Accolade’s 1988 hit, Grand Prix Circuit was the paramount of all 8-bit Formula 1 games as said hardware systems reached their climax before the 16-bit generation struck down. Here’s how it went.

[original box art - SEGA got a lot of heat for featuring tobacco sponsorship in their game, Accolade - apparently - got away with this one; the perfect harmony of obnoxious, in-your-face cigarette advertisement, underlying, subtle sexism and non-PC type of horsepowers and racing in one single image]

I first met Grand Prix Circuit on the Commodore 64 around 1989 or 1990. I wasn’t even a Formula 1 fan back then, there weren’t regular broadcasts of the races and I was only six years old. My brother and I just wound up at these friends’ places who had one of those machines - playing Wizard of Wor, The Last Ninja, but mostly car games as Lotus Esprit Turbo, OutRun, Test Drive, Street Rod, but mostly Grand Prix Circuit.

[a review of the Commodore 64 version of the game; it was popular on PC and Amiga as well and while the PC version provided smoother and slightly more detailed graphics, it was suffering from terrible speaker music and sound effects, which paid dividends when compared with the other versions]

For me - to this day - it is one of those very few F1 games that captures the atmosphere of their era perfectly. The other was the legendary Super Monaco GP by SEGA and its sequel for the SEGA MegaDrive, which Ayrton Senna personally had a hand in - not just by creating tracks of his own, but fine tuning its limited physics, so that pedestrian crossings were at least slippery. But Super Monaco GP was an arcade game and its sequel went to the ever-expensive 16-bit console, while the C64 port was slightly, well, underwhelming.

Even before any of those games showed up, there was Grand Prix Circuit with its rocking tunes - reminiscent of the old, wah-guitar-driven Formula 1 intro theme - that got you in the mood instantly. By today’s standards there were no graphics to speak of, most of the happenings still played in your head, influenced by reality and the box art.

[the tunes written by Kris Hatlelid are still one of the most popular remix materials from the Commodore 64 era]

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The was a great choice of tracks - including only two (Jacarepaguá and Detroit) that are not on the calendar any more, and the cars featured are some of the best of all of Formula 1 history, even though not all of them are periodically accurate.

[One of the last US Grands Prix before the event was temporarily retired and the very last F1 Grand Prix in Detroit was played out in 1988; image is of Creative Commons licence]

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The Ferrari F1-87/88C that originally had the V6 turbo engine features the glorious 3.5-litre Tipo 035/5 V12 in the game that only made it to testing in said chassis. The car was driven by #27 Michele Alboreto and #28 Gerhard Berger with the team finishing second in 1988. It is the slowest machine in the game, but the easiest to control.

[the F1-87/88c chassis and the 3.5-litre, normally aspirated V12 was matched up briefly for testing purposes; the engine was intended for the next-generation car, the 640; images are of Creative Commons licence]

The Williams FW12 uses a 3.5-litre, normally aspirated V8 Renault engine in the game, while in reality it was a Judd one, switching to a Renault V10 the next season with the same chassis. It was driven by #5 Nigel Mansell, Martin Brundle, Jean-Louis Schlesser, #6 Riccardo Patrese in 1988 and by #5 Thierry Boutsen and #6 Patrese in 1989 as the FW12. Williams finished 7th in the ‘88 season and 2nd in ‘89. It is the “middle-car” in the game with neutral power and control.

[Jean-Louis Schlesser had his only start in F1 during the 1988 Italian Grand Prix, driving the Williams FW12. He and Ayrton Senna crashed a few laps before the race ended while the latter one tried to lap the Frenchman. This is why McLaren “only” won 15 of the 16 races that season; image is of Creative Commons licence]

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Finally, the car that never needs an introduction: the McLaren MP4/4 Honda. Driven by #11 Alain Prost and #12 Ayrton Senna the car and the team is a stuff of legends. The design was carried over from the previous year’s Brabham car by Gordon Murray, it was the fastest and unchallenged car of the 1988 season, powered by Honda’s turbocharged V6. Ayrton Senna won the championship, Alain Prost coming in second with McLaren being the constructors’ champion. In the game it is the fastest car, but the hardest to control.

[The combination of the team McLaren and Ron Dennis’ MP4, engine supplier Honda, designer Gordon Murray and drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost was arguably one of the most successful team-ups in all of motor racing history; images are of Creative Commons licence]

The game offers several difficulty levels that manifest in automatic or manual gear changing (the Ferrari has five gears, the other two have six), prone to damage (too many hikes in the grass or revs in the red cause DNFs) and general car control (too much speed into the corner spins the car). While the easiest level offers you a flat-out, all-speed, no-consequences drive through the track, you have to think twice or three times about what you do on the higher difficulty settings.

The game play was simple: either free practice, one off races or the complete World Championship. Races start with a one-lap qualifying and you can set the number of laps manually. Too much damage to the tyres, you move into the pits. Too wild driving and you are out of the race for sure.

[Same track, same car, but reality and virtual reality are still light years apart (and not just because of the difference in the talent of the drivers involved); one thing is still accurate, though - driving over the limits has a price to pay]

Despite its limited capabilities it was a game that was able to bring the chill of Formula 1 into kids’ bedrooms day and night. In an interview with Top Gear, Gran Turismo-creator Kazonuri “Kaz” Yamauchi cites this game as one of his earliest influences of creating video games. It was the first-person view, the relative sense of speed, the lack of the cocky “three strikes and you’re out”-type of gameplay that was commonplace at that time, the music and the looming championship(s) in reality that made it a legendary game of its time. After quarter of the century it can still make the hair stand up on my back when approaching the tunnel entrance in Monaco, which was my very first flash when I visited the place for real.

Today games are just incomparable to the ones we used to call simulators on the first home computers. GPC managed to touch into something that was somewhat ahead of its time and did it the right time: 1988 went down as one of the textbook seasons of Formula 1, despite of (or exactly because of) one team’s dominance throughout the season and was the prelude to the greatest clashes in motorsports history.

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Fortunately, we have better means today to relive that period, but it is rare to have a game first-hand of such an era, as Grand Prix Circuit.