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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack – F1 (World) Grand Prix

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These two week waits seem to fly by, much like the subject of this blog in fact (See what I did there?) This time we’re immersing ourselves once again into the world of Formula One.

Of course you remember one of my early postings about the Papyrus game Grand Prix Legends, and we’re moving forward in time from the era in that game, from 1967 to another truly great age of Formula One, the early 1990s.

We’re looking at one of my favourite games of all time. That would be Formula One Grand Prix on the Commodore Amiga and also DOS and written by Geoff Crammond. It's often referred to as Grand Prix 1, MicroProse Grand Prix, or just F1GP and in the U.S. it's known as World Grand Prix, and like I did with Grand Prix legends I'm going to give you a little background on the real world aspects of the game and why the game was so realistic and why it was important that it came out when it did.

If you didn’t like the detail in the Grand Prix Legends review then this one probably isn’t for you either as we go into a similar level of detail, so I guess I’ll see you in two weeks, but if you did enjoy that review and you’re still reading then climb into the cockpit and buckle up cos here we go.

Like Grand Prix Legends, Formula One Grand Prix is a racing sim, though it does have a quick race option it is definitely aimed at the sim racing audience rather than the arcade racing fans.

Throughout the history of motor racing there have been eras and great rivalries, great battles that have been fought out on track, and often spilled over into fisticuffs in the pits too, Moss and Fangio, Clark and Hill, Arnoux and Villeneuve, Hunt and Lauda, and this game is centred around the era of Senna and Prost, with of course a bit of Nigel Mansell thrown in, and this era is perhaps the last great era of the sport where drivers weren't afraid to overtake, and it's getting into the era of driving aids like traction control and anti lock brakes and even active suspension, all of which I'll get into shortly.

We've seen battles and rivalries since then, Hakkinen and Schumacher spring to mind, but in the modern era the race is often won or lost in the pit lane with drivers taking different strategies into the race so they won't get stuck behind cars and have to overtake them. Now when they come up to the back of a car, as long as it's within a certain lap window they'll dive in the pits to refuel so that when the other car comes out later it will hopefully be behind them.

This era though is when drivers still had the guts and the ability to overtake somebody else, sometimes making a mess of it, sometimes perhaps doing it on purpose, Japan 1989 and Japan 1990 both spring to mind. It wasn't just about that though, driver ability and rivalry, it was about pride too. Sometimes the rivalries were so intense that somebody like Ayrton Senna who was leading the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix and was being caught by his bitter rival Alain Prost, wasn't content to just sit on his lead, and by this time they were team mates. Prost was too far behind to catch Senna before the end of the race but Senna didn't want Prost to set a race lap record so he increased his speed to beat him. Prost responded and they were both setting race lap records but the McClaren team told Senna to slow down, he had the race won and was risking breaking his car or having an accident on the tight street circuit of Monaco. Senna didn't listen and continued to fight for lap times with Prost. He made a mistake, crashed his car and walked away as Prost passed him to inherit the lead and take the race win. Senna walked straight from his car to his Monaco home still in his overalls and wouldn't speak to anyone for days. That year also saw an incident in Portugal that Senna would later apologise for having almost pushed Prost into the Pit Wall as he overtook him.

In the penultimate race of the 1989 season at Suzuka, Prost was leading and Senna had to beat him to win the World Championship, but as he made his move Prost turned in on him and as they came to a stop with their wheels entwined, Prost got out of his car and walked back to the pits expecting to be champion, but Senna got going again and took the lead which made him champion, but he was controversially disqualified for missing the chicane during the crash and Prost was crowned champion. Senna was furious and he took his anger out on both Prost and the system the very next season at the very same track.

At the drivers briefing before the 1990 race Nelson Piquet stuck up for Senna's actions the previous year saying that had he turned around to face oncoming traffic and drive through the chicane it would have been too dangerous and everybody in the briefing agreed. Senna had been robbed. He blamed Jean Marie Balestre of the FIA and Senna was a man who held a grudge.

Going into qualifying Prost was favourite to take Pole position which would mean starting on the racing line on the left hand side of the circuit, but against the odds Senna took Pole and much to his disgust the Pole position slot was switched to the right. He believed, and not without justification, that it was done to benefit Prost. The interview Senna gave about this incident is one you have to watch as he leaves no doubt about why there was a switch and who was responsible for it, Jean-Marie Balestre. That interview was done a year later yet the anger can still clearly be seen as Senna describes his actions and the fact that he had enjoyed a much better season without political interference and without Prost.

Back to the race then, and Prost had to win to become champion and as the race started Prost got away well on the racing line and moved over to block Senna but Senna was having none of it, he kept his foot down and ran straight into the back of Prost as he braked taking them both out in a cloud of dust at turn 1, and as they flew across the sand trap together Senna knew he had won the World Championship. An act of recklessness and it was done apparently without fear to purposely crash into his opponent at well over 100mph.

Formula One Grand Prix the game is set in the very next season, the 1991 season, and though the game isn't affiliated with the F.I.A. or the Formula One World championship the car liveries and driver helmets are accurate for the year, but out of the box it doesn't contain any real world names, though you can put your own in which everybody did of course. Who wants to race as Carlos Sanchez for the Mcpherson team when you can race as Ayrton Senna for the McClaren team?

The points system was also changed for the 1991 season so that now the winning driver was awarded 10 points instead of 9 and the results from all races now counted as oppose to the drivers' best eleven results from the season. So that meant that a race win was much more valuable than it had been and it encouraged some of the overtaking maneuvers that we saw.

The Williams Renault car of this era was a far cry from those in Grand Prix Legends from the late 60s and like I said this was the era of Anti Lock brakes, traction control, semi-automatic gearboxes and active suspension, and in 1991 and 1992 Nigel Mansell won 9 out of 16 races in it, a record only beaten in 2002 by Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari when there were 17 races and again in 2004 when there were 20 races.

The Williams FW14 was designed by Patrick Head and Adrian Newey and was so promising that it tempted Mansell out of retirement to drive it. The engine was a 3.5 litre V10 Renault that powered a semi automatic gearbox using paddle controls. Technically and aerodynamically it was the best car on the grid but some called it too technical for its own good, and indeed its technical failures meant that in 1991 Senna and Mclaren took the title through superior reliability if not out and out pace, but what was all this technology doing?

Well, anti lock brakes is obvious, the clue is in the name. Instead of having to apply a certain amount of pressure to the brake pedal which applied a proportional amount of pressure to the brake discs, more pressure meaning more braking, and if the wheels started to lock lifting off a little, you just pressed the pedal and the system would dictate how much braking to apply. If the wheels began to lock then it would reduce the braking force applied to the discs until the lock had been prevented then reapply more pressure again to improve the braking force. This meant that a driver approaching a corner could just hit the brake pedal and the car would slow itself as quickly as possible and without skidding.

Traction control is another fairly simple one and is similar to the anti lock brakes principle except it applies to the throttle pedal. A racing driver normally hits the throttle and because of the huge amount of horse power at their disposal the wheels will spin and the car loses forward momentum, so what traction control does is monitors the amount of drive going to the wheels and if it is too much and the wheels are starting to spin, it cuts that power until the wheels are driving the car again, and if they start to spin again, it cuts the power again. All of this, along with the anti lock brakes happens dozens of times a second and the difference in speed between a traction controlled car and a non traction controlled car is quite big, especially in the wet, and driver aids like that can mean the difference between finishing a race and not finishing a race.

Active suspension is again quite a simple principle but is technically very difficult to get right, however the difference in cornering speeds especially is quite high. The idea behind this is downforce. Downforce is the force generated to push the car down into the track and improve its grip, and this is something that wasn't around in 1967 when Grand Prix Legends is set, the first wings began to appear the year after, and much more noticably in 1969.

As the car moves forwards the air passing over the cleverly designed body and wing structures does the opposite of what it would do to a plane. On a plane, due to the shape of the wings the air pressure below the wings is different to that above the wings as the plane heads down the runway. When the difference between the two pressure levels is sufficient the plane lifts off into the air.

With a Formula 1 car the opposite is true, the air rushing over the car pushes it down into the track so it has more grip and can go round corners more quickly. In fact the amount of downforce generated by a formula 1 car travelling at 100mph is greater than the weight of the car, so it could literally drive upside down on a ceiling at that speed. Anything that disrupts the planned air flow over the car reduces its downforce and therefore slows the car's lap times down. Now these cars are designed on budgets of millions of pounds in wind tunnels so the team know exactly how the air flows over every inch of the body work, and one of the most important areas is the underside of the car, or at least it was in 1991. Now the cars have what is referred to as the "plank" which is to all intents and purposes a long wooden board that is fastened to the bottom of the chassis and is inspected after the race. This is so that teams can't use air flow systems on the underside of the car to further increase downforce and therefore speed as airflow is disturbed by the plank.

Back then though, there would be any number of air flow devices to help pull the car down into the tarmac, and active suspension helped all of that to work. As the car travels down a straight the airflow is working at its best hitting every aerofoil and wing evenly and creating the maximum downforce efficiently, but as the car brakes the chassis rolls forward slightly as the nose dives down so now the air flow is not working 100% efficiently because its not hitting the car straight on and level.

The effect is increased as the car turns into a corner because now the chassis naturally rolls sideways and the airflow is hitting the car unevenly again so the downforce is decreased just when the car needs it the most, when its cornering. What active suspension did was keep the monocoque chassis level and upright at all times, so as the car was travelling down a straight it didn't have much to do as the chassis is pretty stable, but as the car brakes the nose naturally dives down and the monocoque tilts forwards, so active suspension quickly lifts the nose up without affecting the braking force, and as the car corners and the chassis starts to roll the active suspension corrects it and lifts the side of car up and makes it sit level again.

So going round a corner the wheels won't lock on the approach because the anti lock brakes prevent that, the chassis doesn't roll in the corner as the active suspension stops that and as the car exits the corner it doesn't spin its tyres as the traction control stops that, so this really was drive by wire technology making the car very fast and very stable, if not initially unreliable.

The FW14 made its debut at the 1991 United States Grand Prix in Phoenix and it was clearly the most technically advanced on the grid but teething troubles hampered its championship prospects and even though it was very fast its new semi automatic gearbox among other things gave it problems. In 1992 and with the benefit of further development the FW14B was the dominant car and Nigel Mansell wrapped up the championship with a then record 9 wins in a season, and his team mate Ricardo Patrese scoring a tenth win.

The FW14 won 17 grands prix, 22 pole positions and 289 points before being replaced with the FW15C for 1993, and given that current F1 regulations ban most of the technologies used by those cars, they are still today looked at as being the most technologically advanced racing cars ever built.

So why the history lesson? Well, the game Microprose Formula One Grand Prix is set around this era and features that car, among many others, and that is what sets it apart as a racing sim from something like Grand Prix Legends. Yes its also a driving game, a racing game, a racing simulation, but the two games are poles apart and the gameplay could not be more different.

Before this MicroProse was known for flight sims and military sims for the 8-bits as well as a few strategy games, and as technology moved on so did MicroProse and they went to machines like the IBM PC, the Amiga and Atari ST and in 1990 and 1991 they released Railroad Tycoon and Civilization which quickly became two of the best-selling strategy games of all time. That same year came Geoff Crammond's Formula One Grand Prix, first on the Amiga and Atari ST and then on DOS in early 1992 and at the time it was without doubt the best racing sim of any kind to date.

It is famous for its 3D graphics and attention to detail and it's the first game I played with accurate renditions of real world circuits, and I mean accurate, the bump in the road heading down to Mirabeau at Monaco, the exhilerating altitude and direction changes of Eau Rouge at Spa In Belgium and the adrenalin rush of the 130R in Suzuka, Japan. For the first time in a game you felt like you were driving a real F1 car on a real F1 circuit. The Papyrus game Indianapolis 500 had preceded it by 3 years and was up until that point perhaps the most accurate racing sim, but understandably those 3 years meant that F1GP took the 3D polygon graphics to a whole new level and the sound was so much more realistic too, not to mention the A.I. of the computer cars which was one of the major issues I had with Indy 500, and also F1GP featured a full season to compete in with all 16 tracks as oppose to Indy's single track. It also had a full and very functional replay system with the ability to change cameras, to show different views and to focus on different drivers.

When Indy 500 and F1GP appeared they were the first to implement "real world" racing physics, accurate track models and car handling that required driving skills to play well. Both games were also the first to offer car setups that actually made a real difference to the way the car handled. You could alter the gear ratios, the tyre compounds and the front and rear wing settings, all of which had an impact on your lap times. The cars also had functional rearview mirrors that were actually useful in race situations.

So how accurate a driving experience was it? Well, to really judge that you need to put a lot of time into the game and become really quite good at it, because the more you put in, the more you will get out. On the easiest levels there are driver aids available to you such as a steering assist, a brake assist, automatic gears, suggested gears, invincibility and a self correcting car should you get into a spin.

As you ramp up the difficulty levels there are less and less of these driver aids available until you are completely in control of the car, the throttle, the gears, the gear changes, the damage level, everything.

Once you do become good and by good I mean able to beat the computer cars on the hardest levels, you will be able to tell from one lap to the next whether or not you are on a quick one or not, whether your entry into a corner will compromise your exit or whether a slower entry into a corner will allow you to get a faster exit and a higher terminal speed on the next straight. You really do get a feel for all those things, and you will find yourself using the racing line but also finding your own lines through certain sections of track where a different line will better suit your individual driving style which you will come to develop.

Your driving style also becomes quite important to your race results as well, because tyre wear is accurately modelled in the game, so if you have a nice, smooth driving style you will not wear out your tyres so quickly and you will not need to change them as many times in a race. If you go attacking each lap as though it's a qualifying lap you will obviously go more quickly and open up a lead but you will wear out your tyres more quickly and there will be a quicker drop off in performance so you will have to change them more often.

Back in 1991 drivers were allowed to use a specific qualifying tyre, one which was made of a very soft compound that heated up to race temperature very quickly, stayed there for one lap and then began to melt and lose performance, and these qualifying tyres were only used in qualifying sessions, and each driver was allowed 4 sets of them which meant that in the qualifying session that decided your starting place on the grid, you had just 12 laps. 1 out lap, 1 hot lap and 1 in lap for each of your 4 sets of tyres.

In the race you had a choice of tyre as well, A compound which is the hardest so it will not give you so much grip but will last a lot longer before the performance falls away, and if looked after they will easily last the whole race distance, so while your opponents are in the pits changing their soft tyres, you breeze past and hope they don't catch you again. The B compound is slightly softer than the As and gives a little more grip and the Cs are the softest of all and give the most grip but wear out quite quickly. The final option is the wet tyres which become available when it rains.

In all the time I played the game I only ever had 1 wet race and it happened to fall at Monaco which made an already long, slow race even longer and slower.

Now, I consider myself good at this game, very good at it, and I competed in full length races over full seasons, so 16 races of anything up to 2 hours at a a time per race, not counting a 2 hour practise and a 1 hour qualifying session, though if you wanted to you could end the practise early and do all your qualifying attempts at the start of the qualifying session and then advance time until the session ended.

By the time I was playing on the hardest settings I would win Pole Position every single race, and I could win for example the opening race at Phoenix, Arizona by 4 laps. With a lap taking around 80 seconds, I could lap 4 seconds quicker than everybody else, so every 20 laps I would catch the second place car again. That's how good I got at it and how much time I put into it, even with a joystick to drive the car. Don't forget that this was a time when analog controls were not common place and I certainly didn't have any, let alone a steering wheel, so I had to make do with a joystick initially before moving on to more advanced controls like the QuickJoy Foot Pedal.

That still used digital rather than analog controls but it felt much more natural to play with pedals, and in order for the game to compensate for the on-off nature of digital controllers, Geoff Crammond implemented the driver aids to help drivers smooth out the controls a little such as the throttle assistance meaning that the throttle didn't have to be 0% or 100%, but like I said, once you get adept at the game you can overcome these things yourself as otherwise the game could be considered too easy with the car almost driving itself with brake assistance, throttle assistance and steering assistance, again not unlike the real life FW14B modeled in the game, and that is a major thing that sets this sim apart from Grand Prix legends. In that game if you are arriving at a braking zone and just hit the brakes you will more often than not spin. Your momentum may not be 100% straight forwards, it may be a little to the left, your tyres on either side of the car will not be the same temperature and will offer different levels of grip, the pressures in each tyre may not be the same and the suspension setting on either side may be different, so any braking force is not evenly applied, and there is no anti lock brakes, you have to do that yourself by adding a little throttle to rotate the wheels slightly.

In F1GP, that is not the case, your tyre pressures are not configurable so they are equal as are the temperatures, and though tyre wear is simulated it is simulated evenly across your tyres, so your braking force is applied evenly across the chassis as the anti lock brakes will prevent a skid and the active suspension will help maintain the smooth airflow over your wings and improve downforce. The cars in F1GP are easier to drive because the cars they model were also easier to drive, and in that respect it is a very accurate sim.

Despite this accuracy though, the game was not without its flaws. Geoff Crammond wrote the game long before DirectX, OpenGL and 3D acceleration video cards. So F1GP was built around a proprietary software 3D engine which was set up in such a way that a fixed frame rate had to be chosen (up to 25.6 frames per second on the PC version) and when running, the game would constantly try to render the specified number of frames. Unfortunately this meant that the engine would never drop frames when the CPU couldn't handle the rendering in real time and so the game time itself was slowed down.

There was an option to display the CPU-load and when it got above 100% it meant the game was no longer working in real time, and this phenomenon was known as "slow-motion driving". The rendering was obviously dependent on what was happening on screen so it would occur either on certain parts of the tracks or when there were lots of cars around you such as at the start of a race but to help reduce it you could eliminate trackside details or simply choose a lower frame rate to avoid the problem altogether.

Don't forget though, that this was 1992 when frame rate didn't really matter as much as it does now and the issue wasn't really seen as important until later when it meant that the game would not support multiplayer network play. That was because of the "slow motion driving" issue as it meant that "real time" in the game could differ between different players and computers as they slowed down at different times.

The game's sequels, Grand Prix 3 and Grand Prix 4, had LAN-play and could be hacked to play online over the Internet, but they never performed that well. Even when the first boom of 3D acceleration chipsets revolutionized gaming, the game didn't benefit because the flaws were hardcoded into the game engine, and no matter how much horsepower you threw at it you would still get slow down.

One of the interesting things about F1GP was that even though it didn’t support online racing, online racing communities sprang up where competitions were organised via online services like Compuserve and then the Internet as we know it once that became mainstream. The races didn't actually happen online because the game only had modem play so the races were based on competitors submitting game saves of qualifying laps and races that would then be collated by a race administrator.

Another flaw was found in the physics engine which only used horizontal collisions and not vertical collisions when calculating damage, so it was possible to use the rumble strips and kerbs on some tracks to launch the car into the air and bypass chicanes rather than driving through them without damaging the car when it landed.

Despite the age of the game and the fact that technically and graphically it has long been surpassed, F1GP still has a small active community and on-going developments are still happening albeit in a much smaller way. The best place to find one such community is SimRacingWorld.com which has an F1GP section with downloads and articles as well as a discussion forum.

So, I really can’t rate this game highly enough, it was amazing in its day and it is still very playable today for an F1 fan. It is I think the last game that I missed work to play on, completing a full championship in my week off.

The DOS version is very good but my favourite was always the Amiga version as that’s the one I had and played to death, but if you’re at all annoyed by disk swapping then you might want to avoid it as it came on 4 floppies and to get to the main menu you have to use the first 3 disks and to get into a race you’ll need all 4. Once it’s loaded and you are just changing circuits and trying different ones out you’ll only need to swap disks 3 and 4 but as far as I remember it only supported 1 disk drive so you couldn’t just put disks 3 and 4 into a drive each.

So if you only play one …. sorry, if you only play two Formula One games in your life, play Grand Prix Legends and then Microprose Formula One Grand Prix.

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