It was during one of the British broadcasts that I heard David Coulthard mention that anyone who has not driven there simply cannot fathom how tight the corners of the legendary track in Monaco are.
In no way or shape do I mean to correct the racing legend that is Coulthard, who with his 535 career-points in Formula 1 has exactly 535 points more than me, but I do think that I have just a slight insight into the insanity that is the Monaco track, after having been rocketed through its corners in F1 2011.
It is not a long track by any stretch of the imagination, but along its 3.3 kilometres it surrounds the driver with tight barriers at all times, sudden turns that require almost instanious stops and the sort of dangers that punish those who are not willing to take risks. At times it it seems like a morbid rollercoaster as both opponents and my own team are constantly pushing me into near-death experiences if I am to have any chance of securing the team a couple of points.
Yet this is also where Codemasters demonstrates that this is not a carbon copy of last year's release, and taming the mechanical beast with its 750bhp and 640kg carbon fiber body is quite a different experience than the last time.
One of the points that received a lot of critique in last year's edition was that the relationship between the physics of the car and the tarmac simply wasn't realistic enough. This was especially apparent for everyone who competed in the longer races. All this is now simulated in F1 2011 and it shows from the off.
The difference between the car that is available to you during qualifying and the one you're expected to complete the race with is enormous, and you are almost expected to encompass two different driver personalities.
In qualifying you will be equipped with a car that has only been fuelled for a minimum of laps, resulting in a low weight. You will also have the chance to select which of the precious Pirelli tyres you want to use, but since these also have to be used for the race itself, caution is advised. In the races themselves you will be affected by a full fuel tank, and the added weight will at times make it seem like the car is sailing through the corners, which oftentimes are made even harder by tyres that have not reached the proper temperature.
Leading up to the current Formula 1 season the rule set of the sport went through a major revision, because many felt the sport was becoming too boring. The result was the introduction of DRS (Drag Reduction System) and the reintroduction of KERS (Kinectic Energy Recovery System), while the job of manufacturing new tyres went to Pirelli, changes that meant a lot more overtaking during races.
All three components are built into the framework of the new game, though only tyre choice can be automated; KERS and DRS control are left entirely to you, as they form part of your race strategy.
KERS works akin to a turbo boost, letting the driver access 80 extra bhp for approximately seven seconds per lap, while DRS let's the driver control an adjustable rear wing, opening it up for less wind resistance on certain parts of the track, and only if less than a second behind another driver. The addition of the two new systems were criticized by some drivers at the start of the season, because they felt that it added too much complexity to the driving itself - a point of critique I understood after my first couple of hours with F1 2011.
Keeping up with the rest of the field and securing a competent lap time can in itself be quite the challenge, but also keeping track of when it's optimal to use both KERS and DRS can at times be a daunting task. A mastery of both systems is necessary for everyone hoping to play the game on anything but the two easiest difficulty settings though, and use of both should have been explained in a tutorial, which is sadly missing. Instead you will have to experiment with the systems yourself, which makes use of them even harder to learn.
It might seem tempting to pat yourself on the back the first time you start the game on the "Intermediate" difficulty, and quite easily overtake all other cars on the track. You should probably wait with the self-glorification though, because it might be a result of Codemasters once again tinkering with the difficulty of the game.
F1 2011 comes with four difficulty-settings as standard, but if you choose one of the first two you will get to compete in races that don't require much more than pushing the throttle to win, and even the "Professional"-difficulty will let you overtake a Red Bull even if you are stuck in a Lotus.
To counter-balance the chance of any pre-made difficulty not giving the proper experience, the studio has committed to an inelegant solution: adding an extra layer of customisation to each so you can tweak different options within each difficulty as you see fit. While we can understand the reasoning and the option is welcome, it feels somewhat cheap to force the player into fixing something there shouldn't have been a issue with in the first place.
On the technical side the game is once again powered by the impressive Ego-graphics engine, which we have already witnessed deliver some of the most spectacular graphics of this generation with Dirt 3.
While not at all being an ugly game, F1 2011 looks kind of flat by comparison and lacks most of the small details that made both the Dirt and Grid series shine. This might be a sacrifice the developer has been willing to make to secure a silky-smooth frame rate even with 24 cars on track, and as such it is hard to complain about. I am looking forward to the day where the best of both worlds can be combined.
Even with these criticisms, it's hard to deny that one extra year of development has done wonders for F1 2011. It's obvious that there has been more time to focus on the details, which has resulted in better A.I., a safety car, better communication from the race engineer and less random occurrences. Most important of all it's a game that gives a better sense of racing, a game that more precisely gives you the amount of feedback you need to know how hard you can push the car. Rarely has it felt so rewarding to master a corner or pulling off an overtake, and this is what you should have in mind if you consider buying the game.
F1 2011 is a game that is full of the sort improvements that you cannot see, but will be apparent to feel for everyone who tried out last year's game. It is unquestionably a big improvement, but aside from a co-op mode, it really doesn't have anything that makes it more enticing for anyone who has not previously been compelled by the sport. Add to that more complex game mechanics, and you end up with a very good Formula 1 game focused solely on pleasing the fans it already has.