The times they are a-changin' F1's noise debate

Renault Sport F1

23 March 2014 by Graham Keilloh

Is the F1 fan base more disputatious than it used to be? Maybe, though equally in times gone by there were far fewer opportunities than there are now to register disapproval. Perhaps in the past we existed largely in blissful ignorance of disagreement with the presumed consensus that was out there. Only Autosport’s letters page gave a clue, and even then reflected the views of a few who had the motivation to pick up a pen. As a friend once said to me: had the internet existed in 1957 there probably would have been people on it expressing sentiments to the effect of: ‘tell you what, that Fangio’s overrated’.

But whatever is the case it seems the F1 fan is more prone to object than they used to be. We’ve had plenty of recent examples: the sport almost tearing itself apart over gumball Pirelli tyres; before that over DRS. Before that something else no doubt. 

On the face of it F1’s first race weekend in the new era of heavily revised regulations was a positive one. Certainly most of the fears in advance did not manifest themselves: the cars were not hideously slow, only being the region of three seconds a lap off last year’s pace, which can in large part be attributed to clipped wings and less grippy tyres. Indeed, they flew on the straights and the machines looked spectacular on acceleration. Fifteen cars were still circulating at the end; only five broke down with technical gremlins, and remember that someone asked Charlie Whiting with a straight face earlier in the meeting what would happen if no one finished… 

While the fears of a conspicuous economy run didn’t really come to pass either: most drivers were told from around half distance that they could push without heed of their fuel gauges. Admittedly it was helped by a safety car period and an additional parade lap, but still the Albert Park is in the top three on the calendar for fuel-thirstiness, and if it was ever going to be a problem it was when the technology was new. 

Once again the big brains of F1 – facing as they were a considerable challenge of a complex new technology thrown at them in one go and being told to just get on with it – showed their scarcely credible ability to scale sheer cliff edges when faced with something that seems in advance insurmountable.  

And it appeared that another commonly-cited fear wasn’t really being borne out either. On the noise. Yes, the new 1.6 litre V6 turbo hybrids, replacing the 2.4 litre V8s, were quieter than what we had before – ear plugs were no longer necessary. But journalists and others – whose credentials as motorsport purists are pretty solid – said that in their view the noise remained representative of racing machines. Indeed, in some ways they were better: more of a growl than the previous piercing screech; other noises like tyre squeal and gearchanges were more audible. We found out in Melbourne that the cheers from the grandstands were too.

And in times gone by the narrative probably would have been pretty much that.

But that wasn’t that. Plenty of fans – some who were present in Melbourne; some not – took to the said internet platforms to decry the noise of the 2014-spec cars. They were just too quiet they said. Others such as Bernie Ecclestone joined in. The race’s Chairman Ron Walker threatened to sue.

As is often the way in such situations it’s hard to tell the extent if at all such complaints are representative, or simply reflect a small and possibly vexatious bunch shouting loud (perhaps appropriately). But the best evidence is that right now fans are divided, as demonstrated almost perfectly by Sky’s F1 Show Twitter poll on the matter (though admittedly it hardly was scientific): 51% said the noise needed to be increased; 49% not.

It’s hardly served to pat down the ruffled feather either that the afore-mentioned Bernie Ecclestone has for some time refused to miss an opportunity to stay silent on his distaste for the new engines, with the aftermath of the Melbourne weekend just the latest occasion. Bernie’s not been into the new formula from its very inception. Quite why this is isn’t clear: certainly at the broadest level a commercial rights holder being publicly so scathing of the product his job is to sell seems rather odd behaviour.

He tends to couch his objections in concern about the experience of the fans at the track, but this concern seems utterly incongruous with the lion’s share of his actions in his time as the sport’s commercial boss: e.g. fleecing circuit owners and moving the sport away from its core support to venues where few of the locals seem to care. Certainly for Bernie the needs of fans at the track have in his mind long been subjugated by those of the far more vast TV audience. 

A more credible explanation is that the FIA President Jean Todt is associated closely with the creation of the new regulations, and Bernie and Todt haven’t quite been seeing eye-to-eye for a while (in some part because Bernie isn’t finding Todt quite as on board with him as Todt’s predecessor Max Mosley was). Power politics, in other words.

Plus Bernie wasn’t present in Melbourne. Nor was he at any pre-season test. I’ve heard it said that the solitary occasion on which he’s heard one of the power units in person was on a Ferrari test bed.

While the threats of Australian Grand Prix Chairman Ron Walker to take legal action on the grounds of the lower noise and resultant decreased ‘sexiness’ after any amount of scrutiny are difficult to take seriously. I’m not a lawyer (if I was I’d be charging you for saying this – ho ho) but there seemed little evidence of the Albert Park attendance being down as a result of the power unit sound, plus it’s hard to imagine that the event’s contract contains a clause on the minimum noise level. Or a definition of sexiness.

In addition, Walker just so happens to be close to Bernie.

But I threaten to digress ever so slightly. For many fans the noise of the cars is an important part of the experience, and it would be wrong to dismiss all concerns expressed as malign. 

Perhaps part of the problem is that the aims of the new era – an efficiency-focussed and fuel-restricted formula with an environmental technology bent – don’t sit easily with many fans, possibly because the sport’s followers, almost by definition, have a disproportionate number of the car-loving, excess-loving, gas-guzzling sort among their number. For F1 especially it seems, it's not easy being green.

Such concerns were reflected in the words of Force India’s Deputy Team Principal Bob Fernley when he was asked about the sport’s proposed new direction a few years ago: ‘I think F1 – and maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur – is a celebration of excess’ said Fernley. ‘We have the most powerful engines, we have the best show in motor racing, we have the best parties and the prettiest girls and we should not lose that. We are a show at the end of the day and the show must be maintained.’

But whatever are the rights and wrongs of the new engines it’s difficult to ascertain what, at this stage, could be done. At the most fundamental level we’ve crossed the Rubicon with the V6 turbos. Unless of course you want to be the one to tell three (potentially four) prestigious manufacturers that the millions they’ve spent on developing the units is suddenly to count for not very much.

Some too are talking about artificial amplification of the engine note. But I find it ironic that after years of wrestling and some self-disgust over the inauthenticity of the degrading Pirellis and DRS – and many in the sport giving the impression of having their fill of them –now some apparently want more of it.

And despite the misgivings expressed now and before F1 had to change, and for a few reasons. For one thing, change was required to maintain the sport's road relevance, and improving the breed has always been a key part of F1. As Ross Brawn commented shortly after the new spec was cemented: ‘We're not going to get manufacturers to come in with the V8 normally aspirated engine that we have now. No-one's interested. We've got to create fresh opportunities for new manufacturers to come in because who's going to come in and build a V8 18,000rpm engine?'

On a more pragmatic level, without change there was a genuine possibility that Ferrari would have been left as the sport’s only engine supplier, given it was pretty much an open secret that Renault would have been off had the V8s been retained as well as there were some murmurs that Mercedes would have reviewed its position too. It’s not clear whether Honda would have come in for 2015 with the V8s either, while it’s thought that Cosworth was on its way out regardless. Formula One wherein all are powered by Ferrari. Just think…

And while many in F1 (and some watching on) like to proceed as if the sport is an island entirely of itself, and scoff at the idea that F1 should pay heed to what wider society expects, acceptability and consent of the world around it remains important; perhaps essential. As Pat Symonds noted recently in regard to this very matter, you wouldn't walk down Regent Street wearing a fur coat these days, would you? The world has changed, and F1 had to change with it. However much you might be tempted to rail against the notion, environmental issues matter to a lot of people.  It certainly matters to the car industry. Promoting efficiency is important; conspicuous excess certainly is a no-no.

F1, like everything, can only proceed with the permission of the society around it; its ticket sales, support, investment, sponsorship and regulatory framework in which it can operate all come from therein. Quite how these would have been impacted by the sport continuing to conspicuously and wilfully defy what wider society expects perhaps doesn't bear thinking about. 

But we also should not think of the new formula we have as akin to the sport being marched down an avenue at gunpoint. There is tremendous positive opportunity for F1 associated with the new power units too.

Technological progress will matter much more to the planet than any amount of recycling. And the big brains of F1 combined with the intensity of competition will move the turbo/hybrid technology on considerably – as intimated earlier they probably already have – and this would be close to impossible to replicate elsewhere. Only times of war rival it, and F1 for all of its faults is much less harmful than war!

As Darren Heath noted post Melbourne having witnessed the new cars close at hand and in the main functioning beautifully after just 12 days’ testing time: ‘just imagine – outside the world of F1 – how long getting this right would have taken. Many company bosses in the wider automobile world would pay billions for such expertise, rigour and result’. 

Indeed, we’ve already witnessed it: that in a few months of the 2009 season wherein a handful of F1 teams used KERS that the technology went from something almost entirely abandoned by the car industry to something that features routinely on cars in the showroom. And I recall discussions on forums in advance of this introduction insisting that F1 was headed down a blind alley: never underestimate the grey matter of the F1 technical teams.

How F1 advances such hybrid technology will also be a fantastic good news story for the sport. And of course this will likely have auxiliary benefits in terms of attracting new sponsors and other investors, possibly even new fans too. And given other things that the sport has been associated with in recent times: pitching up in countries with despicable human rights records, as well as the commercial rights holder facing criminal charges for bribery, it feels a lot that F1 could do with such an image boost right now. At the very least, it seems something worth losing a few decibels over.

You’d think it’s the sort of thing that the sport would be grabbing with both hands, and that the promoters – both of individual events and of the whole shebang – would be shouting about from the rooftops, rather than focus on their objections about a detail. 

And the best evidence is that F1 doesn’t much to fear from the reduced noise: if we look at the evidence of when turbos were last de rigueur, in the 1980s, I’ve yet to encounter anyone looking back on that era saying spontaneously 'didn't those cars sound rubbish?' Instead, it's seen as a great age of racing, with great engines. The sport’s popularity didn’t decline in that time; by contrast it grew almost beyond recognition. Similarly, other series that have gone down the turbo route recently – such as LMP1, Indycars and BTCC – don’t appear to be suffering as a consequence. 

Plus let’s not forget that, on the evidence of the Melbourne race at any rate, the doom-mongers’ record in accurate forecasting is not a good one.

Change is never easy of course. Even in F1, despite its status as a fast-moving and ever-changing environment in which it pays to look ahead at all times, many within it can be cautious of it, and keen to cling to what has gone before. 

And change can jar – indeed on Twitter a picture has started to do the rounds of a fans’ banner displayed at an F1 race from early 2006 presumably, decrying the V8s in comparison to the previous V10. Plus ca change... But my assessment is that there’s little to fear from this particular new era, and indeed there are many opportunities associated with it, and considerable ones. 

Many times F1’s death – either in spirit or more fundamentally – has been declared as nigh. Not one ever has been proved right. And about the only constant in the sport, apart from change itself, is that we get used to the new landscapes very quickly. Presumably it gets easier from here.