The sound of silence

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Before you go any further, please be warned: there’s a quote in this issue that might seriously damage your health. It could cause choking, stammering and fitful bouts of rage. It could also result in damage to your copy of the magazine because the temptation to hurl it right across the room might be too powerful to subdue.

Actually, perhaps it’s best to get it out of the way now, before you go any further (those with high blood pressure please look away). The quote is from our sports car cover story, and is attributed to Audi’s head of engineering Ulrich Baretzky. This is what he says. Ready? Here it is: “I see no reason for racing to be noisy, to be deafening on the ears, and the new generation of fans will come to this way of thinking.”

Have you calmed down yet? Okay, let’s put those words into some perspective. They come from a man with a clear agenda, who is responsible for Audi’s incredible V12 turbo-diesel which has won the Le Mans 24 Hours for the past two years. Of course he’s going to say noise doesn’t matter – his engine doesn’t make any.

For some, the Audi R10 and its similarly powered rival, the Peugeot 908, are anathema to motor racing. Sound is as important to the sensory overload of our sport as vision – perhaps more so. And yet… the image of the phantom Audis and Peugeots wafting through the Porsche Curves last year, with only the spookily audible scrub of Michelin rubber proving they were in contact with the earth, still got to me. It was incredible.

Now, before you go throwing your issue at the wall again, let me explain. Herr Baretzky’s ‘silent vision of the future’ is a step too far. Le Mans has always been, and always should be, about technical advancement, about breaking new ground – about diversity. So while the turbo-diesels are a welcome new chapter to sports car history, they shouldn’t necessarily define the direction of where to go next. As Baretzky adds, alternative fuels will power future Le Mans racers in the years to come because there is a justified environmental demand. But does it always have to be at the expense of wonderfully loud noise?

The rule-makers at the ACO are keeping to the spirit of Le Mans by welcoming new technology (even if some argue it could be doing a lot more). But as it is widely accepted that the imminent death of the petrol engine has been grossly exaggerated, the good old-fashioned noisy brigade shouldn’t be relegated to fighting for best-of-the-rest honours in an unofficial fifth class. But that’s exactly what faces the new Lola-Aston Martin, the Pescarolos and the ORECA Courages. What a shame.

But the ACO wants more manufacturers and with diesel being in vogue, that’s reflected in the regs. Until customer teams can get their hands on diesel power, privateers won’t have a shot at overall victory. Instead, Le Mans in 2008 is the domain of the silent minority.

Then again, it must be said that’s no bad thing. Thanks to Audi and Peugeot this year we have a great summer of sports car racing to look forward to. Le Mans should be a cracker.

Racing noise also came to mind at the A1GP season finale at Brands Hatch, a track that has been dogged by ‘neighbours from hell’ decibel rows for years. But it wasn’t the locals whose homes back on to the Grand Prix loop I had in mind (although I did spot a few watching ‘illegally’ from the woods). Rather, I was thinking about what A1GP could be in danger of losing.

We might disapprove of one-make racing in principle, but the realities of today leave it as the most viable option for single-seater racing below Formula 1. A1GP isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the Zytek V8s sounded fantastic round the back at Brands. The crackling rim-shots on the overrun took me back to my DFV-powered childhood.

But with the welcome news of a new Ferrari 430 GT-powered car for its next season, A1GP is heading for a new era. Just as with Le Mans, change is good, but only as long as the spirit of what made it work in the first place is not lost. The Ferrari V8 has a lot to live up to.
Damien Smith