While Xbox 360, PS3 and PC gamers have to wait until 2010 to get their hands on an officially licensed F1 racer, Wii and PSP owners can relive the 2009 season right now. Although perhaps not the ideal platforms for a racing simulation, Codemasters has attempted to create accessible racing games that stay true enough to the source material so as not to alienate fans. F1 2009 on the PSP manages to walk that line pretty well, although gamers without a passion for the licence will find better alternatives on store shelves.
It's worth making something clear about F1 2009 that is likely to turn away some racing fans: it's not a full-on simulation. Yes, it's got the official licence for the 2009 season, complete with all the drivers, events and race structure, but on the track the cars have an arcade-style slant to their handling model. It's not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination. Skill is required to put in good laps while driving with the key racing assists turned off, but it's also more accessible than the previous F1 game, Formula One Championship Edition, which hit the PlayStation 3 back in 2007.
Core to the F1 2009 experience is your career, a three-season long mode that sees you trying to climb the ranks as you race in all the events featured in the recently concluded championship. The career mode is as complicated as you want it to be; full three-stage qualifying is included, but can be skipped if you want to jump straight into the race. All the rules, regulations and punishments seem to be in effect, but not being obsessive F1 fans, we can't guarantee every single rule is being enforced. If you're an armchair fan the re-creation is good, even if the hardcore might spot a few discrepancies.
Racing in an F1 car should feel fast, dangerous and put you on the edge of your seat with eyes alert as you try to take it all in. This PSP simulation captures that feeling superbly, with a sense of speed as good as that experienced in genre rivals on more powerful hardware. Using an in-car view it's hard not to be taken into the virtual world. You clearly can't use a plastic wheel like you can in the Wii version of F1 2009, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The analogue nub takes some getting used to, but once you've adjusted to its "dead zone" it's far preferable to the sluggish d-pad controls.
Sadly there's no online multiplayer, but there is a decent four-player local wireless mode that lets you compete against friends. You can also play through an entire F1 season with a single friend, either together in the same team or on rival teams. With the ability for novices to race with numerous driving assists, anyone should be able to put up a decent show while pretending to be Lewis Hamilton.
On the whole the career mode and multiplayer features are pretty bare bones, but Sumo has included a lengthy Challenge mode that more than makes up for it. This series of 70+ one-off tasks will test all aspects of your driving skill and are a perfect fit for the PSP's "on the move" appeal. It's still all in the realms of F1, but trying to get a podium finish while racing in the wet and from a losing position suddenly seems more fun when you're being challenged to do so. Aside from these scenarios, you'll have to race in one-on-one events, overtake challenges, drive through gates and much more.
F1 2009 on the handheld isn't bad looking at all. The menus, which looked quite ugly on the Wii, are far crisper here, although the loading times are quite lengthy, and the lack of in-game commentary doesn't seem such a glaring omission on the PSP either. In-game the visuals are rather rough, and the frame rate rarely manages to remain smooth, but the tracks and cars are well modelled, and few PSP racers feature so many vehicles on the track. This isn't close to matching Gran Turismo's visual splendour, but it's certainly comparable to the majority of racers on Sony's handheld.
F1 2009 on the PSP is a fun game, with an impressive sense of speed and the official licence fans want, but there are undoubtedly better racers on the PSP. For F1 fans, though, unless you own a Wii this is the only way to play a game based on the 2009 season. It's not perfect, but it's a solid effort and unlikely to disappoint.