The pros and cons of F1's new dawn as Melbourne opener throws up intrigue galore
Sky F1's Martin Brundle gives his take on the sight and sound of the 2014-generation cars, Daniel Ricciardo's costly exclusion and Mercedes' ominous start to the 2014 season
By Martin Brundle
Last Updated: 18/03/14 8:19am
Over the course of the weekend I've listened and observed as many fans and paddock dwellers explain their views on the positives and negatives of the new cars. We also had a poll vote on Sky F1 which suggested about three quarters liked the new cars and that reflected my personal poll too.
I had waited to hear a full complement of cars before making a judgement on the sound of the new motors and initially I was disappointed. Walking around the track standing alongside the barriers in the second session I was a little more heartened as it became clear that ear plugs were not really needed, the track PA system could be heard for the first time ever, and other sounds such as mechanical noise and tyre torture could be heard.
Each day I grew to like the throaty sound just a little bit more especially when behind a car accelerating at full throttle. But there simply isn't enough volume and some of the intense drama has been lost.
Some regret the loss of the high-revving 2.4 V8s. I didn't particularly like them to drive or to listen too because they were gutless wonders and painful to the ears. As someone pointed out to me, what's the point in very loud engines when you then need to put earplugs or your fingers in your ears which can ring for days afterwards? Others commented that it was nice to be able to discuss with friends and family what was going on around them, and to be able to hear that PA system and other noises. It was also pointed out to me that without the high-pitched advertisement for many seconds that an F1 car was approaching, when it did arrive it looked much faster and to an extent I agree.
Noise pollution is becoming a horror story for race tracks around the world and so at least it helps in that respect, but I'll never forget as a kid approaching a track with F1 cars already circulating and feeling incredible anticipation and excitement. Sadly some of that is missing now watching live, although at least the TV can pump it up a little.
I've driven and listened to pretty much all of them over the decades, the Inline 4 and V6 turbos, straight sixes, and V8/10/12 normally aspirated motors, not forgetting the BRM H16 and Ferrari flat 12s of course. I can remember Reine Wisell's virtually silent Turbine Lotus 56B at Silverstone too, as well as Johnny Herbert's excruciatingly painful rotary Mazda Le Mans car, among others. They all sound more mechanical from the cockpit rather than the exhaust pipe, and in my view and experience any great machine begins and ends with its engine.
The 1.5-litre Inline 4 and V6 turbos of the '80s sounded better, louder, more soulful. In fact I'm diving one early next month and there's a big collection of them at Goodwood at the Members' Meeting in a couple of weeks. They used to spit flames too but, in this age of efficiency, unburnt fuel and noise sent down the exhaust pipe is simply wasted energy. Filling a single pipe with a turbo and clever technology is going to make it somewhat quieter...
I can't imagine anything can be done in the short term, but hopefully for next season they can specify a megaphone exhaust and even twin pipes although I suspect that would cost tens of millions for the three manufacturers to redesign and re-map their motors. Something needs changing, especially as they don't use anywhere near the 15000 rev limit to save fuel and ride the torque lower down the rev range.
Meanwhile, the upside is that the high level of torque being produced, four times greater than last year at times, means that the drivers are really challenged in keeping the cars under control. Add in more weight and less downforce and we saw some incredible skills. The drivers won't like it, and no doubt downforce will be regained and engine power delivery calmed to an extent, but they will be revered for mastering these cars just like the '80s champions. There's now definitely more of an element of "I couldn't do that" for onlookers than in recent years.
The great surprise of the weekend was how well the new boys like Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat got on top of the wayward cars especially in wet qualifying, and it looks like being one of the stand-out features of the season with such great talent to watch.
I feel for Daniel Ricciardo after a stellar performance all weekend, I know what it's like to have a podium finish taken away from you when you've risked your life and given your all. The whole fuel meter issue will be an ongoing saga I suspect as the 100KG per hour fuel flow limit is a huge performance cap and differentiator.
Red Bull will now challenge the FIA as to who can monitor the fuel most accurately but I suspect that, having been told many times over the weekend including in the race that Ricciardo's car was consuming too much fuel (Sebastian Vettel's wasn't) that the team will lose the battle unless there's some irrefutable evidence. I remember the fuel counters in the previous turbo era and in sports car racing being accurate and that was 30 years ago. Other systems on the car are incredibly accurately managed but there seems to be a dispute and variation on this subject.
I found the start of the race slightly curious with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Vettel having apparently no speed compared with others, but only Alonso would continue sadly. Magnussen so nearly spun his McLaren in a straight line as the rear tyres lit up, something I managed to do in the 1987 Austrian GP in a turbo Zakspeed, wiping out a few others.
The double formation lap and Safety Car took away some of the fuel consumption issues but it was still unusual to witness the early lifting of the throttle for the corners. I guess we'll get used to that.
Thankfully we didn't have lots of easy overtakes, and in fact it seems that the KERS and DRS combo may not be as effective as last year in that respect. The likes of Valtteri Bottas were having to make the passes wheel-to-wheel in the corners which bodes very well. The cars actually looked faster despite much slower lap times because they were moving around in the high-speed corners.
Somewhat incredibly after the chaos of winter testing and the two previous days in Melbourne, we had 15 of the 22 cars running at the finish and two of the retirements were knocked out by Kamui Kobayashi's brake problem into the first corner.
This will normalise now over the next few races but the pace of the Mercedes, which I suspect was below their potential anyway, indicates a dominance even Red Bull didn't often enjoy. Let's hope their two drivers can race each other hard because the following pack thankfully look well matched.