The player controls a Formula One race car, and has to complete a time trial lap within a certain amount of time (between 90 and 120 seconds) to qualify for an F1 race at the Fuji Racetrack. After qualifying, the player races against seven other CPU-controlled cars in a championship race (but if he or she does not qualify, the car will stay on the track until the timer runs out). The player must also avoid going off the road so that he or she will not crash into the billboards.
Pole Position was the first racing video game to feature a track based on a real racing circuit. It was also the first game to feature a qualifying lap, requiring the player to complete a time trial before they can compete in Grand Prix races. Once the player has qualified, they must complete the race in the time allowed, avoiding collisions with CPU-controlled opponents and billboards along the sides of the track. The game's publisher Atari publicized the game for its "unbelievable driving realism" in providing a Formula 1 experience behind a racing wheel. The game's graphics featured full-colour landscapes with scaling sprites, including race cars and other signs, and a pseudo-3D, third-person, rear perspective view of the track, with its vanishing point swaying side to side as the player approaches corners, accurately simulating forward movement into the distance.