Battling for the drivers' championship at F1 Arcade in London

2023-07-21  Gaming,   Travel and Leisure

I recently had the opportunity to visit a place I’d been dying to see since it opened at the start of this year - the F1 Arcade in London. Essentially a bar crammed full of sim racing setups, the website made it look like a dream for a keen virtual racer like myself. But would it live up to the hype built by the Formula 1 PR machine?

Tucked away close to St Paul’s Cathedral, the bar itself is very slick, with decor based on circuit layouts and the start lights, and screens everywhere showing either Formula 1 clips (including Romain Grosjean’s near-deadly crash in Abu Dhabi, which struck me as a bit odd) or whatever happens to be on Sky Sports F1.

Lights out and away we go

On arrival, we were shown to our area, which consisted of five rigs, each with two ultra-wide displays, a seat with force feedback, and an F1-style steering wheel and pedals. In general the bottom screen was used for gameplay, while the top showed standings and information alongside a TV camera-style view of the on-track action. Oddly, the view defaulted to the T-cam, which felt unnatural with a wheel in front of me, but it was easy enough to switch into the cockpit with a few button presses.

To play, we registered with our phones via a QR code and were automatically split between five teams - one for each seat. Players were called up to races that lasted around four minutes, with assists adjusted to their perference with levels from a beginner mode where the car practically drives itself all the way to assists off and manual gear shifts. I was there to relax, so I stuck somewhere in the middle.

I can’t be certain, but the game looked like a modified version of the Codemasters F1 23 game. Each race had ten entrants - five human drivers and five AI cars, who seemed to be subject to some rubber banding to prevent anyone from running away or falling behind too much. Points were allocated for finishing positions, with various add-on awards for overtakes, time spent on the tarmac, fastest laps, and so on. At the end of each race, each driver’s points were added to their team’s total to update the championship leaderboard - an extremely tense time later in the evening!

The track selection turned out to be one of the few disappointments of the night. After seeing Monza, Bahrain, and Spa in the first few races, the game went on something of a Silverstone streak - and it turned out that those were the only circuits we’d get to play. Looking around the room after we finished, I could only see the same four tracks, which is a shame since F1 has so many classic circuits, but perhaps F1 Arcade has decided they’re the most accessible for beginners.

Keeping the stewards busy

There are several other omissions from the F1 games, and perhaps the biggest is DRS - so you’re on your own when it comes to overtaking. More problematic is the absence of any rules. Dangerous driving, cut corners, and so on all go completely unpunished, which can result in gross miscarriages of justice when it comes to results if you can’t trust your friends to obey the honour system.

That said, penalties for collisions would be a right mess, because it turns out Turn 1 is even more of a tangle when driving alongside a group of friends who never play racing games. In my first race (at Monza, of all places), I used the time-tested strategy of hanging back and picking my way through the carnage after the fact, but in later races the game placed me higher up the grid, and the first few corners were a tense wait for the inevitable connection from behind in the braking zones.

The trick from that point was to get into the lead and take the Verstappen approach, building as much of a gap as possible from P2 during the first lap. In the one race where I didn’t make it through Turn 1 unscathed, fighting my way through the pack turned out to be a difficult prospect, since every time I overtook someone they’d misjudge their braking heading into the next turn and take me out all over again.

A team sport

So we’re not exactly talking iRacing levels of gameplay or driving standards, but the truth is that F1 Arcade is one of the best evenings out I’ve ever had. The team dynamic, with drivers battling it out on track and their teammates shouting support from behind, is fantastic, and drives the perfect mix of comraderie and banter as you fight for the win, both on the circuit and in the overall championship.

If you have a passion for motorsport, at least a few friends, some cash to spare (currently £16 to £21 per driver, depending on the day/time), and you’re in the area, a visit to F1 Arcade is a no-brainer. More than anything else, it’s just a lot of fun to take a traditionally solo hobby and transform it into a party game.

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