Four-in-one Formula One: Looking Back At F1 Challenge 99-02

Released over 20 years ago, F1 Challenge 99-02 would be the final EA Sports Formula One game until 2022. To say that the title left an impression would be an understatement.

Around the turn of the millenium, Formula One was a very different animal compared to today’s version of the World Championship. Instead of hybrid ‘power units’, screaming V10 engines were the norm. Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen battled for the title three years in a row. And the Hockenheimring still had its characteristic long straights through the forest.

As the year 2000 rolled around, F1 games were in the hands of not just one, but two publishers. Both EA Sports and Sony had acquired licenses, and the result were two series of games. On the EA side of things, they would simply be titled F1 2000 and so on, while Sony went with Formula One 2000, et cetera. Plus, the PC and console versions of the same series tended to differ significantly, even between PlayStation 1 and 2. Kind of confusing, right?

Well, it got better. After F1 2002, EA Sports did not have a license to create F1 games anymore. While Sony continued all the way up to the 2006 season with Formula One 06 and F1 Championship Edition, EA Sports was done – or were they? 2003 did see an EA F1 title after all – only did not feature the ten-current season.

Four seasons on the grid: F1 Challenge 99-02‘s approach was – and still is – quite unique.

One Game, Four F1 Seasons

Instead, EA and developer Image Space Incorporated decided to go for one last hurrah. The result: F1 Challenge 99-02. As the name implies, the game featured all cars, teams, drivers, tracks and season-specific rules for the 1999 to 2002 seasons. Additionally, a console version for PlayStation 2 and Xbox called F1 Career Challenge was released, though this was ceated by Visual Science and differed significantly from the PC-only F1 Challenge 99-02. We shall focus on said PC version in this article.

At a time where many sim racers hope for the return of classic cars to the current EA Sports F1 series, the thought of four full F1 seasons in one game – without any mods required – seems improbable, but not super exotic. However, back in 2003, this was basically unthinkable.

Personally, I had always dreamt about an F1 game covering all seasons of the series history as a kid. F1 Challenge 99-02 may have only featured a fraction of it, relatively speaking, but it was the next best thing. Needless to say that many hours were spent at my childood best friend’s PC (as I did not have one at the time) going back to these seasons that were still fresh on our minds.

The GP loop of the Nürburgring in its pre-2002 configuration sans Mercedes Arena. Image credit: racingcircuits.info

F1 Challenge 99-02: Changes For Each Year

As mentioned, the game had everything for each season. Each car had its unique model and livery, all the drivers were there, and even the tracks changed depending on the season. For instance, the Nürburgring did not have the Mercedes Arena as its first sector until 2002. So if you ran any of the previous seasons, the old Castrol-S would be in place instead. Similarly, the infamous Prima Variante at Monza only appeared from 2000 onwards, so the 1999 version still has the double left-right chicane of Variante Rettifilo.

It has to be said, though, that the accuracy of the tracks really has a lot of room for improvement – something that even players of the present EA Sports F1 series tend to criticize from time to time. Of course, all the trademark corners and surroundings are there, but in some cases, they do not look like you would expect. At least I cannot recall Monza ever having grass slopes next to the track on the run up to Curva Grande.

Have they lifted the track or lowered the grass next to it at Monza since 1999?

Of course, this was before laser-scanned tracks had started to appear in racing games and simulations. Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 4 did include GPS-based circuits, however, meaning they were much more accurate than those in F1 Challenge 99-02.

F1 Challenge 99-02: Laying The Groundwork For rFactor

Meanwhile, the physics engine of the game was one of its showpieces. Sure, there were driving assists, but peel back those helpers and you get a fully-fledged simulation. As mentioned previously, Image Space Incorporated took care of development, and that name will ring a bell with many sim racers. It is, of course, the same studio that would create rFactor just two years later. In fact, both F1C 99-02 and rF use the ISImotor engine that would go on to power titles like those of the GTR series and rFactor 2, among others.

This meant that the game was far from being a “mash the throttle like crazy and feel like Schumi” type of deal. Instead, tire temperatures, your car setup and precise inputs all made a difference on how well you would turn your laps.

Crashes were certainly spectacular, thanks to the intricate damage model.

This finesse extended to the damage model as well – a slight wall tap could mean a bent suspension arm. Bigger incidents would see parts break off, pieces of carbon fiber fly through the air, cars catching fire, and even deforming on impact. 12-year old me certainly did not think that this would ever be possible before the game released. Sliders for damage percentage were available, however, if you wanted to be less stressed about knocking loose your front wing.

If you did, however, your race engineer would be in your ears informing you of your mishap. In fact, Jeff’s dad tended to talk quite a lot, even notifying you about lost wings of other cars. More useful comments included drivers having gone off and in which sector, retirements or gaps. Cars could also stall on the grid, as was common back then – which will also prompt an engineer’s remark.

Dedicated Community

F1 Challenge 99-02 did not enjoy a long period of popularity just because of its base content, though. Just like rFactor, the game was very mod-friendly. And just like Grand Prix 4 or Grand Prix Legends, for instance, a small but dedicated community keeps the title alive and updated with mods for any season or even track-based racing discipline you can imagine.

Unfortunately, getting F1C to run on modern equipment is not exactly smooth sailing. There are no digital copies to buy, so you would have to have the original CD-ROM (remember those?) floating around. And even then, many modern PCs do not even feature a disk drive anymore, although external USB disk drives can help with that.

You thought we would mention the 1999 season without the glorious zipper livery of that year’s BAR?

Once the game is up and running, it might end up looking stretched, depending on your monitor, as many modern “standard” resolutions are not featured. Plus, F1C only recognizes two controllers going off of the Windows game controller list. This means it will only pick up the two at the very top. This can be an issue with Fanatec wheelbases, for example. They tend to occupy two spots on the list – one for the base, on for the actual wheel. In short: Some tinkering will likely be needed. That, or a gamepad – which is where the driving aids come in handy, too.

F1 Challenge 99-02: Early 2000s Milestone

It may not hold up all that well anymore in 2024, but F1 Challenge 99-02 was a milestone in sim racing when it released. Now, we are in the age of older games reappearing as remasters or remakes. And with EA Sports having the F1 license again, thinking of those four F1 seasons being featured in-depth and with modern tech certainly gets the imagination going.

What are your memories of F1 Challenge 99-02? Let us know on Twitter @OverTake_gg or in the comments below!

Lifelong motorsport enthusiast and sim racing aficionado, walking racing history encyclopedia. I have been working in sim racing since 2021 after previously working with pro and amateur sports teams and athletes for a daily newspaper in Wolfsburg. Nothing gets me more excited than motor racing, especially with the beastly machines of the past. A third pedal and h-shifter are not just options for a rig, they are mandatory to me. Avid fan of the IndyCar series (modern and CART/pre-split).