F1 2011 Race Diary: Season 1, HRT, Spa (13th, Q5)

I wonder if Codemasters give the players a helping hand for the second half of the season as I got a far better result than expected last time out at Hungary and nearly repeated that here. However, high-speed Spa should be a circuit where the KERS-less HRT should really, really struggle.

For qualifying I went the Jenson Button 2012 route and eventually opted for a low downforce set-up (with my traditional camber alignment for the fronts set to -3.5). I settled on this after trying a slightly higher downforce setup and the cool thing was that there was a time difference between the two setups in each sector. Sectors 1 and 3 are largely full throttle while sector 2 is largely corners. With the lower downforce, I went faster in sectors 1 and 3 and slower in sector 2 than I did with the higher downforce setting. It is satisfying when something that is reported as happening in real life is repeated in the game but, of course, with you at the wheel.

Qualifying went really well and I ended up a surprise 5th. The qualifying results were a bit strange, though, as Jenson Button was one-and-a-half seconds ahead of everyone else in pole position.

Now here’s something spooky cool. The race start went jolly well and I was in third going down the hill toward Eau Rouge with Webber in close proximity to my left. Whereupon he only did the same maneuveur that he famously pulled on Alonso in 2011 and swept around the outside of me and shot off up the hill. Sweet. I overtook him again at the end of Kemmel Straight into Les Combes and accidentally gave him a little tap that put him into a spin. Well, he must have had his spinach this morning because just a lap later and he’s up the inside of me in Bruxelles after I outbrake myself slightly (I didn’t quite add enough distance to compensate for the full fuel load exacerbated by the downhill braking zone) and I’m in fourth.

If it had remained dry, I would have finished fourth. Sadly, it started raining a lap after my pitstop and rain only seems to really affect human players. This means that the AI drivers seem to have oodles more grip than me and as the weather worsens each lap, my lap time collapses. I would have missed the team objective whatever happened (they expected me to finish in the points) but coming around Blanchimont on the last lap in 11th I had my first unassisted accident for a while (the last must have been in Monaco, it always is) and span into the wall (like Raikkonnen did in 2008, that’s another real-life incident occurring in the race, cool). I crossed the line in 13th which is a good result but if it had been in the dry, it would have been better. Still, the higher placement than expected in the last two races may see me adjust an option or two to put me back where I should be. We’ll see.

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F1 Race Diary: Season 1, HRT, Hungary (3rd, Q2)

Hungary tends to give with one hand and take with the other for me. Traditionally, I qualify well then suffer mistakes and all kinds of bad luck during the race. This pattern has persisted from Microprose Grand Prix through to F1 2010.

The Hungaroring is a track I like. It’s often described as Monaco without the walls as if to indicate it’s a really slow track but it’s all relative. The thing I love about the corners at Hungaroring is that most of them require you to stand on the throttle as soon as you’ve completed braking. Turn 4 is clearly a fast kink (exhilarating when executed successfully) but look at turns 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 13. Some of them are 180° corners, some of them are over 90°; yet all of them share the technique of braking hard into the apex then immediate full acceleration. This feeling is tremendously satisfying and there isn’t any other track quite like it. Something else that’s unusual about Hungaroring’s layout is the lack of any corners that feel really slow; Turn 6 is the slowest, but doesn’t really feel like it because of the threading-the-needle accuracy required and the rest are all medium-to-high speed.

With a highest-but-one downforce car setup, a quick practice yielded a surprisingly good 11th. With fresh tires and, after a few laps when I remembered, Fuel Mix 3, I was qualifying 5th on a lap with significant mistakes and wheels off the track. A consolidation was required and I was delighted when a clean lap put me 2nd behind only Alonso. I was even more surprised when that was how the session ended. 2nd in an HRT where I’d been qualifying on average in the late teens. Result!

Would the race turn out disastrously for me as it has so often in the past? No. This was a fun race and the result was great. My first laps were spent battling Vettel and Schumacher, my post-pit-stop mid-race fending off Schumacher successfully and only my error at Turn 12 saw Vettel waft by two laps from the end. Even though I lost a place from my start position and had the race’s second fastest lap, third is still a great result for me and an HRT which have only been placing in the teens.

F1 2011 Race Diary: Season 1, HRT, Nurburgring (16th, Q14)

So if my average qualifying performance so far is 18th (as the statistics on the loading screens helpfully assert), why is my team objective to qualify 14th? Well, perhaps they know something I don’t because at the Nurburgring, even though I forgot to set my Fuel Mix to 3, I manage to qualify 14th.

So, how about the race target of 12th? Considering the fuel mix error and my good starts, that seems highly achievable.

Well, this time I got a poor start as my humble HRT just couldn’t compete in the drag to the first corner. I snick a position back around the outside of the Mercedes Arena (turns 2 and 3) and am in wheel-to-wheel combat heading into Dunlop-Kehre. Unfortunately, I forgot that F1 2011 models fuel weight and my normal braking point is not adequate to stop my car from understeering into the kitty litter. 12th? Not now. My aim has to adjust to finish best of the F1 runts: 18th.

It cannot be overstated just how important Codemasters’ opponent indicators are in making this an enjoyable racing experience. A lap or two later, I’m battling hard with Maldonado and Perez, side-by-side, being overtaken and overtaking, all without incident, all tremendous fun and all because Codemasters gives you the information you need and cannot receive any other way. You can’t use your mirrors on the car, you can’t use surround sound cues, you can’t use your innate sixth sense, you can’t just feel where the other car is. So Codemasters, almost uniquely (perhaps it’s copyrighted), give you clear indicators revealing exactly where the other cars are. It works tremendously well.

Something that doesn’t work so well is shown up a few laps later when  I out-brake Alonso into the final chicane (I think it’s currently called the NDK Chicane, it used to be called Veedol Chicane). My move and his defence causes him to jump across the kerb right across my path. I hit him square in the side (if I had reacted quickly enough I could have braked; I got a penalty for his mistake) and our cars bumped into the air a bit but no debris, no damage. The damage in F1 2010 and F1 2011 is awful. F1 accidents cause hundreds of pieces of shattered debris to come flying off the cars. Not in Codemasters’ game. In fact, when a major accident does happen, the result is a bit embarrassing, like first-timer Guybrush Threepwood hocking a loogie. Is it a licensing issue? It shouldn’t be. Accidents and altercations are part of the F1 experience and shouldn’t be terribly muted. This is a game. No-one can get hurt in an accident in a game.

As to the race, the brief early excursion and this penalty mean I finish in 16th, which for me was a bit of a save but for the game, a failure to meet their objective. And to be fair, my fastest lap time did indicate I should have finished just outside the top ten, specifically 12th. Perhaps the team do know something I don’t when setting their objectives.

F1 2011 Race Diary: Season 1, HRT, Britain (16th, Q18)

One of the things that irritates me slightly about Codemasters’ two F1 games is that they alter the qualifying and race objectives too quickly. I’ve set the game difficulty to make it so my HRT and I am about the fastest of the three lowest teams and not cruising around above our station. The objectives initially reflected HRT’s status. However, because I’ve had a couple of points finishes, the objectives have moved to qualify 13th, finish 11th. I think the objectives should only be refreshed at the mid-season break to average out good and bad performances.

I knew going in that I was never going to meet the teams objectives and set my own. Qualify and finish 18th, best of the F1 runts.

Qualifying went okay and the race went rather well initially. Some AI hesitation allowed to cleanly hussle my way up to 11th and, on the soft tyres, it looked like I could just about hold that with some judicious positioning into Stowe and Brooklands. However, on my other tyres, my fastest lap revealed I could only hope for 18th and, sure enough, dudes flashed past me any which way they wanted. The rot stopped a couple of laps from the end when Di Resta passed me and his teammate, Sutil, who was faster than me, was several seconds down the road. I managed to stay ahead of him and with Webber not finishing, I crossed the line 16th and was reasonably satisfied.

The odd thing about Silverstone is that the corners that the drivers like such as Copse and Becketts just don’t work very well in the game. It’s the same with Spa’s Eau Rouge and Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew. I’m not talking about accuracy or fidelity. No-one’s really captured the feel of these classic corners and reproduced that in any game. I do know some of the ingredients that are missing and maybe I’ll discuss those in another post sometime.

F1 2011 Race Diary: Season 1, HRT, Valencia (10th, Q15)

I forgot to highlight in my Monaco post how much I appreciate men with flags in this game. It’s a reminder of the great Geoff Crammond Grand Prix (aka World Circuit) series of games and a reminder of a couple of small touches he included that modern games still don’t assign any importance to. Being humiliatingly wheeled or craned off the track, cool down laps with all the marshalls waving flags and replays cameras in the same place as the FOM broadcasts.

Anyway, on to Valencia and this is a strange track. Until 2012, real races at Valencia had been low on interest and spectacle largely, I think, because the main straights have walls that intrude where an overtaking car needs to go. While watching races here hasn’t been top drawer, driving them in F1 2010 had been very enjoyable and I tended to qualify below par and race above par.

Pleased to say that my success and enjoyment of this track continues in F1 2011. My qualifying went fine (15th) while my race was a bit harder work.

Curiously, considering that starts are arguably the single most critical element of the race day, games have almost completely ignored them, removing skill and interest in getting all of your horses to propel your car in the fastest possible manner off the start line while retaining control. That said, I managed to make a pudding of my start by concentrating a bit too much on upping the fuel mixture and so I lost a couple of places in the initial phase.

However, F1 2011 excels in allowing fair (or tipped in your favour slightly) wheel-to-wheel racing against the AI and a dan-dare move into the first corner sees most of the lazy getaway undone. By turn four I’m into the points. By the end of the lap, I put some pressure on Kobayashi and get into a happy 9th.

Valencia would then turn into a great battle with Petrov with his superior straight-line speed and DRS giving me grief on the straights and my higher downforce and better braking undoing all his hard work. That is, until lap 10 of 11.

I had spent a couple of laps on Fuel Mix 2 and so had turned it back up to 3. This has proved to be enough in the other races so far and I therefore greeted the flashing fuel icon with unconcealed surprise and not a little panic. So much panic that as I reacted to turn the fuel mix down to 1, I made a complete hash of the next corner, bumped into the wall with my front wing, damaging it, and Petrov snuck by into a 9th I couldn’t recover.

However, 10th is still a great result for me in the HRT and I’m in the points for the second time this season. Next up is one of my bogey tracks: Home, Silverstone.

F1 2011 Race Diary: Season 1, HRT, Canada (7th, Q16)

Canada is probably my favourite circuit (along with Istanbul and Spa) and I always seem to go well there. However, the email from my engineer doesn’t have good news: it’s going to be a very wet weekend. High downforce is the name of the game here, not HRT’s strong point (it doesn’t have any), but practice yields a bit of hope that, unlike Australia, I may be in my rightful position and achieve the qualifying objective.

The qualifying session starts amazingly – halfway through I’m still in 3rd – but Codemasters exemplary wet weather features mean that there is a slightly grippier line becoming visible and the computer cars are starting to take advantage of it. I emerge with enough time for three laps but with traffic and an out-braking myself here and there I can’t improve on my earlier time and finish the session in 16th. That’s still good but I could taste the top ten.

The race itself will take place in heavy rain. The lights come on, and stay on for what seems like an eternity before the race explodes into life as the might of 20,000 horses rages into the first corner. Remarkably, I’m keeping it clean and making up places. I’m on the inside for 1 (Virage Senna), the outside for 2, the inside for 3 and a bit of manners for Mark Webber. Spectacular visibility issues cause me to just outbrake Massa into the next corner, Ponte de la Concorde, and myself. Webber nips back through but I know I’m great at the next chicane and a few more manners for Webber sees me back through. As I emerge from Épingle onto the back straight (Droit de Casino), I glance at my position and I’m in 8th behind Kobayashi who is already gapping me. I love Canada!

As I approach Épingle for lap 2, Kobayashi has tried to take 6th and failed putting him off-line and I disbelievingly slide into 7th. Kobayashi and I lock horns for the next 10 laps. With my downforce I’m better on the brakes and through corners; with his superior car he’s got the acceleration. But I’ve got track position and track position is king.

The last four laps really click into place as I put in four consecutive fastest laps of anybody in the race and nearly pinch 6th from an out-of-position Buemi. I cross the line in 7th, it’s my first points in F1 2011, HRT’s first points and I even finished ahead of Lewis Hamilton (11th). Thoroughly satisfying. I love Canada!

F1 2011 Race Diary: Season 1, HRT, Monaco (16th, Q20)

Monaco is, of course, the hardest real-life circuit to master in any video-game. I rate it as harder than the Nurburgring Nordschleife. Every mistake, no matter how small, is punished harshly, hopefully, just through a bit of lap time. Not qualifying last (on a well-matched difficulty level) and finishing the race are always my objectives, regardless of what the game wants. So qualifying 20th not 24th was a good result for me and the race. Well, the race usually goes better than qualifying. A muscular start (and my single flashback) saw me capture and solidify a massively satisfying 13th. After emerging from my pit stop, I was just behind my team-mate Liuzzi and the next opportunity was if he left the door open at La Rascasse. He did and I dived up the inside but I hadn’t reckoned on him going a bit slow there because he was going in the pits. Even as my engineer reminded me to be careful overtaking him, my wheel was in his side and a harsh but legitimate drive-through penalty was mine. As I was by the pits, I followed Liuzzi in and hoped that, even though the engineer and on-screen messages hadn’t had time to complete telling me about my penalty, the game would recognise my prescience and not punish me for it. Thankfully, it didn’t and I emerged way down in 20th place having served my penalty, someway behind my official objective of 16th. Still, my real objective is finish Monaco and so I settled in for the remaining 10 laps and was delighted to see people coming back toward me. A couple of typically ugly overtakes later and I’m in 17th with Perez a good way up the road and out of reach. With just a few laps to go, though, Perez pits and I sneak by. By this time, it being Monaco, I’ve dinged my front wing enough times that my engineer has offered me a pit stop if I can’t handle it but track position is king at Monaco. I just hold on, beating Perez by a tiny fraction of a second. So I didn’t qualify last, I finished the race at Monaco and, as a bonus, met the team objective of a 16th place finish. Great race and happy result.