The quiet revolution

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The FIA’s plans to make GP cars more fuel efficient might benefit the wider world, but the knock-on effect of reducing engine noise would diminish the sport for paying spectators

There’s one moment in any F1 season guaranteed to get the hairs on the back of my neck to stand. It comes at Interlagos during the lead-up to the race. It’s carnival time in that big, crumbling, old amphitheatre. The crowd has been partying all morning – even as they were queuing to get in they were dancing to samba music. Now, on the grid, the party’s been ramped up massively. The samba drums are thudding a beat that goes directly into your brain. There’s a group of them out there, dancing, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. The sun’s beating down, glinting off the wildly braying trumpets that are weaving their sound between the gaps in those drum beats. A chant starts in the crowd – and quickly spreads: “Rubinho, Rubinho”. 

Then the thudding suddenly stops – a lone trumpeter keeps going for a few seconds, lost in the moment – and the grid is cleared. Just then the first F1 engine starts up in a garage. A menacing gargle at first, it’s blipped into a zero-flywheel savage swoop up the register, then again, and again, and again. Then the next engine starts. Soon they’re all running, getting their final warm-ups, and the place is again filled with noise, but it’s a much more intense, serious one this time. The ceremony is over, the battle is about to commence. The adrenaline is pumping now – wha-oom, wha-oom. The engines overlap and form a resonance. And now the crowd’s going absolutely crazy because they’ve wheeled Rubinho’s car out of the garage, still revving. It feels like the whole place is about to erupt. It’s primeval. 

Silence!

A couple of years ago the FIA outlined its vision of a future fuel-efficient F1. It featured systems that stored braking energy to be re-used to boost acceleration, and an engine formula that stipulated not a capacity limit but one of energy. The rules would be framed so that the most advantageous way would be a hybrid engine, using a mixture of fuel and electrical power. Although the energy- recovery part has been postponed from its original intended date of 2008, the whole package is still very much the intended way forward, probably from 2011.

Assuming it goes that way, there’s one very significant implication for F1 enthusiasts: the cars are going to be quiet. If there’s no capacity limit but an energy limit, teams are going to plump for a large-capacity, low-revving turbocharged engine with monster torque, not many cylinders and geared very long. Even in unsilenced form, this is going to produce a low-frequency, low-decibel drone. The cars will probably still be going incredibly quickly, but to eyes and ears attuned to current cars they may well look like a badly dubbed piece of footage. 

Thirty-six years ago Lotus ran the gas turbine 56B in a few F1 races – and onlookers were very struck by its near silence. John Miles tested it at Hethel – and loved it. “It was a very civilised way of going motor racing,” he says. “It was a lovely sensation. All I can liken it to is when you’re sitting on a runway in a jet and they release the brake and suddenly the noise gets left behind and all you have is the feeling of silent acceleration. At Hethel you could hear the pads rattling in the calipers, the rose joints in the suspension rattling over the seams in the concrete, the tyres – and the wind.”

These future cars wouldn’t be quite as silent as that, but the point is that the Lotus raced against a grid full of conventional noisy cars. A whole field of quiet racing cars is something quite different. The emotion stirred by racing is very much wrapped up in its sound. When you first approach the circuit and the cars are running, it’s the thing that makes the heart beat a little faster. It’s not just volume either, it’s to do with pitch too: high revs are suggestive of a very exotic piece of kit far removed from road cars. But for TV audiences it would make very little, if any, difference and that is the only real concern for the powers of F1. But could we, as race enthusiasts, get used to an altogether more prosaic soundtrack?

“I think there’s a balance to be struck,” says Miles. “While I loved the gas turbine car, a grid full of them would definitely be missing something for the crowd. So it depends on how much quieter they would be. Certainly, I don’t think they need to be as excessively noisy as they are at the moment, revving to 19,000rpm. At a place like Monaco they could literally deafen you if you didn’t have ear protection. I would contend that the turbo cars were the most exciting F1 machines we ever saw – and they were revving to, what, 11-12,000? They were a lot quieter than what we have now.”

Maybe it’s just about what we get used to. Certainly, a DFV doesn’t sound anything like as special today as it seemed at the time; to ears attuned to current F1 engines, it sounds a fairly tame piece of kit. Maybe in time, with a few seasons of quiet cars, we’d recalibrate our senses and get used to it. Maybe circuits really wouldn’t struggle to get people through the gates if there was no overpowering engine noise to attract them, like bees to honey.

I’m not sure. And I won’t be sure until I hear them being fired up on race day at Interlagos in 2011. Then I’ll be able to tell you if it still works.