Motor racing: Threat to throttle beautiful noise

Grand prix teams are plotting to block Honda's return by banning V12 motors.
Click to follow
AT IMOLA on Sunday, it was possible to wander through the park in the centre of the circuit, admiring the swans and enjoying the shade provided by handsome trees, while listening to the surreal counterpoint created by the twitter of birds and the scream of unseen racing cars. Noise is an important feature of Formula One, and in the lanes not far away the dusty hordes of grand prix fans were crowding around stalls offering CDs of the song of competition engines. But a move to change the rules of the sport may mean that the most famous and beautiful sound of all will never be heard again.

Faced with an imminent return to competition by the once dominant Honda factory, the existing grand prix teams are about to vote for an amendment to the regulations governing engine specifications, which at present stipulate that no Formula One engine can have more than 12 cylinders. If they have their way, it would mean an end to the possibility that fans might once again be stirred by the noise of a 12-cylinder Ferrari, a sound echoing through the sport's post-war history.

At the moment, all the 22 cars in the field use 10-cylinder engines built in a V-shaped configuration, following a pattern established by Honda in the late 1980s. Six manufacturers - Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Mugen, Peugeot, Supertec and TWR - currently supply the 11 teams. But now the teams fear that Honda's engineers are preparing a 12-cylinder engine whose performance would force them all to invest the tens of millions of pounds needed to follow suit.

The decision to change the rules - either by making 10 cylinders the upper limit, or by specifying that all engines must have 10 cylinders - will be taken strictly on commercial grounds, and is drawing an equivocal response from the men who design the cars and who like to think of themselves as working at the leading edge of technology. "As I understand it," Patrick Head, the technical director of the Williams team, said at the weekend, "this was raised at a meeting of team principals, on the basis of not allowing the companies with higher financial facilities and maybe technical capabilities to create a bigger performance gap than exists at the moment."

It would be "a pity", he said, to place further restrictions on technical variety. "But it depends who you are. There's probably a load of engineers up and down the pit lane who look upon the sport as being a competition of technical excellence, but there's also a load of team principals who want to make sure that their companies remain profitable. If you don't remain profitable, you don't stay in business. So the team owners have a slightly different view of what motor racing is all about than the engineers. And I suspect that the team principals will have more of a say in what happens."

A similar view came from Ross Brawn, Ferrari's technical director. "As an engineer, I don't think there's any justification for banning 12-cylinder engines," he said. "It's a commercial consideration, and that's all it is. I guess what happened is that the team principals got together, had a discussion about V12s, and they're all scared that someone else is going to do it and get a lead and then they're all going to have to develop a new engine. Our team supports the idea commercially, but there's certainly no engineering justification for it."

There was, he agreed, a certain irony implicit in Ferrari's approval, given the company's historic identification with 12-cylinder engines. "It would be nice to have Ferrari racing with a V12," he said, "and from time to time we've been tempted to have a go. But from a technical point of view, we just look at the best solution. We don't look at the history."

According to Craig Pollock, the principal of the new BAR team, the initiative came from Ferrari and Mercedes. "The way it was presented to me," he said, "was that there was a fear than an engine manufacturer would simply come in with a V12 that would blow everybody away. It appears they're worried about Honda coming in and having the capacity to do that."

Pollock refused to confirm strong rumours that he has agreed a deal with Honda for a supply of engines next year, and would only say that he had "no idea" about the Japanese manufacturer's reaction to a 12-cylinder ban.

Some interested parties are frank about their support for the move. "I think it would be a wise decision," Norbert Haug, the competitions director of Mercedes-Benz, said. "We'd all save a lot of money. If one manufacturer starts with a 12, probably all the rest have to join. And I think it's not going to make the show better."

Flavio Briatore, the boss of Supertec, which supplies engines to Williams, Benetton and BAR, argued that the ban would equalise the competition and provide better entertainment. "It's better to have one kind of Formula One engine for a few years, to give everybody the possibility of catching up and to spend less money," he said. "The spectators just want to see fighting between the cars."

The boss of the struggling Arrows team, Tom Walkinshaw, agreed. "If you're serious about saving money," he said, "you've got to stop the development of V12s before anyone has one. Several people are scheming them at the moment. We'd all have to design totally new cars. Once somebody's got one, it's too late."

The rules of Formula One have been progressively tightened, but throughout its history the engines that power the cars have come in all shapes and sizes, following whatever fashion happened to hold sway. There have been complex 16-cylinder engines from Auto Union and BRM, and relatively crude four-cylinder units from Vanwall, nevertheless good enough to win the inaugural constructors' championship in 1958, and from BMW in the early 1980s, a turbocharged device putting more than a thousand horsepower at the driver's disposal. There have been highly strung straight-eights from Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz, and a flat-four from Porsche that looked like something out of a Volkswagen Beetle. And the fact that they all made different noises added a dimension to the sport's appeal.

Such a factor is unlikely to sway the men who own the teams, and are anxious to protect the profits that have placed them among the world's super-rich. More surprisingly, the marketing divisions of major companies like Ford, Fiat and Daimler-Chrysler (the new conglomerate parent of Mercedes- Benz) now seem less interested in demonstrating the superiority of their engineering innovations, which is the traditional argument for motor racing's right to exist, than in simply getting their names on the television screen, and in getting rid of any obstacle that might stand in their way.

Engineers like Head and Brawn automatically regret the application of technical limits. Other participants, like Walkinshaw, believe that even a standardised engine format offers the scope for technical ingenuity. "There's a lot to be explored in the construction of engines, the materials you use and so on," he said. "I don't think it'll inhibit the creativity of our designers one bit."

Craig Pollock, the newest voice among the team principals, stressed the important of fairness, while voicing a reservation. "If everyone has V10s, they're working from the same parameters. But it's a bit of a pity that we are cutting out the possibility of creating new technologies, because Formula One is meant to be the technological ultimate in motor sport."

Even the engineers recognise the need for restrictions. "It's naive," Patrick Head said, "to imagine that motor racing could do without continuous additional limits put on the technical specifications. Without some limitations, the cars would be going at such speeds that they'd be outperforming the circuits that we race on at the moment." And, according to Ross Brawn, the need to work within the regulations offers "the potential satisfaction of doing a better job than anyone else can do".

But the particular nature of the proposed ban appears to be motivated by something less noble than an interest in engineering creativity or human safety. "If you stay with the status quo," Patrick Head observed, "you save money." To the real adherents of this strange and complex sport, however, motor racing has never been about fairness, bean-counting or preserving the status quo.