LEAMINGTON SPA, UK // As Formula One's championship leader, Jenson Button, completes another lap of the Yas Marina Circuit, racing into the start-finish straight, the roar of the crowd rises. It is another lap record - remarkable, given that only 30 seconds earlier, the British driver had spun off at the end of one of the longest sections of track. The team manager congratulates him over the radio.
While the blazing sun and blue sky make this recognisably Abu Dhabi, we are not in the UAE. This record lap was completed in an office in the leafy surroundings of a converted farm in Warwickshire in the UK's Midlands. Here, at the headquarters of the game developer Codemasters, the final touches are being put on the first official Formula One computer game to be released in three years. F1 2009 is expected to be released in the UK on the Wii and PlayStation Portable (PSP) platforms around the time of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 1. Its Middle East release is expected a week later.
Although no F1 drivers have yet to complete a lap of the actual circuit on Yas Island, they could do much worse than seek the advice of the Codemasters staff now putting virtual F1 cars through their paces. Every corner on the circuit, every braking opportunity and every dot on the horizon has been mapped in detail by the team in Warwickshire. Despite being more than 5,500km away from the UAE capital, some of the staff here know the circuit like the back of their hands.
One of them, Kris Dutton, a quality-assurance technician, is rigorously testing the Abu Dhabi element of the game for flaws. Similar tests are being run by Nintendo, which will market the game. Seated behind Mr Dutton are close to 30 men, all in their twenties or thirties, some bearded, some pony-tailed, whose computer screens all show the different circuits of the F1 calendar; the sands of Bahrain and the night race of Singapore are among the most recognisable. These men are paid to test computer games, and some say they have "the best job in the world".
"I have done a 100 per cent race for Abu Dhabi, where I did the full race distance," said Mr Dutton. "There is not a dull moment. You have always got to keep your wits about you. You are always looking for the gaps, the few extra seconds you can save. It is less technical and more high-speed than other circuits, and you have plenty of straight sections where you can put the hammer down." A similar online racing game was developed for the race organisers, Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, although the Wii game raises the quality by several notches.
A new control panel shaped like an F1 steering wheel has been developed for the Wii, and the PSP game will allow up to four people to compete from individual consoles. The first attempts by The National at a full lap of the Yas Marina Circuit on the Wii failed; the steering control is extremely sensitive, so anything more than slight movements can cause repeated encounters with the track-side wall. Negotiating the underground pit lane is also tricky.
The deal to develop a new F1 game was signed between Codemasters and Formula One Management (FOM) early last summer. While the aim was always to produce a game for the Wii and PSP formats for the 2009 season, a more detailed version for 2010 is being developed for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC formats for release in a year. Producing an accurate version of the Yas Marina Circuit was a challenge. As the only new circuit of the 2009 calendar, it was still being built as the game was being developed. Visiting Abu Dhabi to copy what was on the ground was out.
Instead, it was all developed 120km from Leamington at the studios of Sumo Digital in Sheffield. The 2010 game is being produced by a Codemasters team in nearby Birmingham. "There are two ways we can develop a track," said Paul Waters, manager of the F1 brand for Codemasters. "If the track exists in real life, a photographer would go there, walk two paces and take a 360 degree photo. Then he would walk two more paces and do the same.
"With Abu Dhabi, the circuit didn't exist. We worked with Allsport [which manages F1 sponsorship rights] and the circuit itself to get their forensically detailed plans of how the circuit is going to be put together. "We then build that through a big team of artists and then send it over to FOM, who then share it with the Yas Marina people." That such a clear vision for Yas was already in place made the producers' work easier, he said.
"The people we have worked with at the Yas Marina Circuit know what they want it to look like, and know what to tell the 40,000 or whatever contractors how it should look." Several other suggestions were vetoed, Mr Waters said. The main objection was to the presence of palm trees along the track, an incorrect assumption by the game designers. Codemasters was given considerable creative freedom by FOM and the sport's rights-holder, Bernie Ecclestone, Mr Waters said, although one proposal was rejected outright.
"We wanted to be able to move drivers between teams, say Alonso from Renault to Ferrari, but they said they might have an issue with that." Andy Gray, communications manager with Codemasters, said the company worked to a deadline of the Monaco Grand Prix in late May. Any changes made since then will not be reflected in the 2009 game, so drivers who have since been replaced have, in the virtual world at least, retained their F1 seats.
The biggest change after Monaco, however, affects the Abu Dhabi race. It was announced last month that the race would start in daylight and end at night; the Wii race takes place in daylight, and it is too late to change the game. That will "definitely" be altered in the next version, Mr Waters said. firstname.lastname@example.org