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Why the new Formula 1 engines provide a fascinating multi-faceted noise

Having been trackside in Melbourne, Mark Hughes is a fan of how the new 1.6 turbo powerunits sound

Kvyat, Raikkonen and Massa
Image: Mark Hughes: Was a fan of how the new engines sounded in Melbourne

Each morning of the Melbourne grand prix weekend, at around 7am the two-seater 3-litre V10 Minardi would blast around the circuit, Zsolt Baumgartner at the wheel giving passenger rides.

Many of the beleaguered Lotus mechanics had only gone to bed at 6am so they were probably less than impressed, but for the city in general that soundtrack has always been a statement that F1 is in town, its own aural signature.

Even from half a mile away you could follow Zsolt's progress corner by corner as that huge blanket of hardcore high-pitched F1 volume bounced off the surrounding buildings. On Sunday it's doubtful whether the whole grid of the new age V6 turbos made as much noise as that old Supertec V10.

Yet close-up, it was a fascinating multi-faceted noise. From trackside in a braking area you'd hear the whistle and whine of turbo and cam gears, the rumble of resistance as torque was taken from the rear axle and fed to the battery, you'd hear part-throttle hesitancy and then a beautifully cultured V6 howl. It was the low volume that made it possible to distinguish the various phases, just as you'd also hear the occasional squeal and chirrup of tyre - or what they were saying on the PA, or the question the person sitting next to you was asking.

As they flashed by at enormous speed on the straight - visibly quicker than the V8 cars ever did - the mixture of mechanical, turbo and electrical sounded pure space age, actually very like the pod race soundtrack in the Star Wars Phantom Menace film.

The lower volume also somehow enhanced the Doppler effect as they came past you because no longer are they simply very loud all the time; now they feel as if they are exploding out of a vacuum into your dimension and out again. As the drivers then stand on the brakes and the rear end begins to twitch and float menacingly, they really do look as if they are wrestling with wickedly potent and wayward machines. This is somehow made more menacing by the lack of volume.

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But that's just my take. That of most fans is very different. They loved the old blanket of ear-piercing volume. Already plans are being made to pump up the volume at some stage during the season.

More from Mark Hughes Column

It's a difficult dilemma because on the one hand there has been a fan backlash against the artificial and inauthentic triggered by the double points final round and including also DRS wings. But on the other, many of those same fans so against that would now like to see the engines made artificially louder. There's a balance to be struck, but in the meantime just why are the latest engines so much quieter?

An internal combustion engine converts the chemical energy contained within the fuel into motive power. But only about 30% of the fuel's latent energy gets used for this. Most of the rest is lost to heat - ie 70% of that potential power goes straight out the exhaust. Using the exhaust heat to drive a turbo which compresses the air being fed into the engine means a big chunk of that energy is recaptured.

With a turbocharged engine there is far less energy being pumped out of the tailpipe. Therefore there is far less sound. This is the dominant factor in the reduced volume, though not the only one. The engine itself is smaller by one-third, meaning there is less physical moving mass to make a sound and then there is the six-into-two-into-one exhaust arrangement, as demanded by the regulations. This forces the harmonics to be resolved within a single tailpipe.


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