Making F1 Cars Inspiring Again

I promised I would reserve judgment on the sound of the 2014 F1 cars until hearing them for myself. Well now I have (in Montreal), and they sound like s**t. The race was incredible, as we all know. But lap after lap, as I heard the cars approaching, I longed for the beautiful wail to which I’ve grown accustomed over the last few decades. Some of the magic has been lost – and the case for attending in person versus watching on TV is definitely less convincing. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many reasons to love F1. But in my eyes (or ears), it’s lost a bit of its sparkle.

It’s also worth noting that this sentiment is not limited to the hardened fan. I’ve brought many uninitiated friends to Grands Prix over the years, and converted most to proper fans. And when I’d hear them describe the experience to friends and family upon their return home, the glorious sound featured prominently in their tales, nearly without exception. This year, I brought three more friends to Montreal. All had fun, but seemed relatively nonplussed by the F1 cars. When asked on Friday night what they liked best, they all (enthusiastically) agreed the historic F1 cars were their favorites. When asked why, the answer was simple: they loved the sound.

But it’s important to note – for me and my guests – that this is NOT a question of volume: the cars are plenty loud enough. The issue is that they sound ugly and uninspiring – like a rusty Toyota Camry with a hole in the muffler (particularly the Mercedes-engined cars, which somehow sound even more flatulent).

And to my great frustration, this point seems completely lost on the powers-that-be, who (as best I can tell) unanimously interpret complaints from fans to be demands to make the cars louder. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly don’t want the rusted-out Camry’s to be even louder. I want the return of cars that sound musical – sounds that would bring a smile to Enzo’s face. And more broadly, I┬ádon’t want more artificial NASCAResque veneers applied in a desperate and half-hearted attempt to conceal past misjudgments by the governing body.

If they want the cars to sound better, they’ll add two cylinders (or better yet, six), kill the fuel-flow restrictions, and allow them to rev like unrestricted racing engines should. If they want to keep the turbos and small displacement and ERS, that’s fine – the cars can still sound great. But a V6 will never sound good (I don’t understand why, but IMO, it is the ugliest sounding cylinder configuration – even flat-4’s sound better) and no one will ever be awe-struck by something that sounds like it revs about as high as my sister’s minivan.

And because that will require a major rules change, it won’t happen overnight – if at all. Jean Todt (among others) has far too much ego invested to even consider an about-face on his precious new rules. The manufacturers claim these regulations are critical to their participation (though they must not be too happy with the reception the engines are receiving). And while none of them should be concerned with sunk costs, I’m sure it will be tough to say “well, there’s $1bn wasted…now let’s start again”.

But I hope, that if they believe that the sound is a problem and they’re serious about fixing it, they’ll recognize that this is what it will take. How can we get them to listen…?

PS: The 8-speed boxes are also contributing to the “problem”. Combined with the lower revs (which means lower ratios) the rev range is tiny now.