With warm evening sunlight reflecting off the polished carbon fibre bodywork and the sound of screeching tyres filling the air, it's easy to trick yourself into almost believing you're competing in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for real. From the faces on the many thousands of fans packed into the grandstands to the bright logos crammed into every available inch of space, the world you are witnessing is a convincing one.
But the controller in your hands - where a steering wheel should be - tells a different story: it's only a game. "We were given the task of reinventing Formula One, and that's no easy thing to do," says Stephen Hood, the chief games designer at Codemasters. In 2008, the UK computer games developer swiped the contract to create the next official F1 release from gaming giant Sony, which had held the rights for most of the past decade.
"Formula One video games had been in decline for a while," he says. "Sony had the exclusive licence ... and they were churning the same kind of game out every year; they weren't really pushing the boundaries. Our biggest challenge was to destroy the myth that F1 games had to be dull." Costing over £10 million (Dh47m) to develop (three times the average game), and with a team of more than 200 people - Codemasters claims to have created the most powerful and realistic F1 racer in history. The game features all 19 tracks in the sport's current season - including Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina circuit for the first time on a PlayStation 3, Xbox and PC - and the yet-to-open Korean International circuit.
"The actual proof of whether or not we got Korea right will come when the race is run. I think we are going to be pretty accurate," says Hood. As well as being able to pick your favourite driver and team, F1 2010 gives players an insight into almost every aspect of a Grand Prix weekend - the build-up, the media speculation, knock-out rounds and even rivalries with other drivers. "It is incredibly realistic and the level of detail is quite astonishing," says Hitesh Uchil, editor of the Middle East Gamers website. "It's been a while since the last F1 game, and this is the first one I have been interested in for a while. Games that have a simulator-level of detail, rather than an arcade format, take a long time to develop."
To build the giant tracks, Codemasters hired photographers to walk painstakingly around each of the 19 circuits, stopping every five metres to capture an entire 360-degree panorama of photos. "It's so the developers can look around the entire track and know where all the sponsors' logos are, the textures of things, what the grass looks like, if there are any marks on the barriers - absolute detail," says Hood.
From ensuring that the computer-generated F1 cars accelerate and brake as realistically as possible, to understanding the effects of weather conditions on tyre choices, the developers turned to the former F1 driver-and-current-pundit, Anthony Davidson. "Most developers have some sort of named driver for promotional purposes, but Anthony was exceptional," says Hood. "He's driven many of the cars and most of the circuits - he knows his way around the world of F1. He can very quickly tell us if the steering doesn't feel right or if something like the suspension is wrong."
Hood says a key piece of advice from Davidson was to tell the developers to reduce the appearance of speed in the game. "Two hundred miles an hour does not look like a thousand miles an hour - which is sort of how it's always looked in racing games before," says Hood. Formula One entered into the computer game world in 1983 with the classic arcade racer Pole Position - its "rear-view racer" format remains the norm today. One of the most beloved entries in F1 history however, is developer Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix series, released on the Atari ST, Amiga and PC in 1991.
"We certainly looked at all of the previous F1 games," says Hood. "People still talk about [Crammond's Grand Prix] now as being the pinnacle of Formula One gaming, despite the graphics being totally out of date. They were fun games and got the absolute essentials bang on." With its slavish attention to detail, cutting-edge graphics and attempts to integrate every aspect of the sport into the gaming experience, it would be easy for the developers of F1 2010 to forget the most important detail: fun.
"We obviously haven't lost sight of the fact that it's a racing game and people buy it because they like racing," says Hood. "But there's more to F1 than just going from track to track." So important was it to keep F1's teams and sponsors happy that one member of staff at Codemasters was dedicated full-time to dealing with complaints about obscured logos. "They watch the TV coverage and they know exactly where all their signs should be. It's treated just as strictly as TV, and it can be pretty tough for us at times. They also know we are capable of getting the images pin-sharp, so if something's not right, they certainly let us know," he says.
Although the contract to develop the only official F1 games is awarded by Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Administration, the developers must still seek the approval of each of the competing teams before the game can be released. "We need to check the car models with them, textures, clothing, the appearance of the drivers, even the interiors of the garages," he says. "If you make a big mistake, they will naturally become annoyed with you."
Hood says Codemasters also wanted to "break the unwritten rule" of racing simulators - that of ignoring real-life weather conditions in the game. "We looked at the weather patterns for each of the circuits. Historically, we know that the Belgian Grand Prix is pretty unpredictable - so there's a system whereby it can start off sunny, but by the end, it might start raining, with clouds rolling-in and mist forming around the circuit."
F1 2010 will be released in the UAE on September 24.