Monday, December 20, 2010

Living The Life: China

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event. I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise for the delay between this post and the previous one; see here for why it took so long.]

Yet another track that I haven’t been to and need to learn, one that is apparently similar to the previous track in Malaysia due to its unpredictable weather, the same designer in Hermann Tilke and tight but fast corners. I go into this round ill with a cold or perhaps even the flu, which will no doubt make the race harder to endure, particularly after the other sessions leading into it. After a fairly decent result in Malaysia I approach this track with some confidence but also some apprehension -- the fact I have to learn it means that anything could happen and, if rain does indeed play a part, the conditions could either suit my driving style or hinder it, so time shall tell as the weekend progresses. I do have to say, though, the track is quite amazing architecturally, the structures sitting above the track on the front straight (easily visible from the paddock and pit garages) screaming futuristic, sleek and perhaps even alien design; it’s really quite remarkable and definitely a sight to behold.

Friday Morning, Practice 1

Well, China is a lot trickier to learn than I was personally expecting, its insane amount of bumps and tight hairpins really grabbing your attention if you’re not careful. The track in itself is indeed quite like Malaysia, even opening relatively similar with its right-hand, long and sweeping hairpin first corner before switching abruptly and immediately into a left-hand one. While China’s first turn is longer (which means a faster speed can be maintained in the initial moments of it, before a hard braking section to ensure you hit the late apex) than Malaysia’s, its second one is shorter, the chance to begin accelerating coming earlier than that circuit but trickier due to the four or so bumps that sit perfectly right where you want to accelerate. China also has a small straight after this corner whilst Malaysia veers to the right for another sweeping turn quite quickly, before both circuits mimic each other again with a tight fourth turn -- Malaysia’s characterized by the uphill, blind but not so tight apex, whilst China’s by its severely tight hairpin where it is very easy to run off. I mention the comparison not to offer an opinion on either circuit but to highlight how confusing their similarities can be: because the China round follows right on after Malaysia’s, it’s very easy to get caught out in your rhythms as your mental map tricks you into thinking you are running a lap of Malaysia rather than China. I found it an interesting -- if minor -- challenge to deal with and definitely a feature that defines the Shanghai circuit. Anyway, as you’d expect my first run saw quite a few times where I went wide at a few corners -- the tight hairpin after the back straight proving to be particularly tricky -- as I came to terms with the circuit. Its tricky corners caught me out more than a few times, the bumps in particular being my main concern (and surprise). The desire to accelerate out of the various corners early is very tempting but the bumps prevent it through their uncanny ability to induce wheelspin regularly -- something I had to be mindful of as I continued to learn the circuit. I was pleased, however, to see my track-learning skills remain, the Shanghai circuit quickly entering into my mental picture despite the similarities to Malaysia. It was confusing at times, but I got a handle on it a lot quicker than I expected to so that was nice. My second run was better though I did get caught out a few times in turn 3 where a bit of wheelspin saw me careening off the track as I tried to catch it. Nothing serious, though. In my third run the team wanted to try some research and development parts, expecting me to achieve a lap of 2:05.933 once the parts were fitted -- something I managed easily on my first timed lap. My success means that I will get reduced rear tire drag at 5.0%, though I have no idea what that actually means -- I just drive. It was around this time that I also noticed it was significantly overcast, however the rain never eventuated. My fourth run was average with a lot of moments including a few run offs, a few missed apexes and having to catch wheelspin on the bumps. I did learn, however, that short shifting (changing gears at lower revs) was my friend, as it helps maintain grip and lessens the chance of wheelspin out of those trickier corners. My fifth run was short and messy so I came in early to switch to the Option tires. In turn 3 I went into the gravel trap after missing the apex, and in the long sweeping turn that brings you onto the back straight I had a half spin, which incidentally ruined a good lap. My sixth run, on the Options, was better, the new tires surprising me once again with their insane levels of grip and faster times. I improved my lap time by 2 seconds with still more to find, but caught a bump in turn 3(seems to be my sticking point) just as I was accelerating out and over those tricky bumps. This caused another half spin, though again it was minor. I also went wide on that sweeping long corner (my other sticking point, apparently), catching the exit curb wrongly and had yet another spin, this time on my in lap back to the pits. It was sunny again by this point though quite hazy due to the severe amount of smog that was permeating the track’s complex. My seventh run was great with no mistakes and another second shaved off my lap time. My engineer made an intriguing statement too, suggesting that it becomes really obvious when I find confidence in a circuit and start to push its limits and those of my skills, referencing the data that they have in the garage and how it changed from cautious approaches to corners and later pushes on the throttle, to deep entries and earlier exits -- a really insightful thing to hear as it correlates with how I felt as I became more comfortable with the track. My eighth and final run was okay, my Option tires going off so I couldn’t match my time I had set earlier but it was still good practice, something I definitely needed with the still relatively unfamiliar circuit. Overall for the session I did a total of 22 laps, my fastest time so far being a 1:38.008 which netted me 7th place. Mark Webber was first, his teammate Vettel second (separated by 1 thousandth of a second no less -- absolutely crazy!) and Hamilton third. Definitely a great session in which I learned quite a lot and quickly too -- important, I think, in terms of the weekend’s potential.

Friday Afternoon, Practice 2

Sunny conditions yet again, with a 47% chance of rain. We’ll see what eventuates, however. My team wanted to try some more R&D tests, this time expecting a 2:05.759 which I thought was very easy given my knowledge of the track. My first run was over remarkably quickly, the bumps in turn 3 catching me out yet again and throwing me into the wall on my exit lap (no less), my front wing dislodging in the process. After sitting in the pits for repairs (and feeling slightly embarrassed), I went back out for my second run which was better, the team’s R&D goals met with ease. It was a good, clean run, and due to coming out behind Webber I was able to follow him for a few laps. It was fascinating seeing the different approaches he took to each corner and how well his Red Bull car performed generally -- it’s definitely in a different league to my Virgin. My third run was short as I decided I wanted the Options instead, due to the foreboding, overcast weather. I wanted to set a good time before the rain settled in, a decision that proved to be fruitful as my fourth run, now on the Options, was when the heavens decided to open their doors and start casting drizzle all over the circuit. Because of this I actually thought I had made the wrong call as I came out behind Buemi whom I had to pass heading into turn 1 just before a yellow flag thanks to two cars who had spun in turn 3, but my subsequent laps were good despite the rain, proving that I seem to perform quite well in unpredictable, uncertain conditions. The rain increasing rapidly, I switched to the Intermediate tires for my fifth run, it quickly proving to be a wise choice due to a puddle in turn 6 which I aquaplaned on, my front right tire dipping into the inside of the apex and thus inspiring the officials to give me a warning for corner cutting. Despite feeling like I had eliminated my corner cutting problems from earlier in the season, it was a warning I could accept quite easily as it didn’t feel intentional and certainly not my fault. The rest of the run was smooth, some good practice under my belt. The sixth run for Practice 2 was marred by the exit curb of turn 6, my weak exit catching it incorrectly and inducing an unnecessary spin. Strangely this resulted in yet another warning for corner cutting as I was trying to recover, simply because I was on the inside of the corner. I’ve accepted all of the warnings I have received so far, putting them down to rookie mistakes or errors but now I’m starting to wonder if the officials are being a little unfair. By this point the rain was steady and seemed like it was here to stay, a point I welcomed as I wanted more practice under wet conditions. It was funny, though, the track didn’t seem to be as slippery as I thought it was in the initial laps of P1 even as the track became increasingly saturated. My seventh run was clean and consistent, though the car did try to step out a few times thanks to the wet surface. The rain seemed to have eased a little as hints of a dry line were starting to appear, but it also seemed to be quite steady going down the long back straight. My eighth run was nothing, the rain no longer falling meaning the Intermediate tires were useless and it was better to switch to the Primes. I got a warning for gently colliding with Robert Kubica exiting the pits which I thought wasn’t right as it wasn’t my fault he didn’t give me any room by going a little bit wider. My ninth run, now on Prime tires was characterized by my amazement at how quickly the circuit had dried, the grip returning extremely quickly and as if there was no water at all. Chandok was coming up behind me as I exited the pits so I stayed wide in turn 1 to let him past but he spun instead. Not sure why. I also managed to only be a few tenths behind the time I had set earlier on Options, which was both good and bad -- good because it demonstrated that I was comfortable with the track but bad because it highlighted how insignificant my lap on the Options really was. I decided to go out for a tenth and final run just to confirm my progress over the session but only got one flying lap in due to the session expiring. A total of 19 laps with a time of 1:39.284 done on the Options before the rain settled in, which secured 12th position for the session. I think it was the rain that hindered my ability to match the times set in P1 though being a practice session it doesn’t really matter so long as I made progress which I feel I certainly did. The warnings were annoying though, mostly because they didn’t feel justified. I’m confident for tomorrow.

Saturday Morning, Practice 3

Dry and sunny conditions, though a touch hazy once again due to the smog that surrounds the circuit. My team wanted some more testing with another easy target time of 2:05.759 which I achieved on my first flying lap in my first run, no problems. Those times were very lenient which was nice as it meant I could focus on other things. I turned in a bit too early on my second lap at the hairpin at the end of the back straight and bounced over the inside curb more than normal, spinning as I accelerated off it. A similar thing happened on the third lap at the turn 8/9 kink, the lap also featuring some debris a little earlier in turn 4. For some reason I wasn’t enjoying this session due to feeling uncomfortable in the car. My gloves weren’t on properly so it didn’t feel right as I gripped the steering wheel, and I also seemed to be sitting a little differently too. My second run was also uncomfortable, an off at turns 7/8/9 adding to the discomfort as the bumps in the gravel bounced me around a bit. The reason for the off was accelerating too early, and it didn’t affect my session other than some lost time as I recovered. On my fourth lap I went wide in the final turn but it didn’t matter as the lap was ruined earlier due to Schumacher exiting the pits in front of me and getting in the way a bit. My third run was clean though I wrecked my best lap yet by braking a tad too late heading into the hairpin at the end of the back straight. I was still feeling uncomfortable too, but was dealing with it reasonably well. My fourth run consisted of a switch to the Options and a spin on my out-lap exiting the hairpin due to turning in too early yet again. It was nothing severe and I pressed on to wind up behind Liuzzi who held me up on my next lap, so I aborted and passed him on the outside in turn 2 (yay for more grip on the Options!). I improved my time on the following lap, ensuring the run wasn’t all bad. My fifth run was where I noticed it was overcast again and it featured clean laps with nothing else to report. Run six saw a decision to attempt a hot lap under pressure from the time limit of the quickly expiring session. I crossed the line with only 2 seconds to go, allowing my flying lap to go ahead but yielding no improvement, unfortunately. Still, it was good to intentionally add some pressure to see how I handled it and despite no improved time, I think I handled it quite well so I’m quite pleased with that. I ended up 11th for the session with a 1:38.375, the 14 laps in total okay but perhaps not as good as I was expecting. The discomfort, mistakes inspired from it and various competitors impeding my progress combined to make for an average session, though when considered alongside the previous two I still made progress for the weekend. I didn’t quite match my time from P1, though.

Saturday Afternoon, Qualifying

Virgin expect 20th or better for Qualifying, which should be doable if Malaysia -- where similar expectations were required -- is anything to go by. An interview just before the session asked how I thought my team compared to the others, to which I replied that I thought we were travelling along nicely for a new team.

I only just got through to Q2 on my last flying lap which was done under pressure from the expiring time. It was the third sector which got me through -- instead of sector one which had been my best in practice -- and it was great to achieve a time under pressure. My earlier runs in Q1 were fine, all laps remaining clean and consistent but just not being fast enough so I was quite lucky. Q2, however, wasn’t so clean, my first flying lap in my first run aborted due to having to avoid two spins in turn 2; I think one was Jenson Button and the other Schumacher but I’m not entirely sure. Switching to fresh Options (the others were quite worn as I had used them in practice) my second run was consistent and clean, though the first attempt at a lap was slightly scruffy. Unfortunately for me I didn’t progress through to Q3, sitting outside of the top ten with a time of 1:38.714 and in 13th for the race. It’s a little ironic how the time I set in P1 is still my best for the weekend. I also found it quite remarkable that the top times in qualifying were basically the same as the ones in Malaysia, despite the different layout. Proves how similar the two circuits really are I suppose. Overall I’m happy with my performance in qualifying but definitely feel I could have done slightly better, and it certainly felt as if the weekend was going backwards slightly. I exceeded my team’s goal of 20th, and was much more confident in the session than I was in P3. Hamilton obtained pole.

A post-qualifying interview asked about my car’s performance and my thoughts on the session; I told them that I thought the car was working well for me and that we as a team are right where we want to be.

Sunday, Race

Due to my decent qualifying position and China’s similar track layout to Malaysia, Virgin expects me to finish in 18th or better which I think is possible. So much so, in fact, that I’m aiming at 15th or better but we’ll see how things go. I’m starting on the Prime tires for the race with a long first stint and then switching to the Options to end the race. There’s a 47% chance of rain according to the radar, something I hope eventuates as I need more practice in the wet and seemed to handle it nicely in Malaysia.

Unfortunately for me I had yet another slow start, dropping a few positions to 16th but didn’t mind as I had nowhere to go with so many cars everywhere, piling into turn 1 and 2. I managed to pass Buemi between turns 6 and 7 which brought me to 15th but then went wide in the same section on the following lap, giving him the position back. I believe it was the heavy fuel load in the car -- and my inexperience with it -- that caused me to go wide so easily. On lap 3 Rosberg spun in turn 3, giving me 15th back in the process. On lap 4 there was debris on the track that I had to avoid -- probably from Rosberg’s earlier spin -- and on the same lap I went wide at the hairpin at the end of the back straight. This put Kobayashi on my tail, where he stayed for a handful of laps before something strange happening. One minute he was there, the next he wasn’t and I was told that Lucas Di Grassi, my teammate, was in 16th instead. I had a minor spin in turn 2 due to accelerating too early, allowing Lucas through while Chandok got past on lap 12, between the hairpin and the final corner. It was at this point I realised that my tires weren’t that great and they were causing me to struggle. These moments put me down into 17th place but that didn’t last long as I got 16th back on lap 14 due to Chandok pitting. I was lapped on lap 16 and noticed on the next lap that it was becoming overcast yet again. On lap 21 it began to lightly rain, the conditions welcomed by me but unable to be used to my advantage (I felt) due to me having to move aside for the frontrunners. This allowed Chandok to catch back up, but he pitted again on lap 26 and Senna -- who was behind him -- ended up being the one to pass me instead. I figured it was because he was on wets, because my pace was still pretty good in the increasingly wet conditions. I pitted on lap 27 as the conditions were worsening and I was aquaplaning a lot, opting for wets instead of the team’s recommendation of intermediates. Unfortunately I lost control heading into the pits on the wet surface and went straight into the wall, losing my front wing in the process. I got penalized, too, as I was trying to recover by reversing into the pit lane, resulting in a drive through. I did this immediately, coming back in for it on lap 28 to get it out of the way. Angry, I lost motivation and figured that this race was essentially done, an attitude I came to regret a little later. Now situated at the back and in last position, I continued the race with a disheartened approach, though quickly got over it when it came time to overtake Kovalainen on lap 29, something I managed into the hairpin. Up next was his teammate Trulli who I passed on the main straight as he pitted, then after that it was Kobayashi on lap 30 as we both headed into turn 1. On lap 31 I passed Hulkenburg who was in the pits and at the same time, Senna was exiting and came out in front of me. I quickly got by him on the next lap, giving me 17th position. In turn 6 on lap 35, I had a minor spin, the track severely wet and my recovery allowing Senna to retake the position, though a pitstop for him gave me the place back relatively quickly. On lap 39 Virgin informed me that Lucas had retired, giving me his position of 16th in the process. On lap 50 Chandok pitted for what seemed like the fifth time, giving me 15th, while on lap 51 the track started to dry out. On lap 54, with a dry line forming, I passed two cars for 13th, both of whom were in the pits changing to dry tires. Due to being 2 laps down, I stayed in 13th and finished there, my best result yet. It seems choosing the wets paid off as I gained positions while everyone else swapped to inters and then the wets as the conditions kept worsening. Their change back to the dry tires near the end of the race also benefitted my progress, since I elected to stay on my tires until the end. I was a touch nervous about staying on the wets as the track dried but I wasn’t slowing down, and I cooled my tires whenever possible in the puddles that weren’t on the racing line. All in all China was a great race for me despite initial signs suggesting it was another average one, my best result yet definitely being something to be proud of. Overall I think my performance in general is improving and while unpredictable conditions certainly helped me -- and certainly seem to suit me -- I think I can also say that I’ve stepped up and continue to progress as the season does. Webber won the race, Hamilton came in second and Alonso managed third. My 13th placing puts me into 19th in the driver’s standings, while Virgin went up to 11th in the constructors’, moving ahead of Lotus. I met both mine and Virgin’s expectations in the race, something they congratulated me on when I got back to the garage, my agent in particular expressing her delight in my performance. Onwards to Spain and the infamous Catalunya circuit, then!

Note: All images are of the PC version (save for the map) and were sourced from here; this game continues to prove difficult when it comes to finding images.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Talking About Minecraft #2: Narrative Implications

The Green House Of Harmony

[Edit: So it seems I was incorrect about the narrative and that it will come during beta -- which is now out -- rather than be implemented with it immediately. I apologise for the misinformation but still stand by my thoughts below.]

In two short days Minecraft will finally enter into beta. Saying that feels somewhat strange as I consider the experiences I’ve already had with the game and the fact that, intriguingly, the game as a whole feels more fully-fledged than a good portion of the so-called Triple-A titles that usually get all the attention. Reaching beta status will bring with it changes, keeping the future of the game both vague and exciting as it continues to evolve. Of these changes, one in particular stands out as something worth pondering: the inclusion of a narrative. What this will mean for Minecraft as a whole remains to be seen until Monday but after hearing about it, I can’t help but wonder if the game even needs one. Allow me to explain.

One of the main things that separates Minecraft from other games -- and something that I alluded to when talking about it earlier -- is its ability to let the player craft their own narrative rather than engage in a predetermined one. Despite putting you into a randomly generated world and expecting you to decide what to do with it, the Minecraft story, for me, has always been about the journey rather than the destination, and it’s this point that doesn’t only make me curious as to how a predetermined narrative could be implemented, but whether it should be in the first place. Aside from the odd anecdote on Twitter, in blog posts or articles on various gaming websites, the first story I heard about and came to enjoy was X’s Adventures in Minecraft. While David -- X’s real name -- was the cog in his adventure’s machine, his viewers were the ones who kept it turning through suggestions, participation and enthusiasm. It may have been him exploring his world, building the ‘X-System’, the ‘Green House Of Harmony’ or the ‘X-Light 9000’ but it was us, as viewers, who ultimately experienced the journey and shared in its delights. His adventure was almost like a biography, one told to hundreds of people but interpreted differently by each individual who saw it; it all meant something different to each and every one of us. Coe’s Quest, the second ‘story’ I experienced in Minecraft, was similar in that it took us along for the ride and allowed us to experience everything as Coe did. From the initial awe of the landscape that eventually became home to CQHQ, to the exploration of a distant land and the creation of Castle Dogbone, to the trip to the Nether, the discovery of Misty Island and, most recently, the construction of a train station to mark his 100th episode, each event and each outcome was a shared experience, performed by Coe but engaged by many. No other person experienced Minecraft in the way that Coe or X did but, by capturing it all on video and sharing it on YouTube, we all got to share in the pleasure of a narrative that we, ourselves, would never have gotten to experience otherwise. Personal quests that became public, unique yet unified.

Castle Dogbone suspended high in the sky

Consider my own story in the game, too, with its hardships and discoveries, unexpected moments and joyous success once my goals were finally finished. My second and now main world in Minecraft has been a constant struggle -- to gather the necessary materials; deal with the seemingly endless amount of Creepers insisting on destroying my hard work; and the constant need to re-appropriate my house design not once, not twice but four times as things like limited space and the aforementioned Creepers hindered my progress -- and yet, I couldn’t be more happy with how it has turned out so far, what events have occurred and what possibilities exist in the future. Success isn’t (or hasn’t been) measured in the completion of tasks, my progression from hapless wanderer to strong-willed survivor or the inspiration that comes from the sights and sounds that surround me, but rather by the journey I’ve taken, the things I’ve learned on it and the experiences that will reside with me for years to come. It might not mean anything to you -- and you certainly might not care -- but it has been my story and as it continues to be told, I’m learning, adapting and changing as a person simultaneously. It’s my personal narrative, relevant only to me and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a sandbox game, however, Minecraft loses its appeal to some players due to the lack of structure and tasks that need to be completed. That first night of survival -- and the hastiness that occurs before it -- is about the only actual thing that should be done in the game, the quest to discover diamond perhaps being another. The thing with these two objectives however is that, while probably smart to carry out as early as possible, they’re not necessary to the outcome of the game nor the experience a player can have. It’s not necessary to ensure survival on the first night; instead, you could pick a direction and travel towards it as a nomad, dealing with the situations that arise as you constantly trek forward. Or, instead of searching for the elusive diamond, you could instead gather wood and stone so that the building of a large structure can commence. The point is, the world that befalls you is open to your whims and desire as and when you see fit and while this is most certainly the appeal of Minecraft for a lot of people, it won’t satisfy everyone. Adding in a narrative could (and most likely will) give the game some structure, setting goals for those players who are happy to follow a guided (yet still quite open) path and engage with the ever-changing landscape gradually rather than spontaneously. Giving the game a format, if you will, will open it up to more people and, ideally, ensure that anybody who chooses to play the game has something they can do and (more importantly) enjoy. It might seem unnecessary to those of us who enjoy the unexpected, usually impetuous moments, but for those who crave goals they can work towards and accomplish and a set path with which to walk, the addition of a narrative to the game will be welcome.

So, does Minecraft need a predefined story? Personally, no, it’s already a strong storyteller; but as far as the game itself is concerned? It couldn’t hurt -- sandboxes are fun because they are essentially what you make of them, but sometimes they can be just as enjoyable when someone else is digging out the dirt and creating that epic sandcastle. Perhaps it might even be in the sky…

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

R18+ Rationale

Will Australia ever see this logo on games? I think so.

Last Friday the Attorneys-General for each state and territory of Australia, as well as the federal government met to discuss the possibility of introducing an R18+ rating for videogames in this country. The most prominent hot topic on the Australian gaming scene in recent years, the debate that has surrounded the various issues related to the classification system -- how it is currently and what it could be should it be changed -- has been argued both in favour and against for what seems like countless times now, the issue constantly arising whenever a game is refused classification (see my previous two articles about it here and here for more); an important figure, usually a politician offers their view on the subject; or when a developer or publisher, usually international, decides to edit their own game or not bother submitting it for classification in this country at all. Naturally, as gamers, our wide-ranging and general view is that it should be introduced, our arguments being for the accessibility of content that we -- as adults -- can relate to, as well as the issue concerning younger gamers who, under our current system, find themselves easily able to get their hands on games that are absolutely not intended for them, such as the inevitable (for our main example) Grand Theft Auto series or games such as Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead 2 and Aliens Vs Predator. While my personal view is shared with the majority of gamers, I’m more concerned with the attitudes it has inspired both in those against the introduction of such a rating, and those in favour: the gamers. I am, however, also impressed with how the issue in general has been handled in recent months. Here’s why.

Media Spotlight

The biggest thing to come from the recent SCAG meeting last Friday, I think, was the way in which the issue was handled in the various media outlets that chose to cover it. While it was inevitable that the gaming press would cover it strongly and focus on the angles that would benefit the medium in which they cover, the more mainstream press outlets also handled it, in my opinion, well, approaching the subject from both points of view -- for and against -- and not displaying the bias that coverage just a few years ago so obviously did. While admittedly, certain facets of the media didn’t report the facts accurately (suggesting, for example, that it was only related to PC gaming rather than the entire medium), for the most part the newspapers, TV current affair and news shows and online websites covered it maturely, objectively and even enthusiastically -- something that’s heartening to see as a gamer, clearly desiring the rating’s introduction, after years of biased reports and sensationalist, usually negative, headlines. But personal opinion aside, I think the coverage the recent developments have received is a good thing for gaming generally, as it’s treating the entertainment medium fairly and not treating it -- as it did in the past -- like something only intended for kids. Instead of being an inferior medium to the already established film, television and literature, the media approached the issue and games generally as an equal, (dare I say it) artistic medium who deserves to be considered among the mainstream population, and who deserves the coverage those established mediums already receive. It might be a baby step in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a step that hadn’t been taken previously and most certainly one in the right direction as both the medium of videogames, and we as gamers, move forward. The coverage wasn’t perfect, some outlets still approached it subjectively without realising it, and once Friday had passed very few areas of the media cared anymore, but it was a start and one I’m proud to see after observing the issue from the sidelines for so long. Progress is being made, even if it is just gradual, and that’s an accomplishment that didn’t seem likely just a few short years ago, and one that paints gaming’s overall image in a positive light rather than the negative one it has had for so long.

Just one example of the imagery that may only be seen if an R18 rating was introduced.

Gamer Feedback

Less impressive, however, was the response that gamers -- the very advocates for the introduction of the rating in the first place -- exhibited once the news of yet another delay arose on Friday evening. So intent on seeing an outcome that pleased them on an individual level, the news that no result was to occur until next year didn’t just disappoint them, it infuriated them -- the message of frustration abundantly clear in the various forum posts and website comments that were made that night and over the weekend. Instead of thinking about what the outcome meant and where things could go from here, these people reacted impulsively, slamming the various people involved in the debate’s process immediately with no concern for anything else. While it might be understandable that these people are angry, their irrational actions don’t get their disdain across and highlight their opinions, it demonstrates to those involved -- as well as those observing from afar, unbiased in their views due to not featuring in either camp -- that gamers (and thus, those that support the rating’s introduction) aren’t as mature as their arguments constantly suggest and instead are quite aggressive, juvenile people who probably don’t deserve the rating to begin with. This anger and animosity towards the outcome on Friday was remarkably annoying for me personally, watching their insults and irate behaviour play out as if gamers in general were trying their absolute best to bring the videogame medium down with their tirades. Swearing at politicians and hurling abuse at their opinions, or their desire to seek clarification from their particular constituents -- as was the case with Friday’s outcome -- doesn’t prove anything other than immaturity and it’s these attitudes that conflict poorly with our overall message and lobbying to get the rating introduced in this country. The attitudes were atrocious, the immediacy with which they were demonstrated appalling and, overall, it reflected yet another negative light onto a situation we worked so diligently to bring out of focus and put to bed.

To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement but to say I’m surprised would be lying. While the very people who have ensured this medium’s constant growth in recent years won’t admit it, gamers need to grow up and accept that, from time to time, things aren’t going to go their way. The ironic thing is that Friday’s outcome was positive, the various Attorneys-General approaching the issue with an open mind and, for the most part, agreeing that things needed to be changed -- be that introducing the rating or changing the current system to bring it in line with more modern times.

No doubt the R18+ rating will continue to feature prominently on the Australian gaming scene and, after seeing how the most recent development played out, progress will continue to be made. If gamers don’t get their act together and prove that our arguments were justified and that we do deserve the rating though, then I’m not sure I want the rating after all -- not if we’re going to act like that.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Talking About Minecraft

I'm lucky in that my house overlooks this bay.

[Note: for those only interested in what I have to say about Minecraft, scroll down to the next picture.]

Things have been relatively quiet around here lately haven’t they? Sure, I may have just posted about my excitement for the upcoming Donkey Kong Country Returns later this week but aside from that, I have maintained a silence on this blog that I’m not proud of. It wasn’t intentional -- of course it wasn’t -- but it was perhaps necessary, as I just couldn’t bring myself to put the effort in to write the various posts I wanted to write. I was feeling this way not because of a disinterest in writing -- in fact I’d argue my passion for writing is stronger than ever -- but because, when combined with the various games I was trying to play, I just felt too overwhelmed and depressed. The gaming blues aren’t new, we all go through it from time to time, but in my case this instance was particularly severe and was exacerbated by my stubbornness, among other things. See, despite feeling uninterested in playing games for a while I did so anyway and it was definitely to my detriment. I tried playing Red Dead Redemption, already a game I’ve struggled to enjoy due to reasons I’ll elaborate on shortly, and didn’t enjoy it. I tried continuing the Metroid marathon I’m undertaking currently and that wasn’t appealing either -- and that’s one of my favourite franchises around. The only game I could enjoy was F1 2010 and I have a feeling that was more due to my passion for motorsport rather than my enjoyment of the game itself, that and it’s the time of year where real life motorsport is wrapping up for the year, if it hasn’t already done so. This lack of interest saw me try a few new games, such as Batman: Arkham Asylum, in order to try and reinvigorate my passion for gaming and while Batman was interesting, it just wasn’t the right time to play it so it too became a culprit of my animosity towards games. Mentally, I knew this boredom (if you will) was temporary and in no way reflected how I felt about the medium as a whole, or the individual games in question, and I guess knowing this only frustrated me further when it came to how I was feeling. The icing on the cake was seeing all of the games still yet to be played sitting on my shelf, knowing full well that they’d continue to sit there if I waited out this bout of gaming depression and that they wouldn’t be as enjoyable if I tried to persist through it. Furious (mostly with myself), I just decided to stop everything I was doing or planned on doing -- which included my plans for this blog -- and stopped caring until I was ready to re-engage. While gaming blues may have been the biggest reason, it wasn’t the only one. Various life commitments affected my ability to get anything done, as did illness and reoccurring wisdom teeth pain. The aforementioned motorsport also took up time, as did the unfortunate circumstances of my grandfather being in hospital (he still is, actually).

Basically, everything combined at once to hinder my ability to do anything I wanted to and, fatigued from it all I just needed to take a break and pick myself back up. I’ve done that, my bout of gaming blues is over yet again and now things should resume as normal going forward. I hope…

I've named this Lake Hylia as a mark of respect for Zelda.

So, Minecraft. Everybody has heard of it by now and I certainly don’t need to go on about why it’s so popular. Since it’s the other primary reason for my silence here on the blog, however, I do need to explain why I’m so enamored by it, and why I continue to play it more than I should. Before I do that I should explain what got me into it in the first place, so let’s start with that.

When the game started to show signs that it was becoming a phenomenon, I was uncertain as to why and still didn’t really understand what the game was about. When I heard that you mined the world and then crafted from those materials, I thought it sounded boring but also had a feeling that, like most games, there was more to it than initially sounded. So, as I watched more and more people -- particularly on my Twitter feed -- praise the game’s quality, I not only started to form more of an interest in it I also started to learn more of why it was just so good. Then the press got their hands on it, and sites like RockPaperShotgun and GiantBomb begun singing its praises just as much as the gaming community. These articles enlightened me further, particularly showing off its unique art direction through screenshots, and my interest continued to grow and grow. I asked friends about it after they shared articles; I observed conversations as people discussed it; and then I found the thing that converted me to the game’s charms: videos of people playing it on YouTube.

Ah the X-System, how I miss thee.

I had heard of the “Let’s Play” community vaguely and knew roughly what it was about, but it was LPs centered on Minecraft that didn’t just convince me that these series of videos were worth watching, but that they could be thoroughly entertaining too. I started with a tutorial video on how to survive the first day and night on Machinima. Fascinated, I was led to the guy’s channel where I found a series chronicling his adventures in the game, complete with live commentary. I watched the first video, then the second, then the third and continued until, hours later, I was halfway through the series. I was completely enthralled by not only the unique events occurring in his adventures, but the game itself, and all the while I was learning not just how to play the game but why it was so popular and brilliant. Over the next few days I proceeded to marathon the rest of his series -- a massive 40-plus episodes -- as well as check out some of the other Minecraft LPs I kept hearing about through the comments and X’s (the guy behind the videos) own recommendations. This led to Coe’s Quest, another series that I became hooked on and, as he is still uploading new videos, I continue to watch to this very day. Like X before him I was fascinated with what Coe got up to, what features his world contained --and it has to be said, Coe’s world is one of the best Minecraft worlds I have ever seen -- and even learned some new things off him as he created enemy spawner traps, new tools and approached situations differently. An interesting byproduct of watching both his and X’s videos was the realisation that firstly, while similar these two adventures weren’t Let’s Play videos in the traditional sense and secondly, that I was beginning to understand just why I was so captivated by this game. Predictably, I caved and bought the game and proceeded to join everyone else in singing the game’s praises.

Initially, I was somewhat hesitant to play it as it was my first PC gaming experience in a long, long time and I just didn’t feel comfortable inhabiting my own version of this vast, empty and harsh world that Minecraft is famous for. I was also too busy enjoying myself when watching the game be played by Coe (I marathoned his series too -- it’s now up to episode 82) and a few others, the ability to watch someone else do the hard work (so to speak) more enticing than playing it myself. But eventually the addiction and fascination took over and I created my first world, excited and nervous with what I’d find and what could happen.

It was poignant sharing this particular moment with Coe.

Spawning on a beach I did the now common routine of punching some trees for wood and going on a search for coal. My first discovery of it was a fair walk from my spawn point but close enough that I knew where I was if and when I died. As night drew near I dug into the same mountain that the coal was found, creating my first shelter in order to survive the night. Watching the videos as I did I knew what to do in these circumstances and had a rough idea of what I wanted to do now that I was established, so as night fell I began to dig further into the mountain to see what it held. Finding nothing in my tunnel and realising that the sun was rising, I created some more tools and went outside to gather some more basic resources -- lumber, sand, dirt and some more coal -- before climbing to the top of the mountain to survey my surroundings. Impressed with the view, I realised that I wanted this mountain to be my home and my mine, so I began to dig straight down with the plan to not stop until I hit the bottom. Fast forward a bit and I had established my home right where my first shelter was; reached the bottom of the world and bedrock -- a feat considering the peak of the mountain is practically at the highest point you can go in the game -- in my mine; created a branch mine in order to find rare minerals such as gold and diamond (which I did find by the way, lots in fact); explored some of the caves that were close to my mountain; and had lit up a path to spawn with the intention to make something of it later. Making a mark on this land and establishing my base of operations, I was ready to not only get more creative with the appearance and design of the things I had created, I was also ready to go exploring and find new things to discover and do. What these are I might detail in another post but the point is that, like everyone else who plays Minecraft, I worked with what I had and made the most out of it, thoroughly enjoying what the game has to offer in the process.

Home is where the heart is, even if it's unfinished...

That’s all well and good, but what does the game offer me that ensures that I enjoy it as much as I do? Well, as I alluded to before, the videos I watched started to highlight why I found the game so compelling and playing my own version of that just confirmed it. Minecraft is interesting to me for three reasons: the beautiful worlds the procedural generator creates; the personal stories (which explains why the videos were so interesting to me in the first place) that stem from them and the amazing things that can be done with so little. It’s these three features that form the core of the Minecraft experience for me, a fact I find interesting given the main mechanics -- and thus, interactions -- are barely related. Sure, they’re the primary means with which I engage my world, explore it and craft my own narrative, but the actions in themselves bear little to no relevance. Mining for materials is just something that needs to be done from time to time, to gather the things required to build something, create new tools or to ensure safety when travelling at night; the minerals themselves take on a different meaning when stumbled upon, unexpectedly, whilst exploring a gigantic cave system or after digging somewhere for an unrelated reason, such as to build a tunnel. Mining these discoveries isn’t about the actual mining, nor the need to do so, but the simple reward for taking the time to check out something interesting, intentional or not. Crafting is even more insignificant, the end result sometimes fascinating -- when creating a new object or the final part to a much bigger plan -- but the action just something that… happens. I just find this point interesting because, indirectly, most videogames are (or should be) about their mechanics: how you interact with the game’s world, characters, items and objects, and everything else. Interactivity is the means to our selfish ends and as such, it’s important that they accommodate our desired needs and do what we expect them to do. Minecraft’s primary actions do indeed successfully fulfill our expectations but the experience -- at least for me -- is never about them but rather what they allow, and I just found that intriguing the more I considered it.

As for the worlds, the stories they have told and the creations I’ve produced, I’ll save those thoughts for future posts. Needless to say, like practically everyone else who has played the game, Minecraft blew me away and continues to surprise me every single time I play. Few other games can manage that and I think that’s why it has reached levels of popularity that some Triple-A blockbuster titles would envy. Deservedly so, too: like the way in which it’s played, Minecraft made the most of what it had and little else. Enough said.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Preview Power: Donkey Kong Country Returns

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation for each game.]

Donkey Kong Country Returns. Bit of a silly name isn’t it? Yet it is also a name that breeds immense excitement and anticipation in someone like me, a guy who grew up playing the very franchise it hopes to revitalise. So while the series returning might sound silly, the arrival should be one of sheer pleasure as I reacquaint myself with the dopey but adorable monkey and his companions.

But to understand why I’m so excited for this new installment, first we must reflect back on its predecessors to find out why this rebirth is such an enticing prospect.

I love the Donkey Kong Country franchise for a multitude of reasons -- some of which I will perhaps explore in the not too distant future -- but the biggest one is also an industry staple: the games were just fun. While maintaining the familiar platforming formula of that era, Donkey Kong Country and its two sequels went above and beyond the norm to create a charming personality of its own and a style that was exhibited by everything ranging from its music to its characters to its level design. A good portion of this can be attributed to Rare (then known as Rareware) as their injection of charm and wit into the games plus their demonstration of technical proficiency and expertise allowed the three games to captivate audiences everywhere. Donkey’s foolish, almost Homer Simpson-esque approach to his banana collection ensured that the Kremlings’ continuous thievery of it was inevitable; Dixie’s elegant but forceful approach when she was enlisted to the Kremling fight ensured that things got done as required. The characters might be basic and they may be archetypical to a degree, but the variety demonstrated and the simplicity with which this was achieved guaranteed a series of games that were familiar but always changing. Throw in the incredible levels and the diversity they showed and it made for three games that kept you on your toes but teased you into confidence as you tapped into your repertoire of skills.

The games were good, then, and were enhanced even more by their timeless art directions and marvelous soundtracks. This alone is enough to make Donkey Kong Country Returns a must-have; another strong motivating factor is the people creating it.

Retro Studios are, in my opinion, one of the best developers in the industry today, and while their reputation for quality has been formed on one series of games alone, there’s just no denying the level of care, attention to detail and effort they put into their games. Like the series or not, I think it’s fair to say that Metroid Prime is one of the best games of all time, if not the best Metroid game, while its two sequels -- despite not reaching the same lofty heights as the original -- also exuded a quality that few other games can match. Now I won’t deny that I’m a Metroid fanboy. I’ve stated this a few times on the blog and countless times elsewhere, and I’ll continue to shout that franchise’s brilliance from the rooftops for as long as my voice will allow. But it was Retro who created that passion in the first place so the respect they have from me isn’t just strong, it’s inexplicable. Put simply, anything they make will have my interest; the fact they are making a game in a franchise that I hold dear to my heart is just mind-blowing. For years I have wanted what is essentially Donkey Kong Country 4. I didn’t care what system it was on, what time it came out or which characters it was based around, all I wanted was another installment in the franchise with new levels and challenges for me to see. For years that didn’t happen, and with each passing year and platform I was slowly coming to the realisation that my desires were to be unmet and that the franchise as a whole -- if not the characters too -- were to be left in the past, forgotten. Then suddenly, at this year’s E3 conference, a new one was announced and by the studio that didn’t just create one of my favourite games of all time but also a passion that I didn’t know existed. How can that not be incredibly exciting for someone like me?

As you can probably tell I just can’t explain how much it pleases me to know that later this week, finally, I will be playing a new Donkey Kong Country. My approach to the new game might be extremely enthusiastic but my confidence in Retro is justified. The reviews already confirm it; their talent ensures it.

Monday, October 18, 2010


It’s a testament to a game’s atmosphere when it can inspire you, the player, to stop in your tracks, forget what you are doing and simply watch in awe at what lies before you. A gorgeous vista -- perhaps with a beautiful sunset accompanying it -- comes to mind immediately, the view so lush and amazing that it’s hard to resist taking it in; but no matter what the moment actually is, the beauty of the experience comes from what it makes you do rather than what it happens to be showing.

Think about it for a second. Games are made up of rules and systems, most of which give you goals and objectives to work towards for success, progression or other rewards. To physically make you stop, to get you to forget about your primary goal in favour of focusing on something totally unexpected and emergent, is a quality that few games manage to achieve. Sure, we all have our examples and it’s definitely something that has become a touch more frequent in the recent past, but that ability in itself is a strong example of good game design, of a carefully considered world or aesthetic and of rewarding the player’s immersion rather than their completion of a task. Because, despite the unexpected appearance of these moments, they only work if the developer -- who created the possibility of it appearing -- and the player -- the one who discovers it -- are working together, the former creating a believable world and the latter engaging with it in its entirety. Immersion has become a bit of a buzz word for those describing their experiences with games and for good reason: the more immersed a player is in a game, the more invested they are in the entertainment they’re consuming. The reasons for why differ for each player.

Red Dead Redemption is a fantastic example. Its ability to stop me in my travels in order to take in a view, observe the wildlife or watch as the residents of a local town go about their business, is certainly something few other games manage to emulate. It helps, of course, that the world is rich in detail and is quite the sight to behold but delve beyond the superficial elements and deeper into the environment as a whole, and you’re bound to come across some really fascinating, compelling places. Why, just this very evening I was wandering aimlessly around in the game’s world, surprised by what I came across. Rain caused me to slow my horse to a stop, jump off and bask in the atmosphere of its steady, consistent flow; walking inside a nearby house I was struck by how realistic it sounded as it pelted the wooden roof above; stepping outside once more, I simply watched as its density increased and the surrounding environments got darker. I walked to a nearby pond and watched the drops scatter across its water; I ventured to a dirt path and observed the puddles and mud slowly forming; I then let the game idle, eventually leading to it taking over and fixing a camera in a random location, simply designed to show off the view. The ambience was amazing, the atmosphere incredible, and it was enlightening to watch how the mere presence of rain -- something I’ve celebrated in the past -- completely changed the experience, halted any progress I may have been attempting to make and inspired a mood that I didn’t expect a game set in the Western genre to create. It was cathartic, but not in a way I could have expected -- an experience to relish as I continue on my Western adventure.

It’s not the only moment that has caused me to stop, however. The residents of MacFarlane’s ranch have enthralled me more than once, their casual and relaxed nature really moving after the many fights and close-calls I’ve had in my travels. Because of this, I try to ensure that whenever I stop playing the game I do so there, as it’s an environment I’m thoroughly comfortable in and it has a nice ambience that dictates the pace of my next session in a really engrossing way. To walk out of my house one evening, my horse hitched right beside it, and see the locals gathered around the campfire chatting about their day is alluring; to sit and hear one of them play tunes on his violin utterly enchanting; to walk out across the main dirt path and towards the barn, find a lady playing fetch with her dog and simply watch as one throws, the other receives, simply delightful.

On their own, each may be a simple moment, completely insignificant and unrelated to the core experience of the game -- the story, the characters that define it and the actions and events that occur -- but when combined with the other poignant, unexpected little treasures that can be found throughout one’s travels, they form a narrative that is unique to me and only enhances the time I spend in that world. Red Dead Redemption as a game may be about the Wild West slowly dying, but as my adventure it’s about the little hints of life that appear when I least expect them to, reinforcing why my own existence in this world is important. My impact may be little, but its impact on me will be with me forever.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Living The Life: Malaysia

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event.]


What can I say about Malaysia? It’s a track and country I’ve never been to; it reminds me of a native animal back home thanks to the funny yet familiar name, Kuala Lumpur; and it apparently has incredibly unpredictable weather that, at times, can be quite extreme -- or so my team tells me. I go into it disappointed in my performance in the last round, my home Grand Prix, leaving me with little confidence and uncertainty with how I will fare. I suppose every race has uncertainty -- and I’ve definitely had a lot of disappointments throughout my career -- but I’m feeling particularly down at the moment due to this being Formula 1 -- you don’t get any better than the pinnacle -- and the embarrassment that was my Australian (home) Grand Prix. But come on, this is only the third race of the season: I shouldn’t be letting my emotions get the better of me so early as I am still extremely lucky to be in this position, fulfilling my dream. That and my agent keeps on reminding me that despite the appalling race overall, I still improved my consistency, starts and my ability to race with and around my rivals. It wasn’t all bad, in other words, and while I might feel terrible about the past, I should remain optimistic about the future: we’re still in the early stages of the season and anything can (and inevitably will) happen. Besides, I get to go to tracks and countries I’ve never been to -- how can that be a bad thing? Right, that’s a bit better. I’m happier now which is probably good as Practice starts tomorrow...

Friday Morning, Practice 1

Despite conversations with my team and multiple attempts in the simulator back at the factory, I still barely know this Malaysian circuit so I’m a bit hesitant to go out today. But go out I must and being Practice, now is as good a time as any to learn the circuit and get as many laps as possible under my belt before the race on Sunday. With the clock about to start, I think I’ll go out as soon as possible.

Well, that wasn’t so bad. The track was pretty damn easy to learn -- a pleasant surprise -- and despite a few moments, I’m happy overall with that session. As I expected it wasn’t too long until my first small moment, occurring in my first run as I went wide and spun as I accelerated out of the final, extremely tight turn on my second proper lap. It wasn’t anything drastic though and I was able to press on with no harm done. Some of the apexes of these corners are hard to spot, despite not necessarily being blind or sneaking up on you. They’re just awkwardly cambered, or happen in quick succession after an initial corner. It’s not a problem and my confidence to push them over the weekend will grow, but it’s an interesting point nonetheless.

My second attempt at the Malaysian circuit was better, my times improving a little but still nowhere near those of my rivals. I also had another small spin, this time during turn 1 and once again due to accelerating slightly too early. Alguersuari, who wasn’t far behind me, collected me gently as he mustn’t have seen me spin. Nothing significant, the spin was simple (and perhaps unnecessary) and the contact was minor. I’ll get the hang of this track yet.

Pit lane was my enemy on my third run, receiving a warning for illegal blocking as I exited to begin the run and then coming back to return to the pits I spun on the bumpy entrance, clearly entering a little too fast. The spin was once again minor whilst the warning… well, I thought it was a bit unfair. The pit lane exit is short and feeds you into the first corner almost instantly; of course I’m going to get in the way if I’m coming out and someone is about to enter the corner, as we both need to make it and therefore I can’t just drive straight on and off into the grass, just to ensure I’m out of the way. I accepted the warning as I’m still new and I just wanted to get on with my session. The rest of the run was good, the track finally making its mark on my physical and mental memory.

The fourth run also included a silly spin, again in turn 1 on my third proper lap. It was nothing to worry about but summarized the lap overall which was scruffy and definitely could have been better. I also started to push a little more as I felt more confident and with basic track knowledge out of the way, I could start pushing the limits and find the ideal points to brake, turn and accelerate.

My fifth run was busy, exiting into a gaggle of cars which meant that it took a while to get focused as I struggled to find some space on the circuit. Thankfully there were no spins or any other issues to worry about and I was able to get some good, clean and fast laps in. I also noticed it was getting significantly overcast.

I decided to go with the Option tires for my sixth run, thinking it was time to start going for even faster lap times. I regretted this decision almost instantly however as it began to drizzle as soon as I left the pits. Interestingly though, my tires didn’t seem to mind and the grip levels remained consistent despite the rain. Because of this, I pressed on anyway and, perhaps ironically, started to set my fastest times yet. Hey, whatever works, right? Staying on the racing line -- which was still quite dry -- meant that there were no problems with the weather, but it did affect the ability to use the Option tires to their full potential so while I set my fastest times yet, they weren’t the best that were possible.

Unfortunately I got blocked a couple of times on two of my flying laps, so I chose to come in early and change to intermediate tires for my seventh run due to the rain getting progressively harder. I didn’t mind though, treating it as an opportunity to finally see how the inters handled generally as well as some nice, decent practice in the wet. It was surprising just how quickly the rain got heavier, though, and, perhaps more importantly, how little visibility there truly was; so much so that I decided to go with the full wet tires for the rest of the session.

It’s remarkable really, both the Prime and Option tires give insane amounts of grip during dry conditions, allowing a lot of corners to pass by extremely quickly, but I think I’m more impressed with how the wets perform. That first lap on full wets was incredibly enlightening, the grip they offer in a track that was more like a river than an F1 circuit seeming impossible at first but rather satisfying as it went on. Obviously, my braking points and approaches to each corner changed in the conditions, effectively resetting everything I had learned just a few minutes earlier. Interestingly enough, everyone else seemed to stay in the pits when the rain was at its heaviest, so I took the opportunity and empty track to get some more practice in under wet conditions. It was a bit strange that my fellow rookies -- my teammate Lucas included -- didn’t elect to do the same. When you include the two previous races as well this session was my best yet, having only a few slight mistakes that were, I feel, rectified rather quickly and giving me my first taste of unpredictable conditions. I had fun learning the track and how to drive an F1 car in the wet, got my bearings around the Sepang circuit a lot faster than I expected to and most importantly, kept consistent throughout, gradually improving my times -- until the rain came at least. I reached 13th for the session, which isn’t bad for my first ever visit here, and despite some minor and perhaps expected spins, the session was a success. Turns 1 and 10 need some more work, though.

Friday Afternoon, Practice 2

A surprisingly dry start meant that it was back to using the Primes for my first run, the washed out racing line taking a few laps to start returning, leaving grip levels inconsistent and slightly uncomfortable. It also took a while for me to readjust to the dry conditions mentally, my braking points and turn in points having to be rediscovered. That was a little surprising, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before.

My second and third runs were practically perfect with some really great, clean and consistent laps. No mistakes, fast speeds and times, and gradual improvement over Practice 1. It began to rain as soon as I noticed how dark the track was getting, however, remaining light at first but gradually increasing as the third run went on. Still no proper runs on the Options, then.

Opting with the inters for my fourth run, I took the opportunity for even more practice in the rain but unfortunately lost control coming out of turn 2 due to hitting the slippery exit curb. I also nearly lost it again in the same place on the subsequent lap but managed to save it. Finding myself behind one of my rivals, I purposefully followed them closely behind to get acquainted with just how poor visibility is whilst pursuing another car.

The rain almost as heavy as this morning, I went with the wet tires for my fifth run, which was yet another good and consistent one. It’s amazing how concentration steps up another level in wet conditions, the intensity of driving in them even more incredible than my surprise in Bahrain. It wasn’t exhausting though, proving that I’m finally getting accustomed to what it is like to race in Formula 1.

Continuing with wets, my sixth run was spoiled by some mishaps including a couple of half-spins. I was able to recover from both easily, and clearly they were as a result of the conditions, so I decided to drive a bit more cautiously afterwards.

My seventh run featured a small spin but was otherwise yet more good practice, the rain seemingly decreasing but remaining steady.

For the final run I went back to the inters, the rain only drizzling but the track still significantly wet. I once again took the opportunity to get some wet practice in, and couldn’t help but chuckle as I followed a funny battle for track position with Jenson Button, Robert Kubica and Jarno Trulli -- it’s not a race guys! (Yet…) I managed to finish 12th, one position higher than Practice 1, with a lap time of 1:38.455 which was set while the track was still dry. Overall I did 23 laps, and it was a great session with very few mistakes, more practice in the rain and more confidence with the Sepang circuit generally. Bodes well for tomorrow’s session and then, of course, Qualifying.

Saturday Morning, Practice 3

Another great session, perhaps my best Practice to date! With no rain in sight the track seemed to be at its fastest, my first run yielding a time that was on par with the best seen in Practice 2 (a 1m, 38). Also in this run I passed Webber who had spun at turn 10 and was facing the wrong way on my in-lap.

On run 2 I noticed Webber had recovered to set the fastest time for the session, so the spin clearly didn’t affect his progress too much. My first flying lap for the run was aborted due to Bruno Senna spinning at turn 2, whilst my second flying lap was also aborted due to my own spin in turn 10, thanks once again to being a little too eager with the throttle.

The third run was great with no problems whatsoever, despite almost spinning again coming back into the pits on those bumps. Choosing to go with the Options, my fourth run saw me break into the 1m 37s bracket for the first time, setting a time of 1:37.340. I couldn’t help but be glad to finally have a decent run on the Options. The first flying lap was unfortunately impeded by traffic, holding me up enough for me to abort the lap.

The fifth run, again on the Options, consisted of three consecutive clean and consistent laps, practically a perfect run though unfortunately my time was not improved. The tires worn by the sixth run, it didn’t yield any results so I came in early to grab a new set.

My seventh run was fantastic as I was able to put together a brilliant lap on the new tires, reaching a 1:36.986, easily my fastest time of the weekend yet. This secured 7th position for P3, a result I’m immensely satisfied with, even if it took 16 laps to achieve it.

Saturday Afternoon, Qualifying

With expectations of 20th or higher, my team gave me a rather lenient goal to aspire to for this qualifying session despite the higher places I reached in the various Practice sessions. Confident in my ability to achieve that, I set my own personal goal of 15th, a place I reached easily as… wait for it… I MADE IT INTO Q3! Yes, I made the final qualifying session but I’ll explain that in a second, first my run in Q1.

Going with the Options, I went wide at turn 4 on my first flying lap and again on the second, this time at turn 11. My second run, on the same tires, took a total of 4 flying laps to improve my time, setting a 1:37.747 in the process. A time that’s slower than my best on this track but good enough to reach Q2.

Sticking with the Options (I used them the entire session), I had an okay initial run putting down a reasonable time but nowhere near my best once again. The second run was much better, improving my time to a 1:37.312 which again doesn’t match my best ever but gave me 10th position, obviously being decent enough to allow me to progress into the final qualifying session.

Surprised I had reached such heights -- who would have thought a Virgin would be in the top ten so early in the season, if at all? -- and with worn tires, I decided to not aim for anything and just be content with anywhere in the top ten, even if that happened to be 10th. Easing the pressure by exceeding both mine and my team’s goals, I went into the session noticing instantly how overcast it had become. Rain didn’t eventuate however and neither did a decent time, my second run being hampered by some unfortunate mistakes. I spun out of turn 1 on my out lap due to the cold, worn tires, then went wide at the same turn on my first flying lap, destroying my chance at a better lap due to the session expiring. I ended up 10th but definitely believe that at least 9th was possible if I didn’t stuff up, as I was pipped on that last lap by Petrov. My time was a 1:38.401, perhaps slower than previous ones over the weekend due to the worn tires but still, I think I surprised everyone including myself by reaching Q3, so quite frankly I don’t care. What a fantastic qualifying session! A great contrast to the events in the last round too; I guess I love this Malaysian circuit! Vettel acquired pole, maintaining Red Bull’s insane consistency and dominance so far this season.

Sunday, Race

A pre-race interview asked for my feelings on my fantastic qualifying session, the new rules introduced this season and my goals for the season; I answered that qualifying was amazing, our team is coping well with the rules and that I’ll be taking the season race by race, given the ups and downs I’ve had so far. My team appreciated those answers before reminding me that their goals for this race were for me to finish 18th or better. So far this weekend is going brilliantly. Heading into the race, I was feeling quite nervous due to the unexpected position and great weekend, wondering just how long this level of performance would last…

A tawdry start with far too much wheelspin sent me backwards pretty quick, reaching about 18th place (not actually sure). It didn’t matter however as I managed to make it back to 16th relatively quickly, only to spin at turn 4 on the second lap after going far too wide due to missing my braking point while I watched the cars ahead. I really need to work on those starts. Anyway, I recovered right behind my teammate Lucas and got past him on lap 4 after a good little battle, only to throw it away by once again going too wide at turn 9, putting me by myself in the race. Disappointed I pressed on trying to find a rhythm and trying to hit every apex, which I achieved by about lap 11. On lap 13 I was lapped (already) by Webber -- who had the lead -- and not long afterwards his teammate Sebastian Vettel. Because Lucas had pitted I was ahead of him, whilst Trulli -- who also pitted -- came out a few seconds ahead of me. I managed to catch and pass him on the back straight on lap 17 heading into the final turn but stuffed it and had a half spin due to my tires which were worn from the qualifying session yesterday (as I reached Q3 I had to start on the same tires). Probably not surprising as I was already uncomfortable with them. Thinking I had once again fallen behind (but still, surprisingly -- at the time -- ahead of Lucas), I was surprised when my team told me I was ahead of Trulli on lap 19. He must have pitted again or something because I certainly didn’t pass him on the track, unless he had gone off and I just didn’t notice. I entered the pits for some shiny, new, Prime tires on lap 20, feeling very pleased with the idea of disposing of the horribly worn Options. It was hard to get a rhythm after the pit stop though as I kept having to move aside for the frontrunners who were lapping me. On lap 27 it began to drizzle, getting progressively heavier rather quickly. On lap 29 Lucas retired, whilst on lap 32 I passed Vettel who had spun not too long after lapping me once more, clearly due to the wet conditions which were getting quite serious. On lap 34 I pitted for wets, seemingly making the right decision as putting the wets on allowed me to un-lap myself against some of the others who chose inters instead, which felt remarkably satisfying. A few people ahead also pitted twice (once for inters and then again for wets), increasing my position by three to 20th. On lap 41 I almost spun twice due to the intense conditions, the rain really drenching the circuit and leaving it absolutely saturated. On lap 42 as I exited turn 2 I nearly spun again as the exit curb was extremely slippery and induced an incredible amount of wheelspin. I managed to save it but that sent me for a detour into the grass, so it took a while to recover. Later during the same lap, while waiting to be overlapped once again I accelerated too early, spinning again. Because Kubica crashed into me I got penalized, the officials thinking I caused the accident. I thought this was a bit unfair but I chose to do my drive through penalty instantly to get it out of the way. The drive through allowed me to contemplate the wet conditions briefly, the rain seemingly suiting me -- something interesting to note. On lap 44 I was informed that I was in position 19th which was a surprise, must have been a retirement or something. On the same lap I passed Buemi who was facing the wrong way in turn 1, then reached 18th near the end of the lap due to Kubica’s retirement -- probably due to our earlier collision. On lap 48 I caught the first turn’s curb and had a half-spin, Senna hitting me despite me being off the racing line, only minor damage though. Lap 52 saw me reach 17th, where I was also destined to finish, 1 spot ahead of my team’s expectations. Despite some mistakes and the black flag, I’m pretty happy overall with the race though do wonder what could have been had things gone a little differently. Webber won with Alonso and Hamilton in second and third respectively, whilst my team Virgin overtook Lotus for 11th in the constructors’ championship. I still need to work on my starts and consistency but overall the race was much better than my first two, the rain being a welcome addition to the weekend overall thanks to the chance to practice, as well as the conditions seemingly suiting my driving style. Perhaps ironic given the silly spins I sometimes have, but I won’t object nor complain if it means I continue to improve or have better weekends. The race wasn’t perfect but I’ll take the result, ecstatic with reaching Q3 and content with the idea of the weekend outclassing Bahrain and Australia. It leaves me feeling confident as we head into the next fly-away round, this time in Shanghai, China. Bring it on.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Living The Life: Australia

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event.]

Ah Australia, my home Grand Prix. Ever since signing that contract with the Virgin Racing team I was finding it hard to contain my excitement about racing around this circuit, performing in front of my fellow countrymen and fans and enjoying a circuit that, previously, I had only watched from the comfortable surrounds of my home, or whenever I attended the street circuit as a spectator. Sure, my racing career and knowledge that comes with it means that I knew, roughly, how the track faired in terms of actually driving it, but even so I suspect that I will be quite surprised when I have my first few laps around the Albert Park circuit. To say I’m looking forward to it is an understatement, even if I’m once again severely nervous about not only partaking in my second ever Grand Prix, but to do so in front of my own people. It can’t be as bad as Bahrain though, can it?

Friday Morning, Practice 1

Well here goes nothing, my first attempt at a circuit I’m familiar with -- which by the way is instilling some confidence in me that I wasn’t expecting -- yet remains foreign given the fact I’ve never driven around it; the simulator back at the team’s headquarters doesn’t count, nor do the many videogames I play in the interim. The team has put a set of Prime tires on so I guess I’ll go out and give Albert Park a crack before it gets too populated by the other drivers.

Well… If I’m to be honest, I really don’t know what to say about the Melbourne circuit. My familiarity paid off as I got up to speed with the track rather quickly, and I had confidence to boot which helped me get into a nice rhythm as I did lap after lap. The circuit is certainly a different beast to that of Bahrain, its corners much faster and the lap over much quicker than that dusty, desert-based track. I really like how the a lot of the corners are sweeping around here, speed able to be maintained as the walls and grandstands, grass and gravel traps fly on by. It’s quite the picturesque venue too, the lake in the middle a nice -- if brief -- sight around some parts of the track, while the overhanging trees and tall buildings in the distance providing a nice, quaint contrast to the sheer speed of the circuit and surrounding tire walls, grandstands and run off areas. It also seemed to be slipperier than Bahrain which was surprising given the relatively clean tarmac of Melbourne against the dusty, sandy bitumen of Sakhir. I had to venture into the pits a fair bit during the session to try and find a setup that suited not only my driving style but the track conditions too; after a few visits I eventually found one that worked. Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, I made a few mistakes, mostly run offs as I went wide on turns by missing the apex or dipped a tire into the grass making the wheels spin and slowly me down, but otherwise the session was a good, enjoyable and calm one that was both a blast -- to finally be on the circuit -- and a bit bland, with the other drivers not running that many laps. I took the opportunity to run as many laps as I could, to not only practice the circuit but also because I kind of had no choice thanks to the difficulty in finding a setup. I need to work on that final turn, managing the throttle around it being quite hard as the wheels want to spin and I want to reach full acceleration as quickly as possible. Perhaps playing with the setup will help with that issue. Last notable thing about the session was my surprise at just how much grip these cars have, the speeds that can be achieved through these long sweeping corners quite awe-inspiring. I can only imagine what it’d be like in one of the front-running cars, though don’t tell my team that… I also realised just how deep you can brake into a lot of the corners, my confidence in braking later and later growing as the session went on. Where before I was braking early to ensure I could hit the apex accurately (something I still didn’t achieve consistently), now I can brake really late and use the gears and technical grip of the car to help me still hit the apex and get through. It’s really quite remarkable and perhaps even astonishing at just how well these cars can perform and I look forward to enjoying more of it in the following sessions. If it means anything, I finished the session in 12th position.

Friday Afternoon, Practice 2

This session was also reasonably decent, with me deciding to put in as many laps as I could in the allocated 90 minutes just to ensure I got acquainted with the track and ironed out any issues I may have been having. As soon as I went out I noticed that it was quite overcast and quite darker too due to the late afternoon time that the session was scheduled, conditions that both worked together to change the ambiance and general appearance of the Albert Park circuit. It posed a slight challenge too as I had to find new braking markers and points as the shadows I was using before had moved or disappeared altogether. That final turn is still proving troublesome and I accidentally cut turn 6 a few times when trying to do some relatively fast laps. I was bewildered at just how fast this track is, too; not only do each lap go by very quickly, your sense of place on the circuit is confusing sometimes -- one minute you’re at turn 3, the next exiting turn 2 approaching the same corner again… it’s really quite insane! Unfortunately I caught the curbing wrong on the exit of turn 8/9 and spun into the inside wall in my second run, requiring a visit to the pits and some lost time as I received repairs. I also cut turn 12 unintentionally -- I need to stop doing this. I also picked up on the fact that the curb on the exit of turn 4 is something to be mindful of as I caught it and got thrown into the wall on my third run. The fourth run wasn’t as bad though with some good, clean laps occurring in quick succession leaving me with the feeling that I had made some progress. I also seemed to have improved with my approach, control and exiting of that final turn, leaving me even more confident as the weekend progresses. Despite a forecast of no rain I had to laugh when it started to lightly sprinkle, it didn’t last long though dissipating very quickly. I got a warning in the session for colliding (gently) with Adrian Sutil who had just came out of the pits and was slow while I had just started a hot lap. I was a little annoyed with the warning because he was holding me up (not the other way around) and blocked multiple times, not showing anywhere near enough courtesy and certainly not respectful like the other drivers. All up I did around 20 laps, managing a lap time of 1:30.153 in the process which put me as high as 9th.

Saturday Morning, Practice 3

I quite enjoyed this session as it was a clear, sunny one with some light fog that vanished as the session progressed. It just looked really nice around this beautiful track. I caught turn 4’s exit curb again and spun but managed to avoid the wall this time, thankfully. I had to come into the pits briefly to go to the toilet which, in hindsight, is quite amusing -- lesson learned: go before a session starts next time! I had a horrible second run, coming out of the pits right in front of Felipe Massa and Liuzzi who were close to each other, blocking both unintentionally as I was warming up. Massa even connected with the back of my car, giving us both damage. Then, on the final turn, I spun (guess I haven’t mastered it yet) and hit the wall, dislodging my front wing in the process. Naturally I went back to the pits for repairs before going out again for more laps. Each and every time I started a flying lap on my third run, someone came out of the pits, impeding my progress and slowing me down. First it was fellow countrymen Mark Webber so I slowed and aborted the lap, then again with Kamui Kobayashi. To his credit he moved aside to let me through but by then it was too late and I once again aborted the lap. The fourth run was good as I passed any cars I came across and did my own thing until the in lap on the way back to the pits where I bounced off the curb of turn 12 wrong and got thrown into the wall. I ended up with front wing damage yet again, meaning yet another venture to the pits and more time lost. Overall I finished Practice 3 in 9th position with a 1:29.785 lap time, my best time so far around the Albert Park circuit. I’m happy with my performance despite the odd mistake, and I look forward to Qualifying later in the afternoon.

I had an interview after P3 where I was asked about my feelings driving at my home Grand Prix, how I think my car is handling a full fuel load and how I will be approaching each race. I answered by suggesting I’d be cautious but optimistic about driving around Melbourne, content with how the car handles a full tank of fuel and that I wasn’t thinking about the next race or any future ones, just the current one. The interview seemed to go okay though I wish I’d get asked easier questions.

Saturday Afternoon, Qualifying

I’m approaching this session casually, not expecting too much other than to meet my team’s expectation which is to qualify 15th or higher. Given my times in the practice sessions I think that’s realistic and achievable.

So Q1 went quite well as, once again, I made it through to Q2, this time with a 1:30.422 which put me in 15th exactly. Option tires really grip up when it’s bright and sunny, I noticed, making it a pleasure to push the car and work on improving my lap times. I stuffed up my second flying lap (the first of my second run) on the last corner (again) by getting some oversteer and having to correct it, then accidentally cut turn 6 (again) on my way back to the pits for fresh tires. Old habits creeping back in under qualifying pressure, perhaps?

In Quali 2 I had to abort two flying laps, first getting sideways out of turn 2, then on the second lap I went wide at turn 3. My third lap, however, was better so it wasn’t too bad. My second run in Q2 was though as Alonso came out of the pits and blocked my flying lap so I aborted. Going again on the next lap, I dipped my tire too much over the inside (apex) curb of turn 1 which was deemed to be cutting the corner (Jesus I need to work on this!) and thus, it invalidated my lap. As time had expired for Q2 and I didn’t have a good lap, I was eliminated with a final position of 17th, below both the team’s and my expectations. Needless to say, I’m quite disappointed given that it’s my home Grand Prix and that circumstances seemed to be against me, either due to my opponent’s or my own silly mistakes.

Sunday Afternoon, Race

Despite my poor qualifying position the team expects me to finish in 12th or higher, and after the mixed session yesterday I’m not sure if I can meet that requirement. Are they expecting the adrenalin of my home Grand Prix and the atmosphere of my supporters to lift me and ensure that I perform well, or are they seeing where I’ve managed to put myself in the practice sessions and basing their expectations on that? Whatever it is I will give it a red-hot go, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the expectation was a little on the unrealistic side. Personally, I think 15th would be a more adequate goal. In a way though, I don’t think it matters -- this is my home Grand Prix. Finally, after months of waiting and anticipation, I am given the opportunity to race at my home track, in front of my home crowd. If that’s not something to be excited about, something to celebrate, I don’t know what is so I’m going to try and enjoy this as much as possible. If I have a good race and perform nicely, fantastic, even better! If not, well, surely I can leave Melbourne satisfied that I achieved a dream of mine and raced in the pinnacle of Motorsport, right on my back door-step.

Wow, terrible race. Like, I want to rewind Sunday and attempt that again because that was just abysmal. My start was good as I managed to minimize wheelspin and maintain my starting position of 17th. I passed Kobayashi on lap 2 for 16th, and then proceeded to have a great battle with Rubens Barrichello for around seven laps, eventually passing him for 15th on lap 9. Unfortunately I accelerated too early out of turn 3 and lost it, clipping the wall and damaging the front wing (again), leaving me in 24th place. Last. Out of the pits and fully repaired, I went off at turn 3 on lap 12 and spun on the grass because I was too busy concentrating on staying out of the way of the front-running drivers who, already, were lapping me and shortly afterwards, the other backmarkers. Rather surprising how quickly they’re able to catch us at the back but that’s why they are at the front and we’re not, I suppose. On lap 15 I caught and passed my teammate Lucas Di Grassi as he visited the pits, then on lap 21 was surprised to hear that he had retired (yet again), leaving me back in last. On lap 22 I was overlapped by Barrichello which rubbed salt in the wound knowing that just a little while earlier, I had a great battle with him that I eventually won. On the same lap I cut turn 1 again, accidentally, receiving yet another warning. On lap 25 I went wide onto the grass at turn 8 though thankfully it was nothing drastic and I was able to recover quite quickly. The leaders had also caught me again, putting me down two laps instead of just the one. Thirteen laps later, on lap 38, I went wide at turn 8 yet again, this time because of a locked wheel. Again though it was nothing too bad and I could recover. At turn 3 I ran off, again due to concentrating on a front-runner who was passing from behind. This happened on lap 42 and then again at 15 (second last corner) as I missed my braking point. My tires began to go off at lap 45 which resulted in a half spin off turn 1’s curb during lap 47. I caught it and proceeded, though was getting quite frustrated with all the mistakes that I was making. From lap 47 onwards I managed to find a good rhythm and posted some good, consistent laps, calming down in the process thinking that I’d finish the race with this momentum. I was wrong, however, as I once again ran off at turn 8 due to a leader passing a slower car, both of whom had just passed me. This gave me a puncture on my left front tire, seeing yet another visit to the pits to get it replaced. By this time I was furious, really dejected with how the race was going and wishing that it was over. This only continued as I once again went off at turn 3, due to outbraking myself on lap 50. On the same lap I misjudged my braking again at turn 15, going wide but recovering thanks in part to the run off area. On lap 52 I went from 23rd, last, to 20th position as those immediately ahead of me (though over two laps ahead) had retired. It didn’t mean much given the woeful race but thanks to Pedro De La Rosa, Karun Chandok and Jarno Trulli for the free positions! On the same lap the race was finished as Webber had won, three whole laps ahead of me. Hamilton came second and Nico Rosberg managed third.

Overall I’m sorely disappointed with my effort and the race in general, the weekend feeling worse than Bahrain and honestly quite embarrassing. It hurt to know that I had such a bad performance in front of my home crowd, my mood afterwards wasn’t pleasant and I was left with a feeling that I wanted to pretend the race never happened and that I never participated. My agent put things into perspective though, highlighting my decent start and nice little battle as positives, as well as my improved general consistency over the entire weekend. When she said this I became a little happier but I still can’t take any consolation from what was an abysmal first home Grand Prix, something that will probably stick with me and my career forever even if, by chance, any future attempts at the circuit -- if I’m lucky enough to get that far -- are remarkably better. All I can do now is hope that Malaysia is a lot better because if it’s not, I’m not sure how I can take three poor races in a row.

Note: Sorry about the repetition of that second image, as well as the poor map. Finding images for this game isn't easy, unfortunately.