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Motor racing is just like any other sport.

Its heart beats to the dorky drum of things scribbled across chalkboards before the game has even really kicked off in the eyes of the spectator. There are always fifteen different front wing designs, 150 different ways of setting up your gears, and fifteen thousand different things that can go wrong with an engine, all thrown into a sordid equation that determines if you can win or lose – and often by less than one tenth of a second.

On the other side lies the Mr Hyde that emerges as soon as the tyres hit the tarmac or trail. The reason we all turn up or tune in is for the colourful human coating that gets splashed across the carbon fibre canvas once all of the engine covers have been slammed shut. For better or worse, on Sundays, it’s largely up to the person with their hands on the wheel to steer their clan of car connoisseurs to the promised land.

Even though its Steam Next Fest demo only offers a snippet of a season spent chasing these kinds of dreams, Golden Lap – the retro F1-inspired management sim from Funselektor Labs and Strelka Games – already feels like it’s treading the line between man and machine pretty well. While I’d enjoyed both of Funselektor’s previous titles, Absolute Drift and the equally wonderful Art of Rally, I wasn’t sure whether the developer’s trademark blend of chill humour and challenging-to-master racing action would be an ideal fit for a more sim-focused game.

It’s tough to relax or appreciate the beauty of something when someone’s on the radio moaning that their rubber’s about to hit the cliff, you know? However, Golden Lap keeps a lot of the endearing furniture, while also providing an experience beneath that which’ll appeal pretty solidly to the armchair strategian who reckons they could do a better job than Toto Wolff if given the chance. In the career mode, you’ll take the helm of a team lovingly designed to parody a real world racing enterprise and get a set budget to build it up by hiring drivers and staff, as well as building a car with a design you can dial into a winner.

You do this by turning up at a parody track – such as Silverstone’s bizarro world twin Muttonchop or the Circuit De Casino that winds through the harbour of what’s definitely not Monaco – for qualifying on Saturday. Having put on the right tyres for the weather, you’ve basically got to do as many runs – each of which contains one proper push lap – as possible in order to tune both of your cars up in terms of power, aerodynamics, and handling. How many tweaks you can make per trip to the pits depends on how many skill points your engineer has, with that and their unique traits being what makes them worth hiring, much like with drivers, whose talents are split into separate speed and aggression values.

The my team screen in Golden Lap's career mode.

The not quite McLaren squad, all primed to take on the seventies. | Image credit: Funselektor Labs

On Sunday, it’s all about picking the right tyre strategy for the conditions and amount of laps on the docket, and guiding your drivers through by telling them when to go hard, ease off, or maintain a measured pace in terms of tyre and fuel consumption. That said, don’t let me give you the impression that Golden Lap offers an experience that feels too robotic, as is often the danger with these kinds of sim-heavy racers. For example, before each race, a few random attribute modifiers are applied to some drivers on the grid, based on stuff like having a hangover. That one offers a negative effect, and obviously isn’t totally realistic or something you want to take inspiration from, no matter what James Hunt might have gotten up to back in the day.

Though, it isn’t too in your face with its attempts to inject some fun into what otherwise might be a pretty dry racing equation, and that allows for the occasional moment that really drives home just how serious this weird thing we petrolheads like watching can get, in an instant. Midway through one wet race I was doing at Muttonchop, one of the backmarkers in the race crashed suddenly. Unlike the other crashes I’d encountered prior to that point, there wasn’t a yellow flag, but instead a red one. Following the almighty smash that cut through the usual drone of engines, a message popped up, reading: “Uh oh, Gustavo Castro crashed! It looks bad!”. With the race halted, the game didn’t offer any more updates as an uncomfortable silence was filled by the gentle trickle of the rain continuing to pour, and the occasional rattle of thunder.

A race in progress in Golden Lap.

Look lads, we’re not about that team orders life here. | Image credit: Funselektor Labs

Then, the green flag flew, and we were back going again. At the end of the race, another notification popped up. “Gustavo Castro didn’t recover from their crash. They died.” The driver was then replaced for the next race, with the game noting that it was a tragedy, but “this is a circus and the show must go on”. Others might think differently, but there was just enough humanity and cold, machine-like dissonance in the minimalistic chain of events that I felt it did the way motorsport, especially in the past, reacted to these kinds of once depressingly regular shocks an unnervingly perfect amount of justice.

Golden Lap’s that kind of game. Sure, those who’re really craving a hardcore sim might find its mechanics a bit simplistic, but that’s not what it’s really all about. As the minimalistic and unique art style in which it renders its track maps and weather effects conveys, it aims to keep things simple, which is usually what you have to do if you’re looking to capture the essence of something.

It cuts the bullshit, paints a really endearing picture of racing’s past, and, quite frankly, after playing the Next Fest demo, I can’t wait to play more of it once the full game drops.

Golden Lap is currently set for release in 2024 on PC.

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