates year on year now.) The game itself was able to be balanced in any direction you wanted, from easy pick up and play all the way to a full on intense sim, it was a pleasure to see and feel. It was one of those games where you feel it instead of just seeing it. The cornering and braking were pretty spot on, and the cars were fairly faithful representations, little pointers were obvious to the F1 connoisseur. The only thing missing from the game was the tobacco and alcohol advertising, but no matter that could be easily rectified. At first files started to creep online correcting various small design details on the game, the kind of detail that hardcore F1 fans would rage about. Slowly following that were complete redesigns of the 99-02 season . Correct liveries, helmets and trackside advertising, special one off paintjobs, like Ferrari’s post 9/11 tribute car or the Williams ‘Keep Your Distance.’ A whole aesthetic repackaging of the game was a pure success. Following on from these improvements the 2003 F1 season arrived as an independent addition , the quality was higher than that of the in game designs for the 99-02 seasons. It was obvious straight away that this was a game with limitless possibilities. The following season mod for 2004 featured the new Bahrain Grand Prix circuit. The file was more than equal in appearance to any of the tracks in the game itself ,and the layout ,grip levels and car performance were perfect. The simple .gdb and .mas files containing track data were simple to open with notepad and edit with all the details self explanatory to even the least tech savvy player. Development names like Ralph Hummerich, CTDP and SimBin started banging out quality F1 mods, and in competition with one another they raised each others standards. In the world of Formula One racing the developments started heading to pre 1999 seasons, in a reverse sequential order, 98, 97, 96. 95 and 94 arrived hot on each others heels. The carshape and track packs faithfully reproduced all the details and circuit changes that had happened in the previous 10 years. Add to that the opportunity to relive years past in all their glory and it was already becoming a classic.
Two welcome expansions were the F1 Turbo set that dealt with the mid 1980’s and the F1 Seven Mod. We could now become interlopers in the Senna/Prost wars, and we could also mash a six wheeled Tyrell P34 around the Osterreichring. As would be expected F1 would be the mainstay of developments, even today the hardcore fanbase of F1 Challenge has ensured that every F1 season from 1950 is available to download. For the most part these seasons are almost perfect but the further back in time one goes the harder it is to verify particular details. It’s far easier to create Sochi for the 2014 Russian GP and copy Nico Rosburg in his famous first turn lock up than it is to replicate Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn in the title decider at Morocco in 1958. Simply the source material isn’t as readily available, as a result I’ve seen some terribly pathetic and childish online disagreements regarding the placement of straw bales and lamposts at older tracks! But such is the passion of those who work hard at giving us the opportunity to live out history that inevitably histrionics are bound to occasionally appear. This immense attention to detail wasn’t just going to besiege the F1 fans in the community, F1C fans were to benefit greatly to this obsession with perfection in other areas.
Although Papyrus had released Indycar 2 in 1996 PC gaming was lacking a high quality single seat based Champcar or Indycar game. Various attempts had been made for consoles and a decent pair of interpretations had appeared via Grand Prix 3 and NR2003. F1 Challenge was the perfect donor for an attempt on this type of racing. The Champcar/CART mod was one of my most played games on this platform, it had some exquisite rendering of tracks from the series. In tribute to the host game the mod was a 4 season collection from the early 2000’s, the developers finding the perfect balance for all of the ChampCar disciplines, Burke Lakefront Airport – the host of the Cleveland Grand Prix was my favourite track, the realistic first turn with multiple lines available for overtaking was edge of the seat. Elkhart Lake provided the rollercoaster thrillride I expected to garner from the crazy topography that would rule out an F1 race ever being held there. For the most part the ovals were a good mix of speed and precision, except for St Louis, for some reason the AI failed there, cars trundling around seemingly on their pit limiters. An easy win? No, thanks to another glitch my engine kept barbecuing itself after a couple of laps, I guess you can’t win them all! The rival IRL Indycar series was also catered for with OWOR (Open Wheel Oval Racing.) The oval only series had one little trick up it’s sleeve. While Papyrus had lost it’s license post NR2003, EA sports had themselves started producing the official NASCAR game, it was awful, but being from the same family it made the oval tracks easy to port into F1C. Essentially being the same track that the IRL ran on developers only had to design the cars and the mod Open Wheel Oval Racing was born. Its NASCAR roots were apparent and it didn’t really compare with its CART cousin, but it just edged the NR2003 incarnation. One of the benefits of the cross pollination of mods and the easy text editing of circuits meant that all the tracks were interchangeable. You could run F1 cars at Elkhart Lake after all, and on ovals, Indy machines at Monaco or Monza ? Indeed. There was no pesky virtual FIA politicking to place those kind of constraints upon us!
As TOCA had shown us in 1997 on the Playstation an appetite for tin top racing was insatiable and F1C was the perfect platform to expand the reaches of the excitable door banging form of racin . My first introduction to F1C Touring Cars was a mod based on the 1994 BTCC season, the glory year for Alfa Romeo, and a season known worldwide for Volvo introducing the 850 in estate form . It was all there, Cleland in the Vauxhall, Oulton Park, Thruxton, Snetterton. The car sizes were maybe a bit larger than in reality but it passed the acid test. The brand new European Touring Car Championship had a neat self installing package (many mods entailed creating folders inside the game and placing and linking files,) the 2003 season came in a one click package with all the tracks and cars rules and points settings there for you. New tracks introduced to the game included Oschersleben, Valencia and the breathtaking Enna-Pergusa. As a direct add on to the ETCC 2003 mod came ITC 1996, unusually you needed the ETCC game installed before introducing the ITC cars to the game. These touring cars had been spectacular in their heyday, speedball racing, the cars were a concoction of so many different racing disciplines, the high speed craziness was now translated into my PC so I could spend my imaginary millions licking sparks up in all four corners of the globe from my own living room. Other Touring Car championships getting their own lease of life included the Australian V8 Supercar series and the new incarnation of the German DTM. Bathust or the Norisring? It was all there.
F1 Challenge had a plethora of racing series to choose from , the quality of these were fairly consistent and stable and I have played far too many to mention here. Many one make series were formulated to install, from McLaren to Mosler to Mini, and as you would imagine a vast array of Porsche 911 series from the world over. It was in this arena that the first mod I played for F1C was born from – The Ferrari 360 Challenge series, it was my first experience of sportscar racing in this format. For me sportscar racing ruled the roost in F1C modding. The SCC mod provided us with the ability to race the American Le Mans series from 2001 to 2003, it included all four classes LMP900, LMP675, GTS and GT. It was quite convincing with multi class racing. With all the classic circuits now available and individual cars available to add into the game Sebring and Le Mans were heart pounding events to race, but SCC was not the best contemporary mod out there.
The luscious FIA GT 97 mod wasn’t either, but I spent an unhealthy amount of time on that. The first install was typical of what all mod fans go through at some point, no engine sound, or no wheels, or no sky. We all have one problem or another, and from machine to machine one package may have failings in different areas. While my engines were mute, others suffered a lack of cockpit or no steering. Many consecutive un-installs and re-installs of F1C later and the championship would be up and running. In some ways this was part of the fun with mods, when downloading the files you never knew how much work it would take to get a successful installation. The hit or miss nature of improving the game was a game in it’s own right, and the majority of the time once you got it running it doubled the satisfaction. I had this with FIA GT 97, but I loved every minute of it. It was a stupendous undertaking and I fully appreciated it, it’s a season I must have run a hundred times, even the half finished Helsinki street circuit didn’t detract from the Mercedes CLK GTR vs McLaren F1 GTR battles, as good as they were there was one better.
The singular best mod for any game, Virtua-LM . Simulating the behemoths of sportscar racing – Group C. This little gem took you from the inaugural year of the FIA mandated championship all the way to it’s Bernie Ecclestone inspired death knell in 1993. In glorious detail the Rothmans Porsche 956’s of the very first season led an array of beautifully designed and rendered cars that raced throughout he tenure of the championship. Many independent Porsche 962’s complimented the factory entries, faithfully reproduced Jaguar, Sauber, Lancia, Mazda and Peugeot prototypes were able to be taken to the tracks of the era. Fuji, Le Mans before the Mulsanne chicanes, Silverstone before the H+S crew neutered i , and even the almighty Nordschliefe were thrown in for our pleasure. Re-enacting the incredibly close 1986 Spa 100km drew far more satisfaction than the 1999 Monaco Grand Prix that the original game gave us. But without the team from EA Sports giving us F1C Virtua-LM would have never happened. It did bite and dropping to the Group C2 to begin with a Spice was certainly recommended.
These games kickstarted an amazing cottage industry that still survives today. Games like rFactor 1 & 2 and Assetto Corsa have continued in the same vein, but I’ve never gotten around to them. After 12 years of racing F1C and NR2003 I still have more seasons and championships to race than what I’ve already completed, and I’d recommend the games to anybody with a bit more adventure in them than what is served up for you in the world of mainstream race gaming. Currently both games are available at the lowest price I’ve seen them for a long time, F1 Challenge currently sells for around £15 to £25 and NASCAR Racing 2003 sells for around the £50 to £100 mark. It may seem extortionate, but with a half decent Windows 7 (or 8 for NR2003) system you could be talking about 200-300 series/seasons of racing, that’s a fair bit more than Gran Turismo or Forza 7 can offer, but you would have to work for it – and admittedly some of the mods mentioned here are a pain to find. The one thing that I haven’t touched upon due to personal preference is that both games, and some of their mods still race online leagues, an added bonus for those of you who enjoy the competitive side of things (I’m far to wayward to commit to such a thing these days and under the current situation LAN parties are out of the question.) Anyway, I’m off to race the 1997 DPR Panoz around Fiorano – because I can, no console is going to dictate what I can and can’t do, happy gaming, happy, simming happy racing folks, I’ll see you from the top step of the podium.
Amazing article. As I’m working on an internship project on the evolution of sim racing software and hardware, this is a great complement to my research. I’m so glad I found this article and website.