Monday, February 21, 2011

The New Tomb Raider

Recently I made the comment on Twitter that “the best posts are the unexpected ones”. When I made the remark, I was thinking about this post, not because I was doing it but because I wasn’t expecting to be writing about the new Tomb Raider*. You might remember that a while ago I expressed a desire to respond to the various articles and posts that resonated with me. This didn’t eventuate -- in some respects it did if you include my responses to the R18+ debacle -- and instead I went on to write about other things. Well with this post I’m rectifying that and I begin with a response to Game Informer’s recent reveal of the new Tomb Raider as part of their cover story for their January issue.

Tomb Raider is intended to be a reboot: of the multi-media franchise we’re already familiar with; of the approach to the game as well as how it is played and designed; and of Lara Croft herself. It’s this latter decision that will receive the most attention, Lara’s sex appeal a product (literally and figuratively) of prominence in the past and the first thing associated with her and the Tomb Raider franchise. Her new look in this new game, combined with the new motivations that define it, will be the subject of much scrutiny as more is revealed in the coming months but for me, more interesting will be her new characteristics.

Girl’s Got Character

Lara is young, potentially na├»ve, and eager to get out from underneath her parents’ shadow. Fresh out of university she’s ready to prove herself in the world and embarks on a voyage to a remote island in the search for lost relics. As per every story that is set up like this, tragedy ensues and Lara, along with her fellow archeologists, find themselves stranded. What follows makes up the game but, more importantly, the events and mishaps along the way -- plus how Lara deals with them -- will define the new title, the experience it provides and our perception of Lara as a whole. She has the potential opportunity to go from industry icon and sex symbol to a person we care about, a person who is real, and a person who is our friend. Much like Elena Fisher or Chloe Frazer from the Uncharted series or Alyx Vance from Half Life, Lara could become someone we love rather than enjoy, only this time in playable form which could directly affect the impact of each moment and outcome. That’s not to say Lara wasn’t an endearing character in the past, just that her status in the industry transcended any attachment individual players felt or had for her. Survival appears to be a key focus of this new title and as such, Lara’s mortality will be more obvious than other games. Mis-time a jump or don’t react quickly enough to falling debris -- even by only milliseconds -- and Lara could die or be extremely injured, changing the dynamics and pace of the events that unfold. What this will mean in conjunction with the well established gaming convention -- reloading after death and resuming your progress -- remains to be seen. Obviously, it can’t be like Heavy Rain where death is -- or can be -- final, as Lara is the primary character and without her, Tomb Raider wouldn’t be Tomb Raider, but even so I hope the emphasis on survival equates to a realistic and meaningful impact on the experience purely because if it does, it’ll be much easier to resonate with Lara’s plight and indeed, her story. Time will tell.

A New Adventure Awaits

More interesting, for me, is how the new game will actually play. The Tomb Raider name brings with it certain expectations such as acrobatic maneuvers and exploring deep labyrinths in the hunt for treasure. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series -- partially inspired by miss Croft’s adventures -- has gone on to lofty heights, raising the bar while Tomb Raider struggled with tradition and a lack of direction. According to Game Informer’s cover story, the new Tomb Raider is going down a different path with its gameplay, adding some of the set-pieces that made Uncharted so popular, as well as emulating -- perhaps ironically given Uncharted’s repurposing of mechanics and style from Tomb Raider -- the variety in play styles (platforming, combat, etc.) and carefully considered pacing. Interactions with NPCs seem to be more important, actions seem to be defined by circumstances and overall everything appears to be intended to improve what a game featuring Lara Croft can be like -- as opposed to one which uses her name to make a quick buck. Basically, it seems like developer Crystal Dynamics cares this time around, which should bode well for the moments in game where we are trying to flee a pursuer or we are timing our button presses under pressure (think Uncharted 2’s train climbing opening sequence), making the overall adventure exactly that, an adventure, and not just a tour to locations that, while visually spectacular, are anything but.

All in all the Game Informer preview got me excited for a Tomb Raider game -- a series I’ve only ever had a passing interest in previously -- and intrigued as to how Crystal’s new approach to everything, from Lara herself to the adventures she lives through, will redefine our expectations of what it means to play a Tomb Raider game. Will it match or outclass Nathan Drake’s escapades? Probably not, but then, Lara always was quite the individual.

*As for why it took so long to actually get this posted, the word “Notch” should give you all the clues you need.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Living The Life: The Season So Far #1

[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. Today, a reflection on the first five rounds of the championship.]

Two poor rounds, two better than expected ones, and my introduction to the sport of Formula 1 -- that sums up my first season in Formula 1 so far and probably isn’t a bad way to begin my career in the pinnacle of Motorsport, even if it doesn’t feel like it after the recent race in Spain. I’ve made mistakes, demonstrated my status as a rookie, and have experienced overwhelming embarrassment at my home Grand Prix, but I’ve done it alongside displays (or at least suggestions) of my talent and seemingly decent ability to adjust to unpredictable, wet weather. In fact I know I’m good in slippery conditions because I’ve excelled at handling them in other categories, but it’s nice to see that experience transfer to my career in F1, too. So what do I think so far? Well, I’m loving it! Formula 1 is so different to other categories -- perhaps exemplified by my surprise in Bahrain at how intense and exhausting it can be -- and I’m thoroughly enjoying the different approach to my driving that is required in this sport. Precision is important in any race and with any car, but the finesse that an F1 car needs has really opened my eyes to a lot of things, not least of which is why only the best drivers make it in this sport. There’s such a thin line between a successful corner or a failed one (usually resulting in a spin), such a narrow ideal racing line in order to maximize grip and thus, car performance, that driving these things isn’t just tricky or challenging, it’s unlike anything else out there. The cars are temperamental, fragile and are more like instruments than vehicles, so failing to account for that at each round will only result in disappointment, the team upset and an esclating damage bill. In other words, it’s the hardest thing I have ever done. The beauty of it all, though, is that if you treat it (the car) right you will get treated right in return, the reward being success and the result being unlike any experience -- in racing or otherwise -- you could ever imagine. But enough about that; what do I think of the tracks we’ve been to so far?

Bahrain

As the track to introduce me to Formula 1, my impression of Bahrain isn’t as developed as I’d like it to be. Instead of focusing on the track, its intricacies and crucial areas, I was focusing on getting a handle on my new car in a proper race environment, as opposed to testing or simulator work before the season commenced. As a rookie, I spun more than I’d like -- a theme common at every venue so far, it would seem -- and definitely struggled to come to grips with the circuit, both literally thanks to the dust and sand that was strewn about the place, and figuratively as I took the various curbs incorrectly or gassed it up earlier than I should have. Overall, my first race in Formula 1 was good -- despite the rookie errors -- as it opened my eyes up to what competing in this sport would be like, how intense it could be (that fatigue I experienced as the weekend went on, particularly in the race itself, has stuck with me as a strong example of just how different F1 is), and what was required of me as a driver for the subsequent rounds. The track itself seemed to be a decent one, even if each lap felt very lonely after those initial three corners and as you drove away from the pit complex, but my mind and focus was elsewhere and, assuming I make it to a second season, I will have to wait until I return before forming a proper opinion on it. As a start to the season and to my career, however, it’s probably as good as anywhere in terms of its variety of corners and straights, so while I had hassles I appreciate the way in which it enlightened me to what was to come.

Australia

As I suspect Mark Webber felt in his first race in Australia, there was an immense pressure -- probably brought on by myself -- to perform in front of the home crowd, to have a decent round and show to them that I deserve to be in Formula 1, can race as good as anyone and can become a driver they can support on the world stage. In hindsight this was probably one of the reasons for why it was such a disaster. If not, then it certainly was enough to enhance the embarrassment and make me feel like I didn’t belong in the sport. The round was terrible, I think it’s fair to say, and those rookie mistakes and race at the back -- even if perhaps expected in a back-marker team, and as a rookie driver -- was nowhere near the expectations I set for myself, perhaps unrealistically, when we arrived. It was even harder to take thanks to my familiarity with the circuit. While I had never raced on it previously, it being my local track (so to speak) ensured that I knew of it, knew its layout and how it compared generally on the world stage -- a direct contrast to the completely new (to me) Bahrain. Even so, it was a surprise when I ventured out for the first time in Practice 1 and felt as if I was having my introductory round again, due to its significant difference to Bahrain. Where that circuit was long and tight, Albert Park is long and sweeping, the approach required completely different as a result. This once again opened my eyes but I adapted to it quicker, I feel, and as a result I was able to enjoy the circuit a lot more, mistakes or not. Despite the embarrassment I look forward to returning, should I remain in F1, and if I do let’s hope my experience with the car will result in a much better round and performance in front of the home crowd.

Malaysia

A track I hadn’t been to and the first of the Hermann Tilke designed venues, Malaysia was yet another instance where I just didn’t know what to expect. It was hot and humid, weather played its part -- and on that note, became a pleasant surprise as I showed that I have skills in the wet, and that I can adapt to changing conditions quickly -- and the track was tricky to get a handle on at first, but a pleasure to drive on as I became more and more familiar with it. I ended up liking the circuit when, before the event, I wasn’t expecting it to be on my radar, and I thoroughly enjoyed its mix of long straights, unique corners and smooth flow. I still made mistakes, I still demonstrated that I was a rookie learning as I went along, but overall it was a marked improvement over the first two rounds and a lovely surprise (as far as result and performance is concerned) after some early disappointment in the season. Needless to say, I want to go back again -- let’s hope I do.

China

The biggest thing that stood out for me with the Chinese Grand Prix -- other than another wonderful round and an unexpected result (13th) -- was just how similar it was to Malaysia. In hindsight it shouldn’t be a surprise considering it was designed by Hermann Tilke as well, but at the time it was a small shock and I won’t hesitate to admit that it took some time to get used to, too. For the most part I was okay but it was those initial corners -- the two hairpins at the start in particular -- that were throwing me off and it definitely took longer than expected to come to terms with. But, interestingly, it was a challenge that I really enjoyed and it gave me something unique to focus on, giving me a break from attempting to learn the distinct characteristics of the car or trying to rectify the rookie mistakes from other rounds. Those still occurred, unfortunately, but I think it was my best round of the season so far and the addition of rain was a welcome one after the surprise (that my wet skills remained) in Malaysia.

Spain

I’m still recovering from the extreme disappointment that was my Spanish Grand Prix so, if I’m to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say. Without doubt it was the worst round I’ve had and while there are plenty more to come, the strong resentment I feel/felt towards my performance continues to sit with me while I await the next round in Monaco. It contained spins, front wing damage and issues with my fellow competitors; it featured the first retirement from a session I’ve had so far; my teammate clearly outclassed me (for the first time) despite his retirement in the race; and the race itself made me feel as if I was in another category, not to mention the strong belief that I didn’t belong in Formula 1. Now I have calmed down I realise, once again, that bad races occur from time to time -- racing wouldn’t be racing otherwise -- but at the time I was furious, upset and probably reacted to it in a very poor way, emotionally at least. Having said that the track itself is great and certainly a classic for a reason. Its undulations and tricky corners make it a nice challenge, the passionate fans that attend make it a pleasure to be a part of, and its smooth flow makes it a joy to drive. I may have performed terribly and had seemingly everything conspire against me, but I don’t blame the circuit and hope to return to it in a Formula 1 car in the future. How can I not want to when I’ve had success at the venue in the past, when I was racing in other categories?

Overall my first few rounds have been quite the learning experience, and definitely a difficult ride of ups and downs. Formula 1 truly is unlike anything else and while I still need to work on my own performance in it, I can look at what has occurred so far and be proud of the fact that I’m here, racing on the world stage and amongst the best drivers on the planet. Hopefully, as each round takes place, I continue to improve and who knows, maybe one day I’ll be talking about my first Pole Position or first victory -- wouldn’t that be something?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Brief Impressions: Test Drive Unlimited 2

It has been a week since Test Drive Unlimited 2 released here in Australia and in that time I've played it every night to get a good sense of what it is like, how it compares to the original game and whether it delivers on the expectations I had for it. Part of the games that I deem to be my "big four" of 2011 -- the rest of which will be revealed closer to their release dates (though if you know me, it wouldn't be hard to guess) -- TDU 2 was, naturally, high on my anticipation list. So does it deliver?

In terms of what I was interested in it for -- that of going for a simple drive in any car of my choosing and going wherever I may have wanted -- yes it does meet my expectations. What surprised me, however, was how long it took for TDU 2 to achieve that. The game's opening segment, to put it nicely, is mediocre, the various cutscenes that make up the filler story (complete with horrendous voice acting) and the many tutorials and licenses that follow combining to bring the game down, not to mention misrepresent what it's actually about and why that can be so great. Instead of great open roads and fast cars you have silly introductions and linear tasks with annoying people telling you what to do. Instead of freedom you are restricted to missions -- take someone to work while she insults (or praises, depending on your skills) your driving style or talks on the phone to four different people; slide around corners and get dangerously close to other vehicles to build up your F.R.I.M (free ride instant money) device’s meter -- that are boring, mindless and definitely not what you want to be doing in the game: driving fast cars, however you see fit. Combined with the need to participate in races and random missions early to get established and build up some funds to enjoy the freedom that comes later, it’s grating and unnecessary, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the initial hour with the game turned a lot of people off. I’ll have more on this opening segment soon but, needless to say, I wasn’t impressed.

A much more pleasant surprise was the off-road races and routes in general. I went in expecting nothing more than a temporary diversion, a simple distraction to break up the pace of the game and give players something new to do for a while. Instead, I got dirt roads that flowed really nicely and took me to some interesting landmarks; handling that reminded me of the various rally games I have played over the years (hand-braking around a hairpin never gets old); and even more incentive to explore the game’s two large islands. This is something I have embraced with open arms and, when combined with the day/night cycle -- it’s a delight to cruise down a highway with the stars in the sky and the piercing glow of headlights coming and going as traffic passes by -- and dynamic weather, creates the kind of experience I wanted Test Drive Unlimited 2 to bring: an enhanced version of the original game, maintaining everything I loved about it while also adding new things for me to play with.

It isn’t perfect, it contains a lot of unnecessary filler, and it takes too long to get to the good stuff, but TDU 2 does deliver -- eventually -- and as such I can’t help but think of my next drive: where I will go, what I will find and, of course, how fast I will go. If that’s not car enthusiasm as its finest, nothing is.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Preview Power: Test Drive Unlimited 2

[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.]

The original Test Drive Unlimited, believe it or not, remains one of my favourite games to have been made in the current generation. In an era where the likes of BioShock, Uncharted and Mass Effect have also been created -- not to mention smaller pleasures such as Braid, Limbo and Geometry Wars -- that’s no mean feat. To put it simply, I loved Test Drive Unlimited because it enabled me to just drive: to go wherever I wanted, at whatever pace I wanted, and in whichever car I happened to choose. Sure, I could just as easily go for a cruise in real life, exploring the real world as opposed to the virtual, but then I’d have to follow the rules that the real world has in place to ensure things like safety, well-being and fairness -- not quite the relaxing experience I’m after. Test Drive Unlimited 2, then, is high on my anticipation list, for the exact same reason I enjoyed the first game, as well as many more.

First of all, new additions such as a day/night cycle and weather should enhance the drive, a trip home from the dealership in my new car of choice as the sun begins to set presumably quite relaxing, not to mention beautiful. A gentle coastal cruise as a storm closes in, however, could be at once stunning and a little bit unsettling, the paint job of my incredibly expensive set of wheels about to be drenched whilst my ability to stay on the bitumen now uncertain under the increasingly slippery conditions. Perhaps venturing off the beaten path wouldn’t be so bad after all, the new off-roading sections of the game enhancing the variety of places to go whilst simultaneously adding yet another thing to do within the game’s gigantic islands.

And perhaps it’s that plural that excites me most: it took almost five (!) hours to drive around the outskirts of Oahu with a friend in the first game; the fact that it returns and sits alongside new addition Ibiza in the second is both daunting and delightful. New places to go, new areas to visit and new locations to explore, combined with the familiarity of an island I came to call home during my time playing Test Drive Unlimited, certainly makes for an enticing prospect.

The game’s new rewards system also seems interesting, the different modes of play invented in the emergent spontaneity of online play in the original now a prominent selection in its sequel. Handing out the rewards regularly as players explore the islands or demonstrate their talent behind the wheel in the ubiquitous races should make for a nice mix of discovery and victory, while getting together with friends -- or strangers -- for a casual cruise or a competitive chase should give the thrill and excitement of other racing games in an environment that, hopefully, is a joy to inhabit.

Most of all, however, I’m just looking forward to grabbing the keys off the table, entering the garage and vehicle of my choosing, and heading out for a nice and relaxing drive. If I happen to discover something cool or win a few races along the way, perhaps even meet some new people, even better.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Living The Life: Spain

[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, once again. They will be on a more regular schedule from now on.]

Ah the Spanish Grand Prix, home to a very vocal and excited crowd -- they come out in their droves to support Fernando Alonso -- and a track that, despite constant revisions, remains one rife with history, respect and renown. It’s also infamous for its challenging corners, undulations and extremely long straight -- perfect for putting the hammer down and showing just how fast these wonderful Formula 1 machines can go. I enter this weekend optimistic after the previous two Asian rounds, curious as to whether my apparent progress will continue as well as what it will be like to drive around a circuit I’m familiar with but suspect will be different in an F1 car (at least, initially). I don’t expect much from it however, as I’m still new and with that inexperience, anything can happen.

Friday, Practice One; Sunny

Aside from misjudging the speed of turn 9 as I went around for my in lap, the first run (on Prime tires) at Catalunya was flawless, a really nice way to start the weekend. My familiarity with the circuit made it easy to learn -- or to put it another way, get comfortable with -- and now that I have experienced it in my Virgin F1 car, I can compare it to Australia’s Albert Park thanks to its fast, sweeping turns; there’s more hairpins and tighter turns here, however. The track is also surprisingly bumpy, a lot of them not noticeable in other vehicles such as, say, the sports cars that I raced around here earlier in my career. Turns 13 and 16 in particular stand out in this regard, making the final turn tricky and deceptive because you want to be at maximum throttle as soon as possible but might not be able to if the bumps send you off line a bit or, worse, get the wheels spinning.

My second run (Primes) was quiet with few of my opponents going out, and only me setting a time early in the session. I unfortunately caught the curb of turn 15 on my out lap, half-spinning in the process (and almost entering the pit lane unintentionally). No dramas but it did, as you’d expect, affect my first flying lap of the run so that was a shame. My second lap was better, lowering my lap time by a nice (early) margin. Nico Hulkenburg came out as I began my third lap and decided to gun it straight away, meaning he was on my tail the entire lap. It was unsettling I must admit. Surprised he didn’t back off. Thanks to my slipstream he passed me going down the straight as he commenced his first lap and I began my fourth, while someone else came out right in front of us. Since they were arguing for track position I aborted my lap and came in early. The track was getting a bit busier at this point, as the others decided to finally begin their sessions.

I decided to delay my third run (still on Primes) for a bit with practically everyone else out on the circuit at the same time, going out with just under an hour left on the clock. It was average, my first lap seeing me go wide and missing the apex of turn 1, then nearby on my second lap I rode the curbing of turn 2 too long, causing another half-spin. I also went wide on my third lap in turn 5’s hairpin, then again at the same corner on the next lap I turned in too early (in an attempt to not make the same mistake, perhaps?), dipping my tire over the curb which was deemed to be corner cutting, resulting in a warning.

My fourth run (Primes) was perfectly timed as the track was empty, giving me the opportunity to go out with no distractions. This resulted in a better run, my second lap being my quickest of the weekend yet but my first and third ones seeing me go wide in some corners, so I elected to end it early and come in for a change of setup.

Now with lower downforce and a bit more oversteer in the car, my fifth run (Primes) was mixed, the setup improving the car but I couldn’t take advantage of it. I missed apexes on my first lap so that was a dud, and then Hamilton passed me in the second because he was on Options. This actually slowed me down a little, a shame because my lap was on track for improvement. I also had a spin on my third lap after catching one of the bumps in turn 13 which sent me wide and caused me to bounce off turn 14’s curb. The lap ruined, I came in. In search for more grip, I switched to a second set of Prime tires.

There was a yellow flag on my first flying lap of the sixth run, in turn 8, so I backed off and cruised around to prepare for the next lap. This paid off as it was great and I improved my time yet again. The positivity didn’t last long, however, my third lap seeing a visit to the wall and the loss of my front wing after catching too much of the exit curb in turn 4 and throwing the car into a spin.

After losing some time in the pits as the team repaired the damage, I decided to try the Option tires for my seventh run, though this was abandoned after another spin on my first lap in turn 15. My eighth run wasn’t crash hot either, my first lap hampered by a dip in the gravel of turn 7 during my first lap, though this was soon forgotten as my second lap was much better. Quite ironic too as Jenson Button was on my tail the entire time and, unlike earlier in the day, it wasn’t unsettling. Another wide turn 7 on the third lap saw it aborted and an early return to the pits. Because of this unscheduled visit I elected to go out for a final, 1-lap dash before the session ended which proved to be successful as I set my best lap of the session. I only just got over the line with five seconds left on the clock, which was quite lucky. The lap resulted in 13th for the session with a 1:25.085, not bad given the mediocre and inconsistent session overall. I made far too many mistakes, had a lackluster amount of track time as a result and definitely felt like a novice out there, particularly given my familiarity with the circuit. Catalunya is a tricky but fast track and it will take some time to learn the intricacies of driving around it in the F1 car -- I’m there or thereabouts, but improvement is definitely necessary if I’m to have another decent round.

Friday Afternoon, Practice Two; Overcast

I wasted no time with my first run, going out immediately (and on Options) right behind my Virgin teammate Lucas Di Grassi. My first lap was good, second aborted because of a messy exit out of turn 2 (which impacted upon my entry into turn 3) and my third was business as usual until the exit curb of turn 15 spun me around, so I went straight into the pits since they were right there.

Already slightly frustrated with my relatively average start to the session, I was even more annoyed when I realised my Options -- which were the same ones from P1 -- were worn and my team informed me that I had to stick with them because, for whatever reason, they couldn’t track down my allocated sets of Primes. This made me wish the overcast weather -- despite a zero per cent chance -- would result in rain so I could still get some decent track time. The track was also significantly busy, perhaps in case weather did eventuate. My second run (on worn Options) featured a lock up at turn 14, the downhill approach sending me off as a I dealt with it, then a wide turn 9 on the second lap, rendering it a dud. Laps three and four were better, however, and I banked a nice enough time despite the worn tires. My in lap was a struggle though as I had to drive slowly in order to make it back to the pits as I was low on fuel. Closing in on the pits, Bruno Senna came up behind me in the turn 13-15 complex, hesitating to pass (I left room) and clipping the right of his front wing on my rear-right wheel, which I thought was a bit silly. He had to pit afterwards so, naturally, I followed him in (remembering that I was slow because of my fuel situation).

My third run, still on the worn Options, was fine though I made no improvements in regards to lap time. I did go wide twice in turn 10, on my initial two laps, but it didn’t hurt my progress too much. The clouds clearing a bit and the sun shining through, it was becoming clear by this point that I wasn’t going to get much track time for this session.

My fourth and final run, still on the worn Options, was spoiled by Kovalainen who came out of the pits as I was starting my first lap and affecting it (unintentionally) immediately. After cruising around to begin my next lap, it didn’t last long thanks to my engine giving way between turns 10 and 11, forcing me to retire from the session. Probably convenient (in hindsight) given the tire situation but still annoying all the same, my season’s allocation of eight engines now one less and down to seven remaining. A pitiful seven laps completed for P2 resulted in 19th for the session with a 1:25.895, the best I could manage under regrettable circumstances -- at least I seem to have improved a little, though.

Saturday Morning, Practice Three; Clear

According to my engineer, Lucas got new components on his car but I didn’t… yet -- seems a bit odd that Virgin didn’t add them to both cars but whatever. An eventful initial run (fresh Primes) got P3 off to an average start, a missed apex at turn 10’s hairpin on my first flying lap of the session ruining that lap. As I came back on the track Kovalainen passed me. The next lap was also crap because I caught turn 14’s curb wrong again and spun casually. Then the third, subsequent lap was aborted after arriving on an accident between Button and Kovalainen in the middle of turn’s 7 & 8. As a result, I came in early. Interestingly, the tires seemed to take a while to warm up, too -- not sure what was going on there.

Run two (Primes) was also eventful, another wide turn 10 on my first flying lap as well as a half-spin off turn 2’s curb in the second, and then another wide corner at turn 7 -- which sent me into the gravel of turn 8 -- on the third lap really lowering my confidence and putting me into a bit of a mood. Once again, I came in early.

Run three only exacerbated my frustrations because I was given a 5-spot grid penalty for a collision with Kovalainen as I was recovering from a very minor off on my second flying lap. I got some small wheel-spin exiting turn 12 which I had to correct and, in doing so, I reached the grass on the outside. As I came back on Kovalainen hit the back of me, hence the penalty. While yes, I was on the racing line, I was angry because he made no effort whatsoever to avoid me when he could easily see me. I don’t know if he was daydreaming or what but I get the penalty and, no matter where I qualify, lose five places. I did go on to improve my lap time on the third flying lap, but it didn’t mean much on the Prime tires.

After almost switching early, I decided to stay on Primes for the fourth run and indeed, the rest of the session. This was to try and save some of the Options for Quali, as my penalty meant I needed to try and get as high as I can to ensure it doesn’t have as much of an impact on my weekend as it could have had. The run itself was fine, though when finally on course to improve my time, on my third flying lap, I went wide at turn 10 yet again and ruined it. I also went wide on the same lap in turn 13, unfortunately.

Runs five and six were great, the fifth a nice and more consistent run, yielding improvement on the second lap whilst the sixth run featured a great lap on my third flyer, which elevated me to 15th. My final run was also good (all on Primes) but I didn’t improve so I came in a bit early due to the session expiring. 15th with a 1:25.276 set on Primes, my best time for the weekend (even beating my fastest time on Options). A mixed third session that had ups and downs, was hard to focus on because of my emotions in response to the penalty, and which featured an average performance all around. The track’s grip was definitely becoming better, however, and those last few runs were a joy to drive.

A post-P3 interview with David Croft asked about my title hopes -- I haven’t thought about them much -- as well as how car development is going now we’re into the European rounds -- things seem to be going okay -- and whether the car’s setup suits my “distinctive” driving style -- it does, for the most part. My agent thanked me on behalf of the team for my good answers.

Saturday Afternoon, Qualifying; Rain

For this session Virgin expects me to qualify 20th or better, a goal I think I’ll share after the events of the three Practices. Given my penalty, I just don’t feel like my own expectations should be too high because it seems like they would just lead to inevitable disappointment. It is, however, my first Qualifying session in wet conditions which could either work in my favour -- ala Malaysia and China -- or combine with the woes of earlier in the weekend to really lower the team’s, and my own, spirits. We’ll see how things go, though.

My first attempt, on Intermediate tires given the conditions, was interesting, my first flying lap -- despite having to avoid a Lotus and its debris in turn 8 and yet another instance of me going wide in turn 10 -- taking me to the top of the time sheets but it didn’t last long as I soon dropped when the frontrunners finished their initial laps. My second lap, on the other hand, put me back to second, a position I held for a good portion of the session. My third lap saw a spin from a Force India in the background of my mirrors, somewhere in turn 9, whilst my fourth lap had to be thrown away after a shoddy exit out of turn 5. Strangely, Senna hit the back of me in turn 9 despite me moving aside, and as a result the officials awarded me another warning for the altercation even though it was clearly his fault.

My second attempt had a great first lap which took me to the top of the time sheets after sitting in second for a while, but I quickly forgot about this as lap two was aborted due to Alonso coming out of the pits, and a spin off turn 7’s curb. Unfortunate timing, made worse by the damage I received by clipping the wall in the process, and the loss of time as it got repaired back in the pits. The rest of the session gone, I finished 19th as, expectedly, the frontrunners and mid-pack improved their times while I was stuck in pit lane. This put me in the elimination zone and, consequently, out in Q1, leaving the remaining two Quali sessions to be observed from the garage. Intriguingly though, some big names also didn’t make it, including Webber, Button, Rosberg and Kubica. Lucas qualified in 16th, his first time ahead of me, while my position is just one ahead of the team’s (and my own) expectations. Sebastian Vettel was also a surprise in 17th -- unusual for the Red Bulls to be so low. Massa put it on Pole with Hamilton in 2nd and Alonso following him for 3rd.

Sunday Afternoon, Race; Overcast

My agent informed me that Virgin fully supports me, something I found pleasing but amusing given the lackluster open to the season in general. Obviously they liked seeing me on top of the time sheets, even if only briefly, and appreciate my apparent developing wet skills. She also told me that they expected 18th or better for today’s race, a goal I will once again share as I’m just not sure what to aspire to when the weekend has been so mixed. Due to my grid penalty I will actually be starting last -- instead of 19th -- but even so I’m still happy with yesterday’s qualifying performance, even if the result doesn’t reflect the positive things that can be taken from it. Besides, I’m sure Webber and the other frontrunners that had a poor session would be glad to accept the extra position. I’ll be starting the race on Options in an attempt to try and move forward quickly and I expect to be coming in for Primes on lap 23 or so, as per the team’s strategy.

Race Start

I got far too much wheel-spin at the start then almost hit one of the HRT cars who was driving diagonally to take his line, so I went off the racing line so we could get through the first corner. Webber and Senna had a get-together in turn 10’s hairpin, which elevated me to 22nd as I went past. It didn’t take long for both to catch back up and pass though, thanks in part to a wide turn 7 on lap 3 and a trip through the gravel for a bit, then again in turn 10 due to the lack of grip thanks to the rocks still on my front tires. Back in last place, I reached 22nd again on lap 7 due to a couple of retirements. On lap 9 I was lapped by the leaders (that kind of pace is insane!), and then on lap 11 my front left tire started to feel like it was beginning to wear. Not too surprising as I had a few lockups early in the stint, too. On lap 12 the entire field -- or what felt like such, anyway -- came up behind me and I received a warning for illegal blocking despite doing my absolute best to move aside and let everyone through. This happened as we were heading into turn 10, on the back straight that precedes it. This left me feeling rather furious because I tried my hardest to move and it wasn’t my fault they were all bunched together like that -- am I supposed to crash or something in order to let the obviously quicker cars pass me by? This warning also, at the time at least, confirmed my theory that the officials didn’t like me very much. Seeing Webber amongst the pack also cemented, indirectly, what I already knew: that this race was a shocker with me just running on my own (my plan anyway) around at the back, arguably where I belong.

On lap 15 I had a crap exit out of turn 16, the final turn, bouncing off the curb and into the outside gravel which spun me into the inside (pit) wall, damaging my front wing a little in the process. I continued on but lost a heap of time, Senna in 20th position coming past to overlap me on lap 17. It was around this point that I noticed the sun had come out, too, the clouds from earlier obviously disbanding and distant on the horizon. On lap 19 I had a moment in turn 4, almost spinning but I managed to save it. Lucas lapped me in turn 5 as a result of the moment, which felt absolutely horrible considering that, up until this point, I had been clearly outclassing him. In hindsight it’s quite amusing that, at the time, I wondered whether I was in a go-kart or not rather than an F1 car. The exact same moment happened again on the subsequent lap (20), in the same corner. Someone who was about to lap me clipped the back of my car and had a spin as I recovered but I didn’t see who. On the same lap in turn 9 Trulli misjudged his pass on me to lap me, also clipping me and resulting in yet another warning for yours truly (heh) even though it wasn’t my fault. Really angry by this point I was ready to give the race up, but continued on anyway. There was debris in turn 8 on lap 21 though it was unclear whose, or why. The following lap I got penalized for supposedly ignoring three blue flags in a row on the front straight. It was Senna who was supposed to pass and I did move aside but he wasn’t quick enough for some reason and, clearly, I was meant to suffer. Because people were exiting the pits I went back onto the racing line and bam, there was the penalty. I also went off at turn 1 to avoid the aforementioned exiting cars but by this point I didn’t care as I was feeling like an utter loser who didn’t belong in Formula 1.

I took the drive-through penalty on lap 22, also noticing that I had reached 20th place due to Alguersuari and Trulli retiring, probably due to collisions with me. I did my scheduled pit stop on lap 23 and even stuffed that up, hitting one of my guys as I drove in. He’s okay thankfully but it meant an even slower stop than expected, already a longer one thanks to the replacement of my front wing. On lap 27 I went by Chandok who had spun in turn 14 but it didn’t matter as he had overlapped me earlier anyway. Virgin informed me over the radio that Lucas retired on lap 41, giving me 18th but I couldn’t enjoy the free position like I might have otherwise would, mostly because he was clearly the better driver out of us two this weekend, especially considering he had overlapped me. I went wide on lap 48 in turn 9 due to watching the cars coming up behind me so I could get out of the way. Another retirement on lap 51 elevated me up another position to 17th, while I reached 16th on lap 53 and 15th on lap 57, again due to retirements. Also on lap 57 I had a small spin off turn 14’s curb but it was nothing major. Petrov had a spin in turn 14 not long after lapping me on lap 58, while I finished the race on lap 59 due to being six (!) laps down. This meant that I was actually deemed a DNF -- did not finish -- but even so I get to keep my 15th placing. Perhaps surprisingly Liuzzi won the race, with Barrichello and Petrov following to round out the podium. Strange results then, but only because of some big-name retirements including Jenson Button, Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg.

That was an utterly appalling race, probably worse than my home round in Australia, and easily just as embarrassing. Despite an abysmal start and opening stint, as well as clearly being well off the pace, I maintained consistency and had a back half of the race with few minor mistakes, so that’s something to take out of an otherwise woeful weekend. It was good to finish the race too, something I’ve done in each event of the season so far while my teammate Lucas has not -- at least I have him beat there. Thanks to the many retirements I met the team’s expectations of finishing higher than 18th as well, so even though the weekend overall was horrible I can take some good points away from it -- something my agent was sure to emphasise as I returned to my truck to get ready for the next round in Monaco. Being the jewel on the F1 season calendar, I’m looking forward to it just like everyone else though after this weekend I’m not going to head into it with any silly expectations. I leave Catalunya in 21st for the driver’s standings, while Virgin remains in 12th for the constructors’.

[Note: all images were found using Google so I'm not sure who they belong to. Once again, finding images for this game is near on impossible, particularly for specific tracks, so that's why they're random (IE: not my actual story) and at times, repeated in multiple posts.]