Monday, 20 June 2011

Upping the Dosage

A few weeks back, to coincide with my first blog article, I put a poll alongside my entries on the left hand side asking the fans themselves what they thought of the new-for-2011 Drag Reduction System. Admittedly, I got a lot more responses than I was expecting (the F1 2011 Preview certainly contributed to a lot more exposure) so thank you to those that shared their thoughts!

Out of 114 votes, a massive 71% of those votes believed that DRS was good for Formula 1 and really contributed to the racing, which I'm inclined to agree with. The system isn't greatly overpowered and solely relied on so it can only be a great thing for the sport in my opinion.

However, I'm also not blind in regards to the other features of the F1 2011 package that have really made this season a classic. The return of KERS has brought a different type of strategy into the mix, but the Pirelli tyres have arguably had the biggest impact on the spectacle, with teams trying to call each other's bluff and get the strategy absolutely nailed on the head. It has led to some incredible racing which I think no-one can deny.

Despite this, Pirelli are trying to take a more conservative approach as the season progresses, aiming for two stops rather than three or four, which is fair enough; tyre manufacturers have to prove they can make reliable tyres after all! But as Pirelli tries to merge into the background, the FIA aren't resting on their laurels and are looking for more ways to improve the show. It looks like double DRS zones are in for the remainder of the season.

One DRS zone isn't enough for the FIA
I'm a big fan of DRS. Any way to improve the show, great. However, I'm a bit sceptical over how the FIA has set this double DRS zone up. A quite incredible Canadian Grand Prix was covered up by the rain and therefore we didn't see the full potential when the double DRS zones made their debut just over a week ago, but from the little dry running we saw at the end, I wasn't really impressed with the setup of the zones.

Prior to the race weekend I was under the impression that if the defending car was overtaken down the first straight, they'd be able to fight back straight away with their own DRS device. However, the one and only detection zone - at the start of the first zone - gives the car behind access to DRS for both zones. Michael Schumacher was helpless eventually in his defence against Webber and a rejuvinated Button as Schumi lost two positions in the space of seconds. While Button's overtake wasn't done and dusted until the second DRS zone, Webber had the job completed before the final chicane and was then able to pull away once he was given access to open his letterbox up again. Schumacher didn't stand a chance and, to the anguish of his fans, he just missed out on his first comeback podium.

The two zones in Valencia are a little spaced apart from each other, with a slow three corner section separating the two longest straights on the circuit. However, the one detection zone remains. Why the FIA haven't added another detection point just before the second zone is beyond me. The straights aren't going to be short, and the gains for the car that crosses the detection zone within a second of the car in front is going to be huge. The overtake will be completed down the first straight and then they can pull out a sizeable gap in the second straight so the losing car can't fight back on the next lap.

It's not as if we don't see overtaking anywhere except the DRS straight. We've seen such a variety of overtakes in places which were quite unusual in past seasons. Monaco, for instance, we saw more overtakes at parts of the track where there wasn't a DRS zone so it's not as if the sport is depending on DRS to generate all of the excitement. The introduction of a double DRS zone may be with good intentions to try and increase the spectacle, but I think it's going to cause quite the opposite if the FIA don't get it right.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Be the Driver, Live the Life, Go Compete: F1 2011 Preview

E3 is quickly coming around the corner and the world is waiting to see F1 2011 in motion. There are many questions to be answered following an impressive, if slightly messy, first showing in 2010. However, from personal experience alone, the fans are about to get the answers they've been craving for the past six months. Fans and newbies alike will be pleased to know that Codemasters are aiming for the finer details in F1 2011 which contributes to the overall experience.

Codemasters lines itself up on the grid for a second time in 2011
I was very fortunate to gain early access to the 2011 edition, after being one of a select group to win the recent Codemasters "Call for Questions" competition and, despite a host of upgrades and tweaks to the overall games, the 2010 veterans will feel instantly right at home in the cockpit once again.

As you would expect, everything to do with 2011 is in the game and 100% authentic. The 12 teams and 24 drivers (unfortunately no Robert Kubica this time around, get well soon) all feature, and at least 19 circuits are included, although I was informed that Codemasters are seeking clarification over the Bahrain situation and are leaning towards placing it in the game even if the circus chooses not to go there. The 2011 rules also feature prominently. KERS and DRS are major features in the racing action and there is also a heavy emphasis on getting the tyre model right for 2011. Surprisingly, Codemasters duo Stephen Hood and Paul Jeal acknowledged at the Competition Event that getting the tyres right in recent years was not a necessity due to the real life extreme durability of the Bridgestone compounds. This looks set to change in F1 2011, with Pirelli entering the sport and generating high degredation tyres (see further down).

One of the big questions last year was how will the cars handle? Codemasters proved in 2010 that they are capable of leaning towards a simulation model, but the team look set to reach even greater heights. The handling has come on leaps and bounds over it's 2010 namesake. A major suspension overhaul has given the model a much-needed boost, with some positive and noticeable consequences. Players can feel the weight shift from right to left as you fly through the turn 11/12 chicane at Melbourne. Kerbs are now easier to attack and survive. Oversteer is also controllable (hurray for the little Lewis Hamiltons within you!) and easy to catch, in contrast to the vast amount of wheelspin that players endured in 2010 which always ended up with a spin that could never be caught, urging people to be more cautious than Jenson Button in a glass factory. The updates have also ensured that the cars are capable of braking quicker and later like their real life counterparts, so turn 1 at Interlagos can be taken from just 50 metres away and most of Monza is no longer a long braking zone. Once again Codemasters are aiming high and the handling improvements look set to be a hit with the fans.

The handling department are working extra hard on the tyres for 2011, with driving style having an impact on how the tyres will behave. Continuous locking up or press too hard on the brake and you risk flatspotting a crucial set of tyres that need to be treasured throughout the weekend, not just the race alone. Pushing really hard to create a gap can come at the risk of pitting earlier and being on the back foot in the closing stages of the race. The tyres are shaping up to make sure races, both offline and online (more on that later), are hotly contested until the drivers are out of the car and celebrating a hard-fought victory. Whether Codemasters include all of the compounds - such as the super-soft or the medium compounds (with their respective colour bandings) - remains to be seen, but there will be the fast, but quick-degrading option tyre and the slower, yet more durable prime tyre to spice up the racing and give strategy freaks a major headache while blasting down a straight at break-neck speed.

It's all about strategy and tactics in F1 2011
And as if that wasn't enough to maintain while you're fighting it out with 23 other competitors, there are other greater headaches to get around, all of which will please the F1 nuts but may be a bit too much to take in for a rookie. The fuel mixture and engine modes will play a bigger role in this year's edition, with the game informing you how many laps down or up you are on fuel, giving you an easy answer whether you can afford to up the engine mode to a quicker setting or not. Fuel conservation in the early stages can really pay off in 2011 as the focus is all about in the long run and where you will be in the closing stages. Additionally, as the fuel burns off throughout a Grand Prix, the balance will change. In 2010, players had the ability to adjust their front wing, much like their heroes on the real circuit. However, the 2011 rules have blocked this, but Codemasters have filled the void. Schumacher fans rejoice; brake bias is in. Players can switch the bias to the front, rear or to a balanced setting in a similar way to changing fuel mixtures.

It's all part of Codemasters' bid to give more power to the driver. The pitlane is another example of this. Players can drive right into the zone where they hit the limiter rather than be automatically taken over 200 metres before the white line. I only found this out when I went to pit on a 20% race at Istanbul and expected to be automatically guided by the game into the pitlane, only to smash into the barrier. It may not be full control in the pitlane, but, like many other features, it's a step in the right direction.

On the subject of the pits, making a pitstop is a crucial element of Grand Prix racing. The old lovable Geordie Race Engineer of 2010 has been scrapped (no longer will you be recommended a set of "Intermeeeeediates") and has been replaced by an engineer who may not be as much of a personality as Rob, but will deliver relevant information, both in the singleplayer experience and online. Additionally, the car OSD has been modified to detail what predetermined lap you will be pitting and what position the game is expecting you to file out into if your crew get the job done quickly. It gives the driver the necessary information and acts as an incentive to either push to get ahead of the traffic behind you or give you the opportunity to put in some fuel saving laps. These are little improvements but contribute to the bigger picture, and all of the little bits of info will be appreciated by all.

Pushing hard to jump traffic can have long-term consequences
The damage model has also been given a lot of TLC in F1 2011. Hood and Jeal said that the cars were built tough in 2010 as they were unsure how the players would cope with a fragile and delicate model. But now that players across the world have had a year to break into the concept of clean racing with minimal contact, Codemasters are pushing the boat out further in 2011. There is now a bigger consequence for making contact with those around you, as the cars are now a lot more sensitive to contact. Get too close to a sidepod with your wheel and your suspension could pack in and your race is over before it has even begun. As part of the damage system, mechanical failures return to a Formula 1 game after a year on the sidelines. Failures include what you would expect; engines can blowout and brakes can give up the ghost. However, more intriguing of all is the inclusion of long-term failures. For example, KERS can be a frequent issue in a race or one of the gears has disappeared. 2011 urges players to find a balance between driving very carefully and on the limit when they need to be.

Graphically, and judging by the screenshots alone, the game looks a lot more polished than it's 2010 outing. The circuits that featured in last year's game have all been updated and cleaned up, both in terms of scenery and track faults - Chapel corner at Silverstone is now fixed, and the new Wing looks spectacular in-game. Expect the tyres to show obvious signs of degredation, marbles to show off of the racing line and some spectacular wet weather effects. The innovative dynamic weather system has been taken to a new level for F1 2011, with dynamic clouds featuring in the action. Players can see clouds forming and see them move over a particular part of the circuit and you can see different intensities of rain falling at various sections of the track, which is important now that the Intermediate and Wet compounds have been refined to react to different levels of standing water. Spa-Francorchamps just became another nightmare. Oscillating bodywork is in, so finally we'll be able to witness first-hand the magic of the Red Bull flexi-wing and other parts such as the rear wing and mirrors. Let's just hope the McLaren T-Cam isn't moveable.

Can you see it flexing?
The Codemasters outfit have added a new tagline onto it's 2010 "Be the Driver, Live the Life" motto. "Go Compete" is the developer's way of saying that the multiplayer wasn't up to scratch in 2010, and has been given a lot of affection in the development of 2011. 24 cars can feature online, albeit only 16 of those spaces can be filled with human players, which means races can now feature two of each car - to the delight of fans and racing leagues alike. Online multiplayer also features an all-new Co-op mode, where two friends can hook up online and participate in a season long Championship, with all Practice, Qualifying and Race sessions if they are required. Players can choose to race together in one team or go head-to-head in rival teams. McLaren and Ferrari rivalries look set to be taken to a new virtual level in 2011. Splitscreen is also in the game following it's reintroduction in Codemasters' recent release of DiRT3. Whether father and son, brother or sister or any other splitscreen combinations can be taken online remains to be seen, but multiplayer is definitely in the new and improved B-Spec car this season.

There a lot of cool little features that players are going to appreciate a lot. Track marshals look set to make an appearance, with screenshots hinting that they will be out in force waving yellow or blue flags when needed. Hand animations in the cockpit work when DRS and KERS is used by the players. Garage visuals have improved greatly, there is a lot more action and chaos going on as engineers prepare for the session. There is also the small inclusion of the safety car, which will be difficult to implement for the Codemasters team but, if the team manage to include it, could be a crucial part of strategic racing ('strategic' not being hit somebody off to cause a safety car and bunch the field up.. ahem). And, best of all, Parc Ferme animations at the end of the race are in, so players on the podium can have their opportunity to see their drivers get out of the car and celebrate with their team, or use the cutscene as an opportunity to show off and brag that you're better than your other mates who have to sit and watch.

From the amount of new features that have been promised for this year, the next time you boot up F1 2010 you'll be thinking how horrible and bare it is and how much Codemasters missed out. But, given the major success and rave reviews it received last September, you would have thought that everything had been poured into it. F1 2011 is looking good in the practice session, but can it deliver in the race?

F1 2011 is out on the 23rd September 2011.