Needs more noise by Maurice Hamilton
With the increasing interest in Formula E, F1 needs to appeal to the senses
FORMULA One has reached a major crossroads. Decisions need to be made about its future technical direction and the choice, in simple terms, is stark.
Does F1 continue straight ahead and advance further into hybrid territory presided over by approving politicians and automotive boardrooms? Or does it make a sharp left and veer towards its roots, with entertainment rather than technology being the driving force?
There has been a sea change in priorities as manufacturers ock towards Formula E, a form of motorsport that is road relevant and massively accelerates development. In recent months, this relatively new formula has received a major boost as Porsche (having forsaken Le Mans and endurance racing) and Mercedes-benz join BMW, Renault and Jaguar in the all-electric series that races in major city centres.
Not only is it important for major automotive players to be seen to be going down this route, but Formula E costs 10% of the swingeing F1 development budget. The structure of the Formula E race weekend embraces the necessary corporate culture and, for motor companies, this is a no-brainer. It is, in their view, the future.
But, is it racing? Yes, it is, albeit with limitations that are being addressed and improved. Formula E is not a challenge to F1, merely a new and necessary division embraced by the FIA for which, lest we forget, sport is but a small part in the concept of global motoring.
Which brings us back to the cross- roads. If F1 is considered the pinnacle of motorsport, decisions need to be made not only about which road to take, but also about who is driving the bus? Should the manufacturers be given a loud voice to match their nancial clout? Does F1 need to continue down the turbo route because it suits the marketing and technical aims of the industry giants?
Currently, F1 engines are 1,6-litre V6 turbos with energy-recovery systems and fuel ow restrictions. The formula is due to change in 2021. The FIA and engine representatives have agreed the new formula should be louder, simpler and cheaper while retaining an element of engine recovery. But nothing else has been settled. Has the time come for F1 to dumb down road relevance and get away from a power unit being the performance differentiator without attracting the easy and predictable criticism of being retrograde?
F1 cars do not have active suspension, traction control or ABS. And rightly so; they should be beasts to drive. More than that, they should shake the ground and vibrate your breastbone. I was never a fan of the white noise emanating from a eld of high-revving V8s in the previous F1 era, but I do believe in a gutsy roar of power and performance that at least sounds dif cult for a driver to command.
Of many great motorsport memories I’ve accrued over the decades, one was an unexpected standout. When the Grand Prix went to Long Beach in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, we would make an annual trip to Ascot Park, a speedway sadly no longer in existence but, at the time, home of midgets and sprinters racing on a half-mile oval. It was a grubby place of fumes, drifting dust and ying dirt. It may not have been corporate America but Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt and the Unser brothers were part of the winning heritage. You had to go there and pay your respects.
As we pulled into the car park, practice was under way. The echo of a V8 from within the stadium ripped apart the warm evening air. It was a truly extraordinary sound. As the driver jabbed the throttle of this snorting monster, it invoked visions of some wild animal going completely berserk. Almost involuntary, you found yourself running through the gate and up to the fence. And that was just one car powering sideways under the oodlights. The sight of 20 and more going racing, side by side on opposite lock, would beggar belief. But the abiding memory is of that throaty bellow attacking the senses.
It made a return to F1 on the streets the following morning momentarily seem tame ... but we actually did not realise how lucky we were. The grids at the turn of the 1980s contained Ferrari, Matra and Alfa Romeo V12s, Ford V8s and Renault V6s; all of them vibrant and different. Long Beach was a sellout each year.
It is still early days, but F1 crowds are showing signs of returning, certainly to the classic tracks and part of the attraction is cars that have become more tricky to drive. However, they still don’t sound great. A solution could, in part, be the removal of a turbo from the exhaust and allowing the engine to clear its throat. But isn’t that just tinkering with the problem? Surely F1 ought to be thinking about kilometres per hour rather than kilometres per litre? Let Formula E advance and hum its stuff. Time for F1 to hook a left, burn some rubber and make a noise.
MAURICE HAMILTON is an internationally acclaimed full-time F1 reporter and author. A CAR contributor since 1987, he also writes for The Guardian in England and is the F1 commentator for BBC Radio’s 5 Live F1.