No more vrooom!

Fans and organisers are upset about the lack of noise from the cars in operation this season

No more vrooom!
As Formula One enters its second race of the season, the Malaysian Grand Prix, it feels like business as usual despite the radical new set of technical regulations introduced by the series.

The predictions of technological failure linked to those changes were swept aside when the first race, in Australia, ran with only a few minor glitches. What had not been foreseen, however, was a furore about something delivered with the switch to more environmentally friendly hybrid engines: a lack of noise.

The new 1.6-liter, six-cylinder, hybrid engines have two forms of energy recuperation, from braking and from exhaust heat. They are so quiet compared to their 2.4-liter, eight-cylinder, normally aspirated predecessors that spectators no longer need the earplugs commonly used amid the roar and scream at the pinnacle of auto racing. One visitor even likened the sound of the new engine to that of a golf cart.
 
This means a business paradox for Formula One. In order to attract car manufacturers and sponsors, it has created a cleaner, more environmentally friendly engine system. But in so doing, it risks alienating fans attracted by the visceral excitement of racing enhanced by the heightened noise level.

The move to develop clean engines was pushed through the series’ regulatory process by Jean Todt, the president of the International Automobile Federation, or FIA, the sport’s governing body.
 
“When we talk of the principle disciplines of auto racing, we have to take into account what is happening in the world,” Todt said in an interview last month. “We have to take into account the environment.”
 
The FIA also hoped to lure back some of the car manufacturers that had departed the series during the global economic crisis by making Formula One a showcase for their hybrid technology. Indeed, Honda plans to return next year, attracted by the prospect of the cleaner engines, and Mercedes and Renault remained to embrace the challenge.
 
“On the V-8, we had eight pipes joining into two pipes and going straight out of the bodywork of the car,” explained Andy Cowell, the leader of the Mercedes F1 engine program, referring to the exhaust of the old engines.

“Now we’ve got a single turbine wheel that’s recovering a lot of energy from the exhaust; and as soon as you recover the energy, you have reduced the sound. So it is the fact that we are recovering waste energy that is making it quieter.”
But for the series’ commercial director, Bernie Ecclestone, the notion of small, quiet engines had long represented a potential nightmare.

“I was sorry to be proved right with what I’ve said all along,” Ecclestone said after the Grand Prix in Australia on March 16. “These cars don’t sound like racing cars.”

After that first race, one of Ecclestone’s allies, the local race promoter in Melbourne, Ron Walker, not only complained, but said that he thought it was a breach of contract with Formula One. “I was absolutely delighted with the whole weekend,” Walker said on Australian radio, “but I was not happy with the sound. We are resolving that with Bernie. It’s clearly a breach of our contract.”

Some fans and F1 regulars said that without the noise, the series had lost its sparkle. Many said loud engines provide a direct injection of macho bravado, a sense of danger, speed, urgency and wonder.
 
Although both Walker and Ecclestone spoke of trying to resolve the problem, the fact is that the silence of the engine is a result of its new design. So there is possibly no way back unless Formula One returns to the old engines — a move that could be a political, commercial and financial disaster for the car manufacturers and might risk bringing bad publicity for the series as a whole.
 
In any case, F1 has become a globally popular series not because of its engine decibels but because of its television coverage. And for television viewers, the sound remains mostly the same as ever. Producers can adjust the sound, so viewers still hear an engine, even if the style of the sound is different.
 
The drivers, who are closest to the engines, noted that the new system had its advantages.
“You hear mostly wind until you get down to fourth, fifth, gear,” said Lewis Hamilton, a driver at the Mercedes team.

His teammate, Nico Rosberg, noted other consequences.

“The difference is that I can hear my brake locking, which I never used to hear, like in a road car, when it’s squealing in the corner,” Rosberg said. “That’s really strange, but also interesting, because now I can also hear my rear locking, even though I don’t feel it that much. It gives me some extra indication.”

Fans, too, can now hear the sound of squealing tires. The crowds can now do what those at other stadium sports do: sing songs or chants to cheer on their favorite drivers and teams. In Australia, the crowd sang a song of encouragement during the race for the home driver, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

Among those who most appreciate the sound of the new engines are the engineers who created them.

Cowell, of Mercedes, said that whereas the V-8 engines of the past were so loud that all that could be heard was “angry noise,” today there is a music to the engine function.
“You just take your earplugs out,” he said. “Instead of it being painful unless you had earplugs in, now you can almost enjoy the sound, the musicality of it.”
 
“Every time, I hear the compressor spin up and spin down as the driver rolls out of the garage,” Cowell added, “and he puts a little bit of throttle on, and you hear the compressor come up and there’s a 'whoosh,' as the compressor comes up, and the lift-off into the corner, there is a higher pitch, a higher frequency musicality to it.”


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