Codemasters have turned their 2010 racing hit into a franchise and you’re forgiven for thinking that F1 2011 is just part of the normal annual patching process that certain other sports titles go through. Yes, the core gameplay is exactly the same as its predecessor, but you know that already; there’s no way to approach an F1 simulation and not know what you’ve spent your money on. Get this title up on jacks, however, and underneath the same shell as last year you’ll find dramatic handling changes, the layering of a new strategy element through the DRS and KERS systems, a brand new circuit in India’s Buddh International, all 12 teams and 24 drivers and… finally… the goddamned safety car.

Codies’ Birmingham studio has done a brilliant job this year of conveying the sheer power of these groundbound rocket ships. In last year’s title, the cars were too slot-machine like and a curb-bounce or hard corner rarely ever caused the vehicle to spin out. In 2011, I learned very early on to respect the power offered. In the first corner of season-opening Melbourne, I gave it a little too much juice and spun the car backwards. A few restarts, later I started to realize that careful feathering of the throttle was required to set competitive speeds. That sensation of pushing the car to the very limits of its grip is exactly how F1 should feel like and in every race of the season, my best laps came down to a single-minded focus on my racing line, hitting the ripple strips on every exit and nursing the throttle to maintain all-wheel contact with the road. Backed by the screaming sounds of the engine, this millimeter tolerance when turning will have you throwing your body behind your wheel and controller at every turn.

Delivering a deep strategic experience on top of a solid racing model is a challenge that F1 2011 meets with style. DRS, Drag Reduction System is a flap on the car’s tail that can be opened at specific points on each circuit if the right conditions are met and is used as for overtaking. DRS’s use in game is not explained, so players will need outside resources to understand it and it will only really be effective on harder difficulties (as on easier settings the player is always first and will never be able to use it). KERS, Kinetic Energy Recovery System, captures the kinetic energy from braking and sends it to a battery. This then allows the driver to add an extra 80BHP in small doses (best used coming out of slow corners) or all in one 6 second burst. For an experts perspective, listen to Sebastian Vettel explain both elements. Tyre wear, fuel mix, pit strategy, brake-temps and the new Safety Car all are there to be discovered for those who tweak their settings past the simple 3-lap race career offered from the starting menus. Anyone who tells you that the F1 series isn’t a sim either hasn’t tried it on harder settings or hasn’t ever raced a real F1 car.

Visually, F1 2011 is noticeably different than last year’s affair in that it seems a lot cleaner. On both the Xbox and PC version a thin sheen of grime has been wiped from the windscreen leaving a cleaner and simpler presentation and this comes across as more natural, although the game is generally quite immersive regardless. The cars have a beautiful polished sheen to them that reflects the colourful world around it. The areas bordering the race track are busy with structures or crowds and at 200MPH it all blends in quite believably. On PC in particular the rain effects and track surfaces are photo-realistic and the Ego engine delivers a stunning gamespace. Off-track there are some lairy gaps, typified by real life ’5 Live’ F1 reporter David Croft. His in-game avatar wouldn’t look out of place in Minecraft and on both versions some textures (particularly the driver’s helmets) are quite granulated up close.