I beat the race on my first try and never really heard about its infamous difficulty until later. I was using a wheel though which probably helped. I did have trouble with the very first car-chase escape mission though. It was rough being plopped right into a new game with relatively realistic vehicle controls and then be expected to escape from a faster car in an unfamiliar city, and at night no less.
The realism they were going for in the car's handling made them interesting to drive but, because they were such old cars, was also incredibly frustrating. There were cars that could barely make it up the incline of the bridge.
It had fantastic music as well. Django Reinhardt is phenomenal and it fit the game perfectly. The whole thing came together with a very nice aesthetic flavor.
Anyways, yeah I'm looking forward to Mafia 2. Which game six years ago had persistent city dwellers?