However. No matter how low I set the wings, I always seemed to be driving defensively in my first career season. The reason? KERS.
Above: Looks innocent enough, doesn't it? It's new for this year's game and makes a huge difference
If you're unfamiliar with the term, KERS is a system used in real F1 cars to store kinetic energy from braking, which you can 'retrieve' by pushing a button to gain a few extra horsepower. It was banned last year so it wasn't in F1 2010, but now it's back. Only… not every team has it. So, in my Lotus, I could get up to about 9th at the start, but then I was pretty screwed, constantly watching my ass and occasionally looking forward to see everyone else disappearing into the distance. Lower teams, I feel your pain.
The idea, of course, is to advance through the teams until you're in a competitive car, but if you're racing on 20% race distance or longer, it's going to be a long time until that happens. It's worth noting that drivers don't migrate between other teams at the end of the season – probably down to licensing issues. It doesn't bother me, but it might irk some hardcore fans.
At least everyone has access to the Drag Reduction System (another new feature for F1 2011), which opens the back wing on request to reduce drag over the aerofoil. It's basically a 'go faster' button, which you can use as much as you like in qualifying, but is limited to specific sections of the track during races, and even then only when you're less than a second behind the car in front of you.
It's designed to increase the number of overtakes (and therefore exciting bits) during real F1, and perhaps it works too well. There is a lot of overtaking in both the virtual and real-life versions of the sport – some would say too much. In the game, it works well, however, and it is perfectly possible to 'do a Maldonado' and open the wing too early on the exit of a corner, spinning as a result.
Incidentally, I did have a go at Belgium's famous 'Eau Rouge' with the wing open. Yeah, that didn't end well.
Above: Your life flashes before your eyes and you realise none of it was rendered quite as nicely as that wheel
So, while racing on Hard, I was having fun, but struggling. Fortunately, you can tweak the difficulty to create a custom setting. So you can have medium-strength AI racers, manual gears, full traction control and no racing line. Or ultra-hard AI but ultra-easy handling. And that's where the game truly wins out. It might take some tweaking, but anyone can find a setting that's fun. Ironically, though, I think I had the most fun when I was struggling.
Above: You've got to feel like you earned it, otherwise there's no point
Take, for instance, the three straight wins I had when I switched to three-lap, short weekend races with the traction control on full and medium opponents. Three easy wins. Sure, Silverstone, Nurburgring and Budapest are still great tracks, but they deserve so much more than this shallow experience.
In fact, I rate the Hungarian track as one of the best in the world, so it's an absolute crime to fly around it in three laps and move on to the next country. F1 2011 is a game that should be savoured, whether you're finishing 1st or 14th. I went on to win the rest of the season by playing on medium (and knocking off Vettel and Alonso a few times *cough*). But it just didn't feel the same.
The game is balanced to reward personal victories. Do well against your team-mate in single-player and the team might put you on level pegging with him. Do even better and you might take over the team's number one driver spot. Likewise, qualifying and races come with targets for places, so even a drive that ends outside the points might be seen as a huge success.
Join the pack
If the rivalry system between you and your team-mate works well in the single-player, having a split-screen co-op partner racing alongside you makes it even tastier. I'm amazed more games don't let you do this, especially when it works so well here.
Sadly, offline co-op is restricted to races only, so there's no practise or qualifying. However, you can race for the same team and you can do full-length GPs. Better still, each driver's assist level can be altered on the pause menu, meaning a newbie with brake assist, racing line and pacifier can have a decent race with their F1-crazy mate. And it works.
Above: The green racing line may be on in the bottom pic, but look how close our race is
In fact, given the harshness of the more simulation-style driving modes, newbie will probably finish higher up the field… unless you take each other out like we did when we raced each other in the office.
Technically, the split screen is incredible, running at full screen and with very few lapses in frame-rate. Even with the rain pouring down at Yas Marinas with all the reflections in the track and a full grid of cars, it still runs at a respectable rate. A lot of people won't even care for its inclusion, but if you do, it's everything '90s-era gamers dreamed of.
Above: This has no right to run as well as it does. Just look at it!
Online racing is improved over last year it does allow you to do full co-op races with practise and qualifying with your online buddy. There are also interesting side-modes like a 20-minute pole position shoot-out – a qualifying session with the fastest recorded lap determining the victor.
In quick race, there's also less of an emphasis on being the sole winner this time in terms of online rep points allocated. F1 isn't a Ricky Bobby-style 'if you ain't first, you're last' – there's a lot to be said for even a top 6 finish. Not that that matters to me, mind – I'm with Ricky Bobby on this one.
Above: The first, and probably last, Talladega Nights reference on GamesRadar
Interestingly, the pre-race screen gives you a target position like it would in offline career mode, but here it's based on rank. If you're in a high-rank room, it might suggest 'finish higher than fourth', but if you're the highest rank, it will suggest at least second – possibly even first. It's a neat addition.
Above: First place, purple sector... this one's in the bag
Online racing is heart-poundingly exciting, especially when you're in the lead on the last lap with someone hot on your tail, although these bursts of adrenaline are dampened by long load times and needless pre-race cut-scenes between the action. The latter are skippable, but only save time if everyone else skips them too. Hint: They won't. Still, 16-player races are bolstered by AI cars to make a full grid of 24 cars so at least there's plenty of action when you do finally make it to the grid.