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18 May 2014

The circuit de Catalunya provided the backdrop for the second of the 2014 post race in season tests, but what was learnt? Well for starters we got the first look at the sports attempts to increase the decibel level of the new powerunits, which was a little disastrous to say the least. A foolhardy attempt at increasing the exhausts tailpipe was the first rudimentary attempt at increasing the noise emitted by the powerunits.

The FIA and Mercedes decided to trial the 'megaphone' style exhaust outlet during the post GP test in Barcelona. The 'megaphone' is simply an attempt to amplify the noise already produced by the powerunits, it is simply a means of extruding the pipework so the result is minimal, raising the level of noise emitted but the sound doesn't carry as far.

In reality all I can say is the noise we have is really down to the regulatory changes that were implemented. A turbocharged engine will always produce significantly less noise and be lower pitched than its naturally aspirated counterpart, for two good reasons: The turbo's job is to take the wasted energy normally dumped out of the exhaust, part of which is noise and re-energise it. This means the noise that is normally generated is dampened by the turbines impeller, using that energy (and noise). By virtue of the turbo, turbocharged cars are able to make power at much lower rpm, leading to around 6000 rpms less than with the V8's. (Lest we forget the old dogs were actually able to rev out and make more power past 18,000 rpm) This drop of 6000rpm is a major factor in the audible battle especially as gear change drop off / max performance was actually above what the new powerunits actually rev out to (somewhere between 11,500 to 12,500rpm dependant on team/manufacturer/map choice) making it easy to see why their shrill was much louder / higher pitched.

This latest decibel debacle is another in a long line of comedic episodes created by the sport that calls itself 'the pinnacle of motosport'. For all intents and purposes Formula One is the pinnacle it is a breeding ground for the very best engineers, designers, drivers and one could say manufacturers. However as always Formula One finds itself arguing with how relative it wants and needs to be.

This storm in a teacup could have been avoided some time ago but instead the sport (as it always does) has left itself open to criticism, can't or won't defend itself in a technical matter and instead panders to the neigh sayers. The architecture of the current regulations was not simply dreamt up overnight and in their current guise have been largely available since circa June 2011. The brainchild of former FIA president Max Mosely the original regulations (2010) called for an even more aggressive downsizing of the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine), calling for an inline 4 cylinder 1600cc engine like you would find in most hatchbacks (at the time).

The plan to switch to inline 4's (originally earmarked for 2013) was met with objection from Bernie and Ferrari, who believed the radical change in engine architecture may well help to drive a change in the motor industry but was too far removed from the spirit of Formula One. The biggest losers in this debacle was those that had already invested time, money and R&D in the inline 4 concepts, to get ahead of the competition for the planned change in 2013. Renault, Cosworth & even P.U.R.E had actively driven resources in this direction, to steal a march on not only the current F1 suppliers (Mercedes & Ferrari) but any other manufacturers that had been enticed by these new regulations. This was real world investment that was essentially shelved, making way for another costly development in the shape of a V6 1600cc ICE. The change in ICE architecture was also met with a years delay in regulation change affording the manufacturers more time to develop the technology.

This in my opinion was the first blow in what has become a cascading change to the landscape of how the regulations are shaped. Ferrari has always held firm in its stance that Formula One needs Ferrari as much as Ferrari needs it but over recent seasons other teams have adopted this stance too. The teams now have far too much power to influence the direction in which the sport is taken and essentially meet their own needs, even if those needs are greater than the sport itself. The sport is constantly looking to be something different and that suits all parties rather than those parties conforming to the construct.

The Strategy Group is the latest in a long line of initiatives that see's the power of the sport placed in the wrong hands. The group consists of just six members (Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, Williams, McLaren and one floating member based on finishing position, currently occupied by Lotus) from the sports eleven teams giving a poor representation of what is needed in the sport to create balance. Of course one of the five other teams is represented, as Toro Rosso's say will be the same as Red Bulls. This leaves Force India, Sauber, Marussia and Caterham without a voice, as they're the teams that are probably most affected by any regulatory change due to their lack of resources compared to the other teams, I'm sure they find this an extremely bitter pill to swallow. The aim of the strategy group is to create a dialogue between the teams and the FIA, paving the way for changes to the sport. This is a slippery slope in my opinion with the regulatory body (the FIA) the only party who should be involved in the decision making process. The strategy group are making thinly veiled attempts at passing off some of their recommendations as being aimed at increasing the show for the public, however as always I'd suggest this is really an attempt at driving forward their own agendas.

Going back to the sound of Formula One and it's easy to see that the noise we have now is based on the architecture of the technology in use, any changes to improve the sound will either be frankly ridiculous (like the exhaust tested by Mercedes) or require regulatory change. The latter isn't viable, even with the PU's being re-homologated for 2015 their design is already well under way, changes now would be catastrophic. This makes life difficult for Bernie who is under pressure from the circuit owners that have contracts with Formula One and feel they aren't getting what they paid for. I do empathize with them but they too must have been naive, not able to think for themselves or have people around that are technically inept in order that they didn't understand the switch to the new powerunits would lower the volume. Afterall it's not like we haven't been here before and seen downsizing, furthermore this technology is new to Formula One and so I'll guarantee that there is still some movement in terms of both performance and therefore the audio, changing the sound of F1 as the teams begin to understand it (just think about the machine gun sound of 2011 when Formula One used off throttle blowing to garner more performance).  

I remain ok with the sound, as I'm hearing much more of what's going on with the car, like tyres squealing under load and the plank bottoming out.  However I do think FOM could do a much better job of working on the sound levels to give the broadcasters more to work with, afterall I prefer to hear the car than some of the mistakes in the commentary ;).
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  1. At first I was put off. I grew up loving the screaming v10s and v8s, marvelled at the great rpm heights reached and the sounds it produced. Now I listen for the turbos off throttle coming into the corners and fixate on the flashing lights as the cars start harvesting energy at max speed. I've gotten over the change, there's still a whole lot to appreciate.

    1. Indeed, the action may not all be in the audible sense but from a visceral point of view there is plenty to be getting on with.

  2. The regulations have proven to be a master stroke in creating cars that truly raise the bar in combining high power and high efficiency. As such they are exciting technically (and isn't that a huge part of what F1 is all about?) and relevant to the challenges now facing the car industry in particular and society in general. The cars are a lot quieter because they're far more efficient.
    Production cars in general are getting quieter (accelerating away from a traffic light alongside a Tesla is an interesting experience). I
    expect that making F1 cars significantly louder will also make them less efficientn and doing that could create a PR backlash of a different kind for the FIA. I find it amazing that the same organization that is about to embark on the inaugural season of Formula E is backpedaling about the side - effects of the technological marvels that are the new F1 power units. Formula 1 should be aggressively selling the characteristics of the new cars rather than apologizing for them.

    1. Hi John

      Totally agree, it's that rock and a hard place scenario for the FIA though as from a commercial aspect Formula One is sold by CVC/FOM as something else. This is where the race promoters feel they have been mis-sold the product and why Bernie is now requesting how high everyone must jump.

      I've said it before and I'll say it again I can see what the FIA were/are trying to achieve with F-E but IMO it misses the mark. The mere fact that drivers have to switch cars midway through a race highlights one of the biggest flaws with EV's: Battery Life. Anyway we're getting off into another topic but for me F-E will only progress after the manufacturers get onboard and drive the tech forward, as a spec series it just doesn't work for me.

  3. I agree with all that has been said....I think there is however some deliberate? sabotage going on here.The noise at the side of the track is very different to that portrayed on TV so either the sound engineers are not picking the right frequency or gnome from Suffolk is doing his darndest to screw it up. In my early days in F1 I used to go home deaf for week. I don't miss that.

    1. I have to admit that the same thing has crossed my mind on several occasions Rob. It's clear that the sound levels being used for the broadcasts are not indicative of what is actually available and could be changed in order to enhance the experience.

  4. Really nice article, Matt. Thanks.
    I'm one of those Luddites who hates that the visceral, gut-churning growl of the V-12's and V-10's is behind us. To know that sound is important to the story being told, just think back to Star Wars and the growl of the Imperial space fighters - I mean, c'mon, they're in a vacuum, for pity sake. George Lucas knew that the audience would never tolerate "quiet aggression" for his film. But I digress.
    Here is my real question: why are the formula rules for the PU's so stringently controlled? I understand, and frankly applaud, the drive toward hybrid-technology. But, I am wondering why the engine manufacturers were not given an over-arching set of technology strictures and then told to "have at it". Perhaps Ferrari's engineers would have come up with something completely different, and so too Renault, and think what Honda could do. Why not specify the capacity of the ICE (1.6L) and let the manufacturers figure out the best way foreward? Why not specify that "X percentage" of total power must come in the form of regenerative electrical power and let the manufacturers have at it? Who knows, maybe a lot more engine manufacturers would have tee'd up to play if given developmental room.
    With all that said, it is what it is and I am adapting to the sound of the power units. I think what has been accomplished is pretty amazing. I don't really want to see a return to engine war days, but it would be nice to see what brilliant engineers could develop, and how those developments could benefit the wider auto industry, if the handcuffs were not quite so tightly squeezed.
    Thanks again for a great article.

    1. Back in the day, the regulations were pretty much that - 3 (or was it 3.5?) litre normally aspirated or 1.5 supercharged (not, interestingly, turbocharged - which is what everyone actually did). When both kinds of engine were racing together, it quickly became clear that this 'equivalency formula' was a complete nonsense, so away went turbos... After that, with different potential engine layouts (V8, V10, V12, Flat 12, whatever..) you had avenues for a development war so costly (even back then) that it could easily have crippled the sport, had it continued. So ultimately we end up with homologated engines and that's still not cheap... Imagine how much you could spend trying to determine whether V6, V8 or V10 was better, in an unrestricted technology and materials war? And that's just your in-house development program, many months before the first pre-season test...

      To be honest, I'm with you, in heart - I'd like to see all that diversity and innovation. But 1) It would cost too much for the sport to survive, and 2) There's some pretty amazing tech going on already and great racing to boot, what's not to like? =D

  5. I can't help but think that the Merc engineers were having a bit of a laugh... They would surely also understand noise as a function of architecture, and with all the silly focus on the change in sound (never mind fast cars, cutting edge 'green' technology but cars that are still twitchy and spectacular to drive, good racing up and down the field, not the fuel-saving snoozefest that many had predicted) I suspect that one bright spark threw his/her hands up and said 'Why not just stick a bloody great megaphone on the back to show them just how stupid this all is?'. This whole farce is now a non-issue as far as I'm concerned. I'm much more interested in seeing how the drivers respond to the challenge of chucking these beasts around Monaco. This years' Formula ticks all the boxes that needed ticking - Cutting edge tech? Check. Wheel to wheel racing? Check. Huge driver challenge? Check. And so on... Still, I understand the public's taste for nostalgia. Why, even I hanker after the days when we were just complaining about double points in Abu Dhabi...

    Might I add, I'm also a sound engineer, and for what it's worth, I agree absolutely with everyone who suggests the TV sound feeds are adding to the perceived problem. While the audio may 'accurately' convey the sound captured in a specific environment, it does not necessarily convey the required 'feel', in much the same way as a live recording of a rock band (whilst being more 'immediate' and 'real') rarely has the depth of a properly produced album. Making live music sound as epic as an album is an art, and I feel F1 needs someone in charge of sound production who views TV audio production in a similar way. Don't get me wrong, there's lots of folks doing brilliant and difficult jobs and doing them exceptionally well, but I feel the overall audio production (producer...?) lacks imagination. It all feels a bit 'functional' to me at the moment, there's no passion in the way the audio is presented, I'm absolutely CERTAIN a better job could be done for the TV. I'd volunteer for that job. In fact, I'd love to get a copy of the master audio feeds from a Grand Prix and do a 're-mix', partly to test some theories but mostly for the sheer hell of it...
    Thanks Matt, I like your work most when you get a bit riled about something. Long may it continue!



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