Imagine going to a football match where nobody chanted, cheered or sang. Unthinkable? Well, that is how some people feel about the exhaust note of the new breed of eco-hybrid Formula One cars, with their turbocharged, 1.6-litre V6 engines.
There have been countless complaints – led by the sport’s ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone and echoed by acolytes such as Australian Grand Prix promoter Ron Walker, that somehow the sport has lost some of its thrill. That is why, at Ecclestone’s insistence, Mercedes will on Wednesday test a modified exhaust system at the Circuit de Catalunya, where Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg staged a gripping duel on Sunday on their way to the team’s fourth consecutive one-two finish of the season.
The experiment follows a meeting between the engine manufacturers – Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari – and F1’s governing body the FIA.
Mercedes’ non-executive chairman Niki Lauda told The Independent on Sunday back at the Malaysia GP in March: “To start this argument about the noise after one single race, I find so stupid and unprofessional. I hate it. It’s inevitable turbocharged engines have less noise. Every kid knows that. If people don’t like the new noise, take the earplugs out; the television people at home, turn the volume up.”
Mercedes already had some ideas up their sleeve for those who did not share Lauda’s pragmatic view, and the result is a megaphone attachment to the exhaust that will amplify the engine note. It has been tested on the dynamometer, a device used for measuring force, torque and power, and the purpose of the test runs will not be just to monitor the acoustic effect but also to see if it affects their cars’ track performance.
The engine manufacturers and the FIA will monitor the tests before deciding what changes to incorporate as the season progresses. But does F1 need to be noisier? As someone who races cars in my spare time, I would say it does. When I was talking to Marussia team members Graeme Lowdon, John Booth and Marc Hynes in the paddock in Melbourne I was aware of noise emanating from their garage. It sounded not unlike a leaf blower, but Hynes laughingly confirmed it was the sound of one of the new engines idling.
I have always taken the view that if the sound made by the first racing engine of a new season does not thrill you, it is time to consider putting away your notebook and closing the laptop. I will never do that, of course, but I was not that impressed.
In China the engines sounded good – guttural and grumpy – as the cars sped beneath the open-air section of the unusual media tower at the Shanghai circuit. But it was only when I dropped in on a test session at Donington Park in the week before the Spanish GP, and had to shout in conversation with friends as Cosworth double four valve-powered F1 cars from the Seventies and Eighties sped past the pits, that I really made up my mind that the new cars are not loud enough.
Some will consider it ridiculous that any sport should require its spectators to wear earplugs, but motor racing is not like other sports. The noise is a key part of the emotion, a primary reason why your heart beats a little faster and your pulse races in anticipation. Imagine if you went to the zoo and the lions and tigers were not roaring...
Renault’s head of track operations, Remi Taffin, recently likened the effect of the new engines to smothering someone with a pillow. I agree. A bit more of a scream would go down nicely, and the various parties in F1 are to be congratulated for listening to what the fans want, and reacting accordingly.