Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/formula1/26666624
I’ve always been a big motorsport fan. For years, I have watched every qualifying session and race of every F1 season (until the BBC stopped showing all races a couple of years ago – had to make do with the highlights since then for 50% of the races). Even the predictable dominance of he who needs his index fingers clipping off over the last four years hasn’t managed to turn me off. But the technical regulation changes, in particular those pertaining to powertrains, of 2014 have finally turned me off the sport.
Engines are a key factor in motor sport – the clue is in the name, after all. For me, engines are the most exciting and enthralling things I come into contact with in my day to day life. The bigger, the louder, the better. My choice of weekend car was influenced by a number of things – appearance, history, the fact that it’s British – but first and foremost I chose it because it has a 5 litre V8 engine. When I fire it up, animals flee and my garage reverberates as its foundations are shaken. It’s fabulous, and it never fails to make me grin like a 5 year old child and accelerate my heart beat by a good 20 beats a minute. It’s having a similar effect on me now just thinking about it.
You see, when it comes to engines, the old saying goes that “there ain’t no replacement for displacement”. The bigger the swept volume, the more air the engine breathes per cycle and the more fuel you can burn (and therefore you get more power out). More air and fuel making bigger explosions also results in fabulously loud and exciting noises. Engines are my thing, and the most endearing thing about them is the noise that they make. It’s in our biology that loud noises get our blood pumping – listen to rock music at quiet volumes and then again at loud ones and there is a great difference in how much you get into the track. I find the notes of a great engine spell-binding – for example in my Griff, the deep and assured burble of the exhausts while cruising which give way to a growl, a bellow and then an almighty roar as you floor it and the revs build. The noise of a Ferrari 412T2 – the last V12 engine in F1 – is spine-tinglingly awesome even through my stereo speakers, let alone in real life.
Of course, all of this old-school noise and speed is seen as downright anti-social today, more than it ever has been. Maybe that’s part of the appeal – the two fingers to a society trying to tell others what they can and can’t do in their own free time. The motor industry is caving into pressures to be more sensitive and fuel efficient at all levels of their products. Now, for the car I might drive to work on a weekday or pop to the shops in, I can completely understand this push. These are utiltiarian vehicles, and being sensible with the earth’s resources is in general a reasonable aim. For performance cars though, cars which don’t do mega miles but exist purely for the love of cars and driving, I’m much less convinced.
Technologically, it’s very impressive that engineers can make such improvements in fuel efficiency whilst maintaining performance. This is primarily achieved in engines by turbo-charging, which uses exhaust gas to force more air in to a smaller engine,so when you want to burn more fuel you have the air to do so, without the penalty of the big capacity engine the rest of the time. Modern turbocharged technologies are very impressive when done right – you get high torque from low rpm’s and performance everywhere in the rev band. Ultra-high end cars like the McLaren P1 are taking this even further, using electric motors to overcome one of the shortcomings of turbocharging – delayed throttle response (a technique McLaren refer to as “torque fill” – you draw the power curve you want the engine to have, and program the electric motors to fill the bits where the engine can’t quite deliver).
This is all very clever, but it has several problems for car enthusiasts like myself:
- The downsizing of engines almost always means less cylinders. This generally has a very negative impact on noise. For luxury cars, moving to 4 cylinder engines is also terrible from a refinement perspective (go look up primary and secondary force balance before you disagree with me)
- The turbo in the exhaust takes a lot of the force out of the exhaust gases, and robs engines of a decent exhaust note
- For engines that don’t have the electrical bits, the throttle response and turbo lag does make for a less enjoyable experience. For all of these high-torque-everywhere type engines, the driving experience is strangely dulled by having so much performance without having to work for it – as odd as that may sound to some
- Electric motors and batteries add a lot of weight, which needs very expensive engineering to minimise and mask. Weight is the primary enemy of an enjoyable driving experience
- The electric power add-ons in particular add enormously to price and to complexity, which makes ownership much less attainable. More systems and bits can also only be bad for affordable maintainability, and adds yet more barriers to the car enthusiast who also likes to work on their own vehicles (not that any of this type are even remotely in price brackets that those who do their own spanner work would contemplate)
Even the multi-million pound budgets of F1 teams can’t sort out all of these issues, as the row over engine noise goes to show. In the article I’ve linked to, Andrew Benson – a well known and respected commentator – questions whether the engine note is really such a step back. He argues that the previous generation V8’s weren’t a great noise like the classic V12’s – no argument from me there. But the screaming sound of a V8 at 20,000 RPM (before they were limited) approaching a corner at close to 200MPH is a very happy memory that I can still flip back to. And as for asking if the noise is “that big a deal” – well for me, yes it is, as I think I have already made clear. In terms of your senses, you get a much better view of what is going on in a race by watching it on TV. The sounds and the smells are what you get by attending a track which you don’t get sat at home (I don’t subscribe to this whole crowd atmosphere thing, the spectacle is on the track not sat next to it). Some people are fascinated that some people, myself included, would spend hundreds of pounds attending a race just to hear the noise, just as I am happy to spend a day out and a fair wad of cash just to hear loud aeroplanes at airshows. Everyone has their own reasons for attending, and as one of our primary senses noise must surely be a big factor in the enjoyment of motorsport for many. I am surprised that so many people find this surprising, including those such as Andrew Benson who have spent their life following the sport.
In moving to ERS powertrains then, F1 is following the zeitgeist of engine downsizing for political reasons, amid claims that they are “more relevant” to the cars of today. I would contest that whilst they might have relevance to the playthings of millionaires whose supercars are now coming loaded with this sort of technology, for under an RRP of £100k you won’t find cars that have this sort of technology in. And no matter how much money you throw at a car, in moving to increasingly high-tech power trains the charm and character of a real sports car from yesteryear is sadly being eroded. For me then, it’s a farewell to following motorsport (as not much else is properly televised) and a retreat to my garage to play with real cars more instead. I only hope for future generations that access to real cars is well preserved.