Because we all fancy ourselves as the next Lewis Hamilton, Formula One videogames have long been an annual staple. But in the past, creating them has been problematic – Microprose, Electronic Arts and Sony, at various times, held the official F1 games licence before relinquishing it to Codemasters back in 2008. The British developer has developed an ever-closer relationship with the sport's notoriously demanding governing body, the FIA, and the positive way in which that has developed is reflected in F1 2017.

For starters, the yearly F1 game would usually come out just before the end of the season, due to licensing difficulties – new tracks would have to be perfectly modelled, real sponsors mirrored in the game and so on. But here's F1 2017 appearing, for once, at an opportune moment: during Formula One's month-long mid-season break. At last, we can compete in a virtual F1 season while that season is still ongoing.

But the most significant consequence of the way in which Codemasters has managed to get on top of the fiddly aspects of making a Formula One game is that it can now concentrate on making the game itself, rather than merely jumping through hoops to get it out before it becomes irrelevant. As a consequence, F1 2017 feels much more like an actual game than any of its predecessors – which generally resembled a facsimile of the Formula One circus with a few concessions to gameplay tacked on.

F1 2017, as you would expect, is an evolution of F1 2016. As with last year's game, you get to pick a team and begin a career as a rookie, aided by a virtual agent. But this time around, F1 2017 manages to feel like a full-blown role-player, thanks to a clever system which mirrors the complexity (and fragility) of the current cars along with Formula One's much-criticised rules, which penalise mechanical problems in a draconian manner.

At the heart of that system is a Research & Development tree, which puts you in charge of the development of your car over the course of each season (as ever, Career mode happily spirals off beyond the current season). Split into segments including powertrain, aerodynamics, chassis and durability, it lets you spend the Resource Points you earn from each practice session, qualifying and race on improving the bits of your car that you're least happy about. So, if you're a McLaren fan, for example, you could plough every Resource Point you earn into improving the engine, and see if you had a competitive machine at the end of the season.

The Resource Points system provides incentive to participate properly in the practice sessions, and especially to complete the data-gathering programmes that help fettle your car for qualifying and the race – namely tyre wear, qualifying speed, race-pace and fuel-saving, plus track acclimatisation (as seen in F1 2016), which places transparent gates on apexes and elsewhere and rewards you for hitting them at the proper speed.

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Flexibility rules so, if you want, you could opt to eschew practice sessions in favour of qualifying and races alone but, if you did that, you'd be missing a large part of what makes F1 2017 the best Formula One game we've ever played. Far better to work your way through the different programmes over the course of three practice sessions, and reap the benefits for later in the season. Plus there's a tactical element to which programmes you take on when: for example, if it's raining in one free practice session, there's little point in fettling your car for qualifying when the next session should be dry.

While F1 2017 now provides a much more game-like experience than what has gone before, it hasn't sacrificed an iota of Codemasters' famed authenticity. Two of the practice programmes reflect ongoing issues of the sport's current formula – fuel-saving and tyre-wear – so pursuing those stands you in good stead in the races. Learning to lift-and-coast without driving like Captain Slow, in particular, proves to be surprisingly great fun, requiring you to rethink your driving technique in a manner with which all modern F1 drivers are familiar.

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Another new system in F1 2017 also brings you closer to what real F1 drivers experience during every race weekend: you must keep a close eye on every component of your ridiculously complicated car. They all wear out, and FIA rules dictate that you're only allowed a certain amount of replacements, but it's better to take a five-place grid-drop for a gearbox replacement (and save some Resource Points for making your gearbox more robust) than to have it explode mid-race.

This time around, you find yourself fretting about worn MGU-H components and the like – your engineer gives you plenty of feedback about parts that are on their last legs – and it's not uncommon for you to have to work out how to drive around, say, a missing gear. Which gives you more sympathy for those drivers who often sound like they are whingeing to their team over their in-car radios. In terms of modelling every aspect of your car's behaviour, F1 2017 has ramped things up several notches.

Against that background, it would be easy to take the racing for granted, but F1 2017 is absolutely faultless in that regard.

As ever, you get bags of feel from the cars, even if you're playing with a gamepad. Like the real drivers, you can marvel at the insane amounts of grip offered by this year's wider cars with their bigger tyres, and you find plenty of corners which you can now take flat-out - whereas that was an impossibility in the past.

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If you've got a flashy simulator setup with a steering wheel studded with buttons, it's easy to map things like fuel mix to one of those buttons. If you don't, that's a bit of a disadvantage, as you have to bring up a menu using the D-Pad which you need to learn intimately during the practice sessions, since trying to hit apexes while fiddling with a menu system is a recipe for a spectacular crash. And running out of fuel, in particular, seems to be more of an issue in the game than it is in real life, so tinkering with the fuel mix is vital in most races.

Another great new innovation in F1 2017 which further highlights the subtleties of the car-handling model is the introduction of interludes during the season, in which you get to drive classic Formula One cars outside of the F1 circus. A rather spivvy Brit pops up occasionally, inviting you to take part in challenges which might involve overtaking a set number of cars around Silverstone (in its current configuration) in Damon Hill's championship-winning Williams, or driving a McLaren from the era with grooves in the tyres around a checkpointed Interlagos, winning extra time at each checkpoint (the latter felt amazingly lacking in grip compared to the current crop of cars, but it sounded amazing).

Naturally, you can turn off all the driver aids and jump into online races against people who really do fancy themselves as budding F1 drivers (and who probably have rigs which cost them thousands of pounds), or you can setup individual Grand Prix or races with your mates. And Challenges – scenarios from classic races of yore – will be made available via downloadable content.

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If you had to criticise one aspect of the game, that would be the rather dodgy facial modelling – during off-track cut-scenes, it is possible to recognise the drivers, but they look like much scarier versions of themselves. But that would count as the least important aspect of what might just be the finest Formula One game ever made.

Verdict

F1 2017 certainly feels more authentic and true-to-life than any of its predecessors - and the way in which it gels as a game (whose subject matter just happens to be Formula One) is unprecedented.

Yes the facial animations are dodgy, but if you're a true Formula One fan there's really no excuse to not get your hands on a copy of F1 2017. Especially as it's mid-season break.