The sound of fury

Motor Racing – Formula One Testing – Bahrain Test Two – Day 1 – Sakhir, Bahrain

George Woods Baker has been following Formula 1 since he was a young boy growing up in Canada and Europe. He is currently focused on supporting the fans base and building the market for the sport in the United States. George resides in Los Angeles, California, and gives the Paddock magazine his insights about the technical side of the sport.

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Only a few races in the bag and the debate erupts. Are these new Formula 1 engines or power units, as they are now referred to, loud enough?

It seems to have a lot of people very upset. Certainly, fodder for a good chin wag. An opening to voice all that ails Formula One and dozens of opinions about how to set things right. Race promoters are up in arms. Threatening to cancel future races if something isn’t done. The fans are being cheated. One prominent team has even suggested that they might leave the sport if things continue to go south.

It wouldn’t be March without a little sabre-rattling to wake up the F1 fan base.

We all know and appreciate that sports are emotional lightning rods. Modern fans have never had more access to information or more opportunity and tools to share, in real-time, their opinions. Thanks to social media debates once contained in one’s favoured watering hole among actual friends are now open to anyone who cares to offer a jab or a joust. Watching these mutable opinions evolve hour by hour is really a sport unto itself.

To my point, it wasn’t too long ago that we anxiously had our first real listen when each of the manufacturers released a recording taken from their test dynos. Recordings that armchair experts pounced on. At that time there was a LOT of concern that these ultra-sophisticated power units with their turbos and complex energy recovery systems sounded more like a vacuum cleaner than an F1 engine. Not far from the mark. It was promised that out on the track, in the open air, they would sound better. Though most everyone understood that better was a relative term.

Of course, the only thing that really matters right now is that, once again, people are talking about Formula 1.

The now-defunct 2.4 litre V8s did have a very strong presence. They were all at once a scream and a guttural roar. The note changed markedly as the cars moved into and through corners, sophisticated engine maps making the most of the brutish power of all 8 cylinders hard at work.

It was virtually impossible to stand anywhere near one without very good ear protection when they were running. Even trackside, they were too loud to endure, whizzing by one after the other.

Who remembers the forward blowing exhausts from two seasons ago? That simple change to the exhaust flow completely changed the note of the V8 into something more vulgar and offensive. Gone was the deep rumble only those trackside could hear. No one complained. Not even the scores of women who have particularly enjoyed (so I am told) those deep vibrational notes emanating from the traditional exhaust path of a V8.

The new 2014 spec power units are loud in a different way. A more complex sound. Fuller. A balanced note through a wider range. That said, it is easily possible to stand next to one of them running at a high RPM without any aids for your hearing. Not that it’s advisable to do so. If you make your living in the F1 circus, but a spectator can easily carry on a conversation without being interrupted every few seconds by a passing car.

The debate seems to centre on whether or not louder is better.

It certainly is if you are a local promoter who makes a tidy little profit selling foam earplugs or even more elaborate earmuff style headsets!

Formula One is a unique sport. The sport with the largest, widest TV audience in the world. A sport that usually caters to hundreds of thousands of spectators at each venue over a long race weekend. It is these fans who will decide whether the sound is paramount. Surely not the TV viewer who, at best, hears whatever sound level FOM chooses to broadcast.

Just a few short weeks ago, in Bahrain during testing, it was anything but business as usual up and down the pit lane. Each of the teams had issues to deal with, Red Bull or perhaps more accurately, Renault, chief among them. Hundreds of millions of Euros and countless hours of development, including sleepless nights and disrupted family patterns were on display. The Ferrari power units were having a difficult time dialling in their fuel recipe. Loud “gunshot” bangs could be heard up and down the pit lane as cars slowed to a stop and switched off the power. Renault had numerous issues to deal with. It was obvious they had a lot of work to do. If t wasn’t one thing it was another. Mercedes was the strongest of the bunch, though even they had their mishaps.

What was evident to anyone who listened was the unique engine notes from one team to another even among those running the same manufacturer’s power unit. Williams sounded different from McLaren who sounded different from Force India and all three customers sounded different than the Mercedes works team. The same could be said about the Saubers and the Ferraris. After a while, it became quite easy to know which team was running nearby with your eyes closed.

2014 is a year of massive technological change in Formula 1. These 1.4 litre V6s with the whining sound of their turbos working through a new 8-speed gearbox are an acquired taste for a more sophisticated pallet. Arguing about the sound or loudness of the power units distracts from all the other breakthroughs that will once again find their way into our road cars and beyond. One thing is clear and that is Formula One is not standing still. Growing pains are inevitable. Evolution of the series continues.

It’s the fans, whether they be viewers or spectators, who will decide the value of the entertainment on offer and the future of the sport. Of course, the only thing that really matters right now is that, once again, people are talking about Formula 1.

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