That didn’t last long. Fernando Alonso quit F1 on Sunday in Abu Dhabi and was driving a Grand Prix car again on Monday. It was an unplanned (it says here) run in a 2013 McLaren to tie in with a promotional event swapping cars with seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson. Typically, Fernando used the occasion to make a noise in more ways than one.
He said the sound fired from the exhausts of the Mercedes V8 reminded him of an essential ingredient that has been smothered by F1 technology. Even allowing for Fernando’s tendency to roll a smoking bomb under the door and walk away with a cheeky grin, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. But not everyone agrees.
The very same subject came up last Saturday night at the annual Sparks Celebration of Motorsport in Northern Ireland (where, incidentally, a fantastic £45,000 was raised for Action Medical Research; a big ‘Thank You’ to the F1 teams who helped out). Sir Patrick Head was the principal guest.
By way of introduction, a short video about Williams opened with shots of a Williams-BMW testing at Silverstone. The sound of that V10 echoing around the room later prompted more than one unfavourable comparison with today’s hybrid V6. It became even more difficult to argue with such a simple contrast as the bar continued to generate its own noise beyond midnight.
It was worth mentioning, however, that the V10 era had been more aurally acceptable than the V8 and, in isolation on a lonely race track, either multi-cylinder configuration did indeed raise the pulse. But when more than a dozen V8s were running together for five minutes, it quickly became a white wall of impenetrable, unrelenting sound that made communication impossible and drowned out the sound of public commentary to keep spectators informed about important details such as who was actually leading once the pit stops began.
The situation was exacerbated by each V8 having an identical high-pitched screech; the inevitable outcome, I suppose, of rule refinement. Increasing technical proscription was never likely to allow a return to engine melodies so varied that you could tell exactly which car was coming before it swept into view.
As an avid fan in the late Sixties, I lugged a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder (the audio equivalent of today’s hand-held digital device) to Brands Hatch and recorded F1 cars coming out of Surtees and accelerating hard through the gears towards Hawthorn.
Non-racing mates worried about my sanity when I could not only tell a Ferrari V12 from a BRM V12 (the Ferrari had a more melodious yet urgent sound) but also a Lotus from a McLaren even though both were powered by the Ford-Cosworth V8. That was made easy by the Lotus 49 having chromed exhausts which emitted a more mellow note that the other DFV users. And the Brabham-Repco V8, with its megaphone tail pipes, was different again. (At the Race of Champions, at the same circuit, earlier in the season, it was even possible to identify the works Lotus 49s from the one in the hands of the privateer, Pete Lovely; but only because the American’s gear change was painfully slow! Sorry: I digress.)
Totally different days, I know, but the fundamental point of needing a stirring, urgent exhaust sound remains valid, even if we’re locked in stereotyped hybrid technology. It’s true that the current power units are much improved since the dreadful drone of 2014, but they still don’t quite stir the soul. They should. As a priority. But please, Fernando; not like the dreadful, high-revving V8s