Quieter Sound of New F1 Engines Gets Varied Reviews

With the Formula One Grand Prix season now officially under way, the verdicts are coming in on the newly revised engine rules for F1 racing, and they are decidedly mixed.

New regulations regarding engines — including a switch from 18,000-rpm V8 motors to slower-revving (15,000-rpm) turbocharged V6 power plants, new kinetic-energy recovery systems that auto-boost engines with a short-lived extra 160 bhp (braking horsepower), a reconfiguration of the exhaust system — and new fuel-conservation requirements are producing some new tones from what many consider to be the automotive equivalent of a Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall stack.

“The new power units make a different, softer noise to the screaming V8s, which were introduced in 2006, just as the V8s were distinct to the previous V10s and V12s,” says a Reuters report, adding that what the lower rpm values bring to the engine are somewhat compensated for by the edgy whirr of the turbocharger, which spins at 125,000 rpm. The engine noise ebbs and flows differently, too, thanks to a new gearbox: the rules now specify eight-speed fixed-ratio gearboxes, one more speed than in 2013. But not to worry. Reuters quotes Renault’s Rob White: “Fundamentally the engine noise will still be loud. … The sound of the new generation power units is just different. It’s like asking whether you like Motorhead or AC/DC. Ultimately it is a matter of personal taste. Both in concert are still pretty loud.”

Wired’s review, however, suggests that not everyone is happy, reporting that some F1 fans are “bent out of shape” with the new sounds. The change in the exhaust configuration — specifically, the banning of blown diffusers, which used exhaust gasses to increase downforce and gave some cars a distinctive bark on deceleration — take much of the blame. “As a result,” the article goes on to suggest, “the cars are significantly quieter — so much so that many spectators will no longer need ear protection.” But the review softens towards the end, noting, “Though the new engines don’t scream quite so loud as before, they have their own charm. … Yes, they aren’t as loud as the old engines, but there is a lovely burble and rumble that makes the engines seem like living things.”

Typically British, the BBC’s observations flirt with tabloid prose, referring to the new engine sonics as “the throaty muscularity of the V6 engine, the whine and whistle of the turbo.” But the Beeb does concede that perhaps the old, louder V8 engines were due for an update and that the new, lower-decibel racket allows for some nuance among manufacturers’ entries.

The sharpest criticism comes from Bernie Ecclestone, president/CEO of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration, F1’s governing bodies, who is reported as being “horrified” by the sound of the new engines. They don’t, he says, “sound like racing cars.”

Bleacher Report, opining that most home viewers will likely not notice the difference, naively comments that “trackside microphones are so muffled that you cannot hear what the engines actually sound like.” (Broadcast compression and home televisions speakers have more to do with that than the microphones. Fred Aldous, feel free to chime in.) But many will agree with the Bleacher Report conclusion that, “if something can be done to increase the noise for next season, it should certainly be considered. Otherwise, the show will go on — just a bit quieter than we are used to.”

Other commentary on the new engine’s sound includes that it is “more like a scooter engine played down a drainpipe,” and “like golf carts.” One spectator pronounces the ultimate insult: “Am I watching Formula 1 cars or a Toyota Prius Grand Prix practice?”

Several reports indicate that race promoters are concerned about the change in the engine sounds, fearing that it may further diminish attendance at some races. But the attention that the changes to F1 cars’ power plants has attracted underscores what we’ve known all along: fans may go for the wrecks, but they stay for the sound.