Hey, you, what’s that sound?


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.

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33 thoughts on “Hey, you, what’s that sound?

  1. I can’t believe the FIA are wasting time and resources on this, let alone the teams. Before the season began, we only heard about how forward-looking and innovative F1 had become; how this was going to be the beginning on an exciting new era. Five races into the season, and the sport’s leading organizations are pandering to a minority (which I suspect is growing smaller and smaller) that is threatened by change. It’s contradictory, and undermines the series’ new direction. Most of the time, F1 can’t see the forest for the trees. However Bernie leaves FOM, I hope his departure ushers in changes that will make this sport more fan and team friendly. But I’m not optimistic.

  2. So what you’re saying is that the engine manufacturers need to create a different embouchure?

    Very good read as always!

          • Oh the whole thing is a misplaced complaint. Making it louder will silence the majority of whingers though, and make any who then change their complaint to ‘wrong type of noise’ look even sillier than they already do.

            That said I’m in favour of just leaving it as it is. I like the new noise and new noise level. Others will grow to like it. Or go watch Nascar, their loss!

  3. Pointless, nothing wrong with the sound. Stuff like this just makes F1 look silly and desperate. Just tell the complainers to p off or get used to it.

  4. Pingback: Mercedes tests new megaphone; tough to get a true reading (VIDEO) | MotorSportsTalk

  5. That thing really looks bad. It makes F1 look less professional and more cartoonish.

    Now, I don’t particularly mind the sound of the new engines. The old sound was rather annoying. Far too high-pitched. Kinda like listening to someone scream at you for 2 hours non-stop.

  6. perhaps a mouthpiece at the airbox entrance would help? lmao :) Nice blog as usual Will, you seem to be one of the few voices who are worth listening to or in this case reading in this crazy new world of ‘modern’ F1. Keep up the good work.

  7. As usual, great piece, Will. My favorite was the comparison to the Monty Python arse horns! How totally appropriate and Graham Chapman is smiling down at you as we speak.

  8. I think the pitch is the main problem with the sound, and getting a higher one would seemingly only come from allowing the teams to rev the engine another 3,000-4,000 rpm. Then it might more closely resemble that of the V-8s. Even if the FIA did allow this, I’m not sure the teams would do it since the power units were not designed for it. For the time being, i’ve just resorted to cranking up the surround sound. It helps a little, as you get to hear the turbo whistle and other noises a bit more.

  9. Will, I also have a musical background – not that I was particularly good but I also played brass instruments, and marched a Sousaphone in a couple Rose Bowls. High reving engines have always made a kind of music. The old Ferrari V12s were magical as they reached for 18,000 rpm. And it didn’t need to be super loud – the old CART turbo V-8s sounded wonderful – I had an old girlfriend that almost swooned the first time she heard one in full song on the Portland International back straight.
    I’ve not heard the current F1 engines in-person, but the sound simply lacks that musical quality. Even the current crop of Indycar engines sound better (at least on TV).
    Not a clue how to ‘fix’ it, but it should tell you something that your network teasers for upcoming races always feature engine sounds from last season.

  10. Great article as always Will. I think the real solution to improve the sound would be for the teams to run the engines up the the full 15000 rpm redline. Granted, that would invite new issues pertaining to traction and drivability, however the extra 4-5000 rpm would create the higher pitched tone that many people seem to be missing from previous seasons.

  11. This post is hilarious. We got a music lesson and I would never expect that from F1 blog, yet alone, that is was a valid post. Because… F1 heads worry about noise and want to use a megaphone! To make this “strange” noise even louder! Man, just enjoy the racing. Is MB AMG the new McLaren of 1988? Can they win the most races in history? Can HAM keep it up and beat ROS? Will Vettel win in Monaco? Man, leave that sound bull$ alone. I’m not talking about Will, just top heads. Oh, what about the double points nonsense that fans really care about and hate it? No worries… the last race organizes paid for this “excitement”…

  12. Ha Ha… That picture of the chaps farting through megaphones describes what the F1 cars sound like perfectly. Not only is it the volume, but it’s the – well, farting sound they make.

  13. Will – interesting to learn more about your own history! I too am a classical singer and former brass player (trombone). Thank you for the explanations you’ve provided to everyone in this post. It has made me laugh this year when people complain about the engine noise – I think it’s the pitch/frequency they’re missing but can only describe it as volume. A tenor singing a full voiced middle C is never going to rattle your ears the same as their full voiced top C. At the moment, the regulations (or lets call it sheetmusic) doesn’t require the tenor to use his upper register, so even handing him a megaphone won’t make his song sound different or more thrilling.

  14. One of the neatest motor sport moments for me was a couple years ago at Petite Le Mans when I heard the Audi LMP1 cars for the first time in person. I had heard them on tv and all that, but in person… Wow! This was the season before the Hybrids. The fact that a race car with that capability could be so quite, was just insane to me. We have been taught all this time that the louder it is, the faster it goes! Top Fuel is proof of that… And here right in front of me was the proof shattering that belief. It was not two hours had gone by and I was so over hearing the loud V8 and V10 motors go by.

    I have read alot of comments about the megaphone where people keep saying they don’t want it because it is manufactured noise. They must not like Will’s beloved brass, they must not like any road car ever. You really think that the Ferrari road cars, Corvette, Porsche, even the new P1, that the way their exhaust sounds is what the engine sounds like? No way, they have spent millions to make the exhaust sound the exact note they want, and it is done in the exhaust! Hell, you switch modes on the P1 and the exhaust gives you a different note! I commend Mercedes to try, and I hope they keep trying. But for the love of god, I still want to be able to hear all the electrical motors and systems and hear the tires squealing like we have finally been able to hear! Besides, obviously Merc does not want any of the engine rules changed.

    Side note: Why does it seem with the new quieter engines, we still get garbled radio!? Even the drivers have said that it is so quiet in the cockpit, that they can hear the air whistling by, when they were not hearing that before.

  15. “Your arse is not going to magically create Mozart’s horn concerto.” Pretty sure I heard that in a lesson during my undergrad from my horn professor…

    This was great, Will. Totally on point.

  16. To your point about embouchure: a smaller embouchure/aperture will create more vibrations/second. That’s how we play high notes on brass instruments. The old v8 sound is akin to a trumpet or trombone playing in the high register, or rather a lrage section of both. The new sound reminds me of a bass trombone (just one or two) that’s just warming up.

  17. Will, I promised I would reserve judgment until hearing the cars for myself. Well now I have (in Montreal), and they sound like s**t. The race was incredible, as we all know. But lap after lap, as I heard the cars approaching, I longed for beautiful wail to which I’ve grown accustomed over the last few decades. Some of the magic has been lost – and the case for attending in person versus watching on TV is definitely less convincing. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many reasons to love F1. But in my eyes (or ears), it’s lost a bit of its sparkle.

    It’s also worth noting that this sentiment is not limited to the hardened fan. I’ve brought many uninitiated friends to Grands Prix over the years, and converted most to proper fans. And when I’d hear them describe the experience to friends and family upon their return home, the glorious sound featured prominently in their tales, nearly without exception. This year, I brought three more friends to Montreal. All had fun, but seemed relatively nonplussed by the F1 cars. When asked on Friday night what they liked best, they all (enthusiastically) agreed the historic F1 cars were their favorites. When asked why, the answer was simple: they loved the sound.

    But it’s important to note – for me and my guests – that this is NOT a question of volume: the cars are plenty loud enough. The issue is that they sound ugly and uninspiring – like a rusty Toyota Camry with a hole in the muffler (particularly the Mercedes-engined cars, which somehow sound even more flatulent).

    And to my great frustration, this point seems completely lost on the powers-that-be, who (as best I can tell) unanimously interpret complaints from fans to be demands to make the cars louder. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly don’t want the rusted-out Camry’s to be even louder. I want the return of cars that sounds musical – sounds that would bring a smile to Enzo’s face. And I certainly don’t want more artificial NASCAResque veneers applied in a desperate and half-hearted attempt to conceal past misjudgments by the governing body.

    If they want the cars to sound better, they’ll add two cylinders (or better yet, six), kill the fuel-flow restrictions, and allow them to rev like unrestricted racing engines should rev. If they want to keep the turbos and small displacement and ERS, that’s fine – the cars can still sound great. But a V6 will never sound good (I don’t understand why, but IMO, it is the ugliest sounding cylinder configuration – even flat-4’s sound better) and no one will ever by awe-struck by something that sound like it revs about as high as my sister’s minivan.

    And because that will require a major rules change, it won’t happen overnight – if at all. Jean Todt (among others) has far too much ego invested to even consider a change right now. The manufacturers claim these regulations are critical to their participation (though they must not be too happy with the reception the engines are receiving). And while none of them should be concerned with sunk costs, I’m sure it will be tough to say “well, there’s $1bn wasted…now let’s start again”.

    But I hope, that if they believe that the sound is a problem and they’re serious about fixing it, they’ll recognize that this is what it will take. Any chance we can get them to listen…?

    PS: The 8-speed boxes are also contributing to the “problem”. Combined with the lower revs (which means lower ratios) the rev range is tiny now.

  18. Pingback: The sound of a F1 car

  19. Will-
    A friend of mine just introduced me to your blog. After reading several entries, I must compliment on your keen insight into our sport.

    Having said that, I want to comment on the sound of the new engines. I have been attending the Canadian GP for years. I will never forget my first day on the island walking to our seats at the start of FP1. The sound of the engines sent chills down my spine. It is the same sensation as when the jet(s) fly over the track after the national anthem. The bridge to Grandstand 11 was a shift point after the cars left the Senna curve. The sound was extraordinary. You could literally feel the shear power of the cars.

    I’ve listened to the sound of the engines change over the years. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to attend this year’s Canadian GP to actually hear what all the hubbub was about.

    As you have pointed out, TV has never presented a true representation of the sound of these cars. This year is no different. However, after experiencing the sound first hand, I agree with you. It’s as exciting as it has always been. It’s just different. The pitch is lower and it is not as loud. But it is still powerful. It’s a fascinating combination of engine, spinning turbos and a couple other sounds that we couldn’t identify. But again, just as exciting.

    Thanks again for your insights.

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