It was never supposed to be like this. The dramatic conclusion to Formula One’s 2021 season put a spotlight on the sport, the brightest since Prost and Senna fought bitterly for titles in the ‘80s. Max Verstappen, the ruthless rule-bender, and Lewis Hamilton, the veteran seven-time champion closing down on beating Schumacher’s impossible record, just kept finding each other on track. Finding, and colliding.
Every new incident between F1’s biggest names ratcheted up the tension. Did Hamilton squeeze Max out at Silverstone? Did Max deliberately cause an accident at Monza that could have killed Hamilton in the pre-Halo era? Why were some incidents punished with penalties and others apparently ignored? The season provided a storyline that motorsport journalists and Netflix documentarians couldn’t have written better themselves. And after 21 rounds, at the final race in Abu Dhabi either driver could win the championship.
Before the lights turned green, you could imagine any number of ways the race could end, some in spectacle, many in controversy. Which makes the reality even more surprising. A victory for politicking over performance, a champion decided in a sweaty race control room instead of on a scorching track. Verstappen walked away the victor after an unusual call from the race director allowed him to catch up on Hamilton during a safety car lap.
The 2022 season, then, had profound significance for the sport. Along with a significant set of rule changes designed for closer racing, it was the next chapter of an epic duel between Verstappen and Hamilton. A do-over after 2021’s unsatisfying denouement.
And then Mercedes had to go and spoil it by designing a car that a was a few tenths off the Red Bull and Ferrari’s pace, didn’t they?
But that’s fine. That’s absolutely fine. No, honestly, it is. Because Frontier’s fantastic F1 Manager 22 is here now, and I’ve just taken Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff’s job. And we are absolutely going to fight for this championship if it costs us a hundred smashed headsets. Even if it bankrupts us.
Having seen the first half of the season play out in real life, I have a sense of what must be done. The problem, I suspect, is the car’s underfloor. Hamilton and Russell have been porpoising around on straights like excited toddlers strapped into high chairs, costing a lot of straight-line speed. Day one in charge of Mercedes, I begin a design project on a new underfloor with significant simulation and wind tunnel time. It should make the car more competitive in all the crucial areas: low-speed corners, high-speed corners, and straights.
In the meantime, though, I have the opening rounds to contest in an uncompetitive car. The Red Bulls of Max and Sergio are roughly matched for pace by the Ferraris. We’re about a second per lap adrift in Bahrain, which puts us at position 5 and position 7 on the grid for the race, Russell and Hamilton separated by departing Mercedes veteran Bottas, now in the Alfa Romeo. At least they both made it into Q3.
That first race is hard-fought, with Bottas and Fernando Alonso in the Alpine matching our cars for pace. We can’t break them out of the high-speed DRS zone, so we spend most of the race yoyoing between positions 5-8. In the end, Bottas has us. It’s an ignominious position 6 and position 7 for the recently dominant Silver Arrows, with Hamilton coming in ahead of Russell.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc takes the win, Sainz in position 2, and Max, our real target this season, takes the final podium spot.
Back to the HQ. We need upgrades, we need them all over the car, and we need them a month ago. This is where F1 Manager 22’s detailed upgrade structure and Mercedes’ deep pockets play to our advantage. Whereas it would be basically impossible to try and reach Red Bull’s performance as Williams in one season, my chosen team has both the baseline performance and the enormous budget to achieve it. So I spend big on fast-tracking aero upgrades throughout the car. I rush development, which means higher costs and less XP gain, but ultimately a better car sooner.
I’m impressed that the game seems to have pinpointed that Mercedes’ weakness lies in its underfloor too. It’s often when you play games in this specific way, trying to mirror or subvert reality, that you notice all the attention to detail. You don’t see a visual representation of porpoising in the game engine, but the underfloor is definitely the chief contributor to our poor performance, and that’s an impressive touch.
The next rounds in Jeddah and Melbourne come too soon for us to bring significant upgrades. It’s two more painful midfield finishes for our incredibly talented driver lineup. Russell, the young buck, might still be chasing his first win. But Lewis has achieved enough in the sport at this point to assert that if he’s not in a position to win a race, that’s the car’s fault. Not the driver’s. Two more top six finishes hauled in. At least we’ve edged past the Alfas for pace.
Pop the cork
Round 4, the Emilia Romagna GP, is where we get to test our first major upgrade of the season. That new underfloor. And my goodness, does it do the business. Although the Red Bulls and Ferraris still have us pipped in qualifiers, the gap is much tighter. We’re about 0.2sec off their pace per lap. We can work with that.
I’ve been noticing that George is a bit kinder to his tires than Lewis, so I set him on a strategy that starts him on the hard compound, then gives him 20 laps at the end to go H.A.M on some mediums. Lewis, meanwhile, qualifying position 5, is starting on the medium and switching to the hard for the second phase of the race.
Turns out I needn’t have agonized about that tire strategy so much - the Red Bulls take each other out in the opening laps, and we’re slingshotted up into position 3 and position 4. This could be our first podium of the season.
Max and Segio charge back through the pack at an alarming rate, having both made early pit stops to repair the damage. They’re on us within ten laps, but their strategy is… sub-optimal, as an F1 manager would say. They’re trying to mitigate the effects of an early unplanned stop by going super long on the hard compound, while my boys will be keeping both medium and hard stints well in their optimal wear range on each stint. They’re going to be able to catch us up, but they won’t be able to maintain the pace on those worn rubbers.
By the chequered flag, Max has come in for an emergency set of soft, and Sergio is lapping considerably slower than those around him. Lewis takes a glorious return to the podium, with George just behind. The Ferraris were untouchable in front but only seven seconds ahead of us. Progress.
Russell and bustle
They’ll be calling the next race The Miami Miracle for years to come. Not just because Miami’s debut F1 event was a wet race, in May. Not just because it was George Russell’s maiden victory. But because… well, because of both of those things.
I got lucky with George’s track position when the rain started to fall. He was nearing the pit entry just as the amount of water on the track surface tipped over into intermediate tire territory, so I pitted him immediately. Lewis, following less than a second behind in position 6, would have had to double-stack to get on the inter that same lap, losing time behind George while he waited in the pits. So I decided to cover Perez, also staying out for an extra lap, with Lewis, and give George the early inter since he had track position.
And that decided the whole race. Perez and Hamilton lost about eight seconds on the next lap, tip-toeing across a drenched track in worn slick tires, while Russell’s wet weather skills and perfect strategy put him four seconds in front. Max couldn’t keep up.
One of F1 Manager 22’s best touches is the use of real team radio. It’s a bit limited, featuring infrequently and rarely using much more than an “affirmative” from the drivers. But in my mind, I could hear Lewis in that tone that he has, when something’s gone wrong. “Why are we still out on slicks guys?” He’d be saying. And I wouldn’t have a good answer.
Still, a win’s a win. And George took points away from Max, which helps Lewis’ championship aspirations in the long run.
At the Spanish GP, Mercedes brings yet more upgrades. This time it’s new front and rear wings, spending our entire wind tunnel and computer simulation allowance for the period, and several million pounds to hurry through their design and manufacture. Since the start of the season, we’ve also updated all other parts of the car, from sidepods to chassis, although often without wind tunnel or sim time. All of that work is finally installed on the car for the Barcelona grand prix weekend.
And it’s here, six months after Lewis’ last victory, that he stands atop the podium and tastes champagne once more. We did it on pace, too - Leclerc in his Ferrari outqualified us, but sitting in position 2 and position 3 we were in a strong position for the race. And after a tense first stint on the soft tire, Lewis was able to break Leclerc out of DRS range midway through the race. From there, it was just about managing the gap. Manually controlling fuel burn, ERS deployment and pace, reacting to Leclerc’s lap times, keeping him out of DRS deployment range until the chequered flag.
This is what licensed sports games are for. The fantasy of making your mark on their ecosystem, taking an element you’re unhappy with in real life and manifesting change. Whether or not F1 gets the second round between Max and Lewis that everyone was so anticipating, at least in some corner of my SSD, there’s a universe where that continued duel is happening right now.
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Ad creative by day, wandering mystic of 90s gaming folklore by moonlight, freelance contributor Phil started writing about games during the late Byzantine Empire era. Since then he’s picked up bylines for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, IGN, USA Today, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, VG247, Edge, Gazetta Dello Sport, Computerbild, Rock Paper Shotgun, Official PlayStation Magazine, Official Xbox Magaine, CVG, Games Master, TrustedReviews, Green Man Gaming, and a few others but he doesn’t want to bore you with too many. Won a GMA once.