OK kids…

Noise, or lack of it. Frankly I really didn’t want to have to write another article about this but here we go.

Toot Toot Mercedes tests its new "Megaphone" c/o James Moy Photography

Toot Toot
Mercedes tests its new “Megaphone”
c/o James Moy Photography

Today in Spain, Mercedes is testing a new “megaphone” exhaust outlet on the W05. Some are saying it looks ridiculous. Some are saying it sounds the same but a little bit louder. Some are saying it makes no difference at all. I’m not there so I can’t tell you one way or another.

But long before I was a motorsport journalist, I was a musician. Classically trained at Worcester Cathedral, I grew up not only using my voice as a Chorister but I was also a brass player, starting with the Cornet at the age of 6, moving up to the Trumpet when my lungs got a little larger, before taking on what is widely seen as the most majestic and hardest brass instrument of all, the French Horn.

So I’m going to come at this predominantly from a musical perspective, not an F1 tech angle.

The Megaphone c/o Mercedes AMG twitter

The Megaphone
c/o Mercedes AMG twitter

From the looks of things, what Mercedes has put onto the back of its car is fairly simple. I made the comment yesterday that it appeared rudimentary. The team said of course it was, it was just a development part. And, not wishing to jump the gun, I’m not sure from a musical perspective it was ever going to do much.

A megaphone at the 1908 Olympics

A megaphone at the 1908 Olympics

If we look at megaphones in their simplest form, their intention is to magnify noise. In a basic instance their construction is easy enough to replicate as all we need is a conical device… think about being at school and rolling up a piece of paper to amplify your voice, or being on a boozy night out and using a traffic cone to do the same. We’ve all done it.

In this regard, Mercedes was right to dub its development part a megaphone rather than adopt a name with any relation to a brass instrument… and here’s why.

The Brass Family

The Brass Family

The Brass family all have flared bells. This maximises the reach of the sound, whilst also creating a clean, smoother exit for the note. In the past, it is a design concept which has been adopted in Public Address systems at sporting venues around the world for that very reason.

PA Systems

PA Systems

But on the back of a car you are going to start pushing the exhaust gasses out in a far wider and less controlled arc, thus creating instability to the rear wing… thus I would imagine the decision to go with a straight cone, rather than a flared bell. Such a flared bell however would push the sound more to the extremities of the track where the microphones are positioned, as this megaphone will simply keep pushing the sound rearwards.

While the flared bell would produce a clearer and richer note, however, even that would not solve the issue.

Brass Mouthpieces

Brass Mouthpieces

The reason for this, stems from the point of input. What makes the note in a brass instrument, long before the air passes through the many feet of tubing, the valves and finally exits through the bell, is that initial entry through the mouthpiece. You’d be amazed at the sheer range and design differences in brass mouthpieces, all of which require the player to use a different embouchure. The embouchure, in layman’s terms, is how you pucker up your lips and blow.

Then we have the mouthpiece itself. A shallow cup would be used for an instrument in a high key, while a deep cup improves the tone for lower register instruments. The larger the cup, the larger the volume (think Tuba), while a small cup requires less strength but can limit the tone. Then there’s the shape itself and the internal construction, with a French Horn, for example, using a more tapered mouthpiece than almost every other brass instrument to create a rich tone.

The point is, if the sound at the entry point isn’t right, the sound on exit isn’t going to sound right either. No matter what type of outlet you have and no matter how loud you make it.

Fart down a trumpet, fart down a megaphone, ultimately all you’re going to get at the other end is a loud fart. Your arse is not going to magically create Mozart’s horn concerto.

Arse Trumpets c/o Monty Python

Arse Trumpets c/o Monty Python

A video has leaked out of testing today, and already people are saying the engine note is unimpressive, sounds worse, whatever. But the video is misleading. It features poor sound reproduction at a part of the track where the car is mid corner and not under constant acceleration and so it is impossible to determine what the true sound is. Factor in also that the film is taken from the side and the exhaust is only shooting the sound backwards, not flaring it outwards.

The FIA has taken sound experts along to Barcelona today and of course they are far better placed than any of us to decide whether the “megaphone” has made a difference and needs to be written into the rules. Of course it is Bernie who has pushed for this, so it’ll be interesting to note what FOM will be doing in terms of microphone positioning etc regardless of the outcome, because of course this will need to be tested further and then the teams will have be sure it won’t be causing them to lose performance et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

All of which just seems a bit daft.

The complaint that led to this development being tested is that the current engines are not loud enough, but such a complaint has come from a misplaced and uninformed position. What people actually miss is the pitch and the tone of the old engines. The problem with the sound has nothing to do with volume which can always be sorted in the mix.

These engines sound as they do. Amplifying them isn’t going to change that. At all.

Frankly, the only really sensible comment I’ve seen all day has been from my colleague Roberto Chinchero.

“My personal feeling: motorsport is a story of men fighting each other on the track. The rest are tools to do it.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.