A tingle in my spine, shivers run up my neck, emotions on overload; I’m instantly transported back to Brands Hatch, July 1982.
A deep V6 rumble with a backing track of turbo spin pours from the Mercedes garage. Privacy boards part, first gear clicks into place, the engine noise rises, and a shiny silver Formula 1 car nose pokes into the early morning southern Spanish sunlight.
F1’s well overdue embracing of 21st century engine technology has finally arrived.
As Lewis Hamilton guides his gorgeous W05 along the Jerez pit lane, I must admit to being a little overcome with emotion.
While so many naysayers – young and old – had decried the only direction the sport could take, I had hoped that the sound would be akin to the fantastic noise emitted by the awesome V6 turbo engines of the early-to-late eighties. Preferring to wait – far better to experience the real thing, in a real car, in real time – I had studiously avoided the poor quality recordings of dyno-strapped 2014 power units so eagerly PR’d by the engine makers.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Sure, the sound isn’t as loud as that emitted by the rattly-bag-of-old-nails V8s, but that was never going to be the case. Instead we have a low rumble that rises in decibel count through a seamless delivery of tree-pulling torque to a proper race car noise. The hiss and flutter of the turbo working hard adds an interesting element to these monstrously complicated powertrains propelling the bright and somewhat bizarre-looking new cars.
The works Mercedes sounds good and markedly different in tone to the similarly powered McLaren, while the Ferrari has a flatter sound so reminiscent of the scarlet-coloured racers of 1982 and ’83.
Renault’s V6 powertrain – when it runs! – has a clearly audible turbo-spinning whistle. A result, I’m told, of the French engineers placing the turbocharger very close to the exhaust exit, rather than the more anterior position chosen by Mercedes.
While the noise of the cars didn’t disappoint, the look of some of them certainly did!
I’m not going to make sniggering references to the phallic appendages so hideously employed by a number of teams to solve the design challenges posed by the 2014 rules. Designers will always settle upon what they believe to be the most aerodynamically efficient solution, whether attractive or not.
No, my ire is entirely focused on the brilliant minds who think up these ridiculous regulations. The boffins who make up the Technical Working Group (TWG) have a lot to answer for. Sure, make the cars safer by insisting on down-to-the-ground front ends, but – while you’re doing that – is it really beyond your ‘expert’ capacity to phrase the specifics such that satirist-pleasing comedy ‘noses’ do not result?
Rule makers really should think ahead and be aware that the aesthetic attractiveness of a Formula 1 car is intrinsically linked to the historical appeal of the sport.
Ferrari technical director James Allison did just that, warning fellow TWG members that the cars were likely to be ugly as a result of the new rules, and suggesting the teams consider a different route. Sadly for all concerned, Allison’s sensible words fell on deaf ears; his counterparts in rival teams told him the designs would not develop in the way he was predicting.
Well the Caterham, the Lotus, the Toro Rosso, and the Force India all have hideous slapstick front ends, so just who the hell disagreed with Ferrari’s fortune teller?
Thankfully a few of the 2014 cars are pleasant to behold. The Mercedes with its lovely detailing and finish looks like a real world-beater until, that is, one sees the Red Bull RB10. What a beautifully proportioned car, long and smooth with a pure aesthetic. Of course we quickly found out Adrian Newey’s new racer has an unfortunate propensity to cook itself, as evinced by the holes hurriedly cut into its sleek carbonfibre bodywork so as to increase ventilation for the red hot Renault powertrain inside.
Resplendent in its all silver and black (lack of) colourway is the McLaren MP4-29. First impressions were not all good, with the Woking team’s front end treatment receiving mixed reviews. On track the car, both in looks and speed, appears to work very well. A pleasing silhouette gives an attached-to-the-road impression.
Ferrari’s F14 T is surely an acquired taste. From some angles the look works a treat, from others it’s a dogs dinner.
Throughout my F1 picture-taking career I’ve always taken a keen interest in the relative behavior of different cars and their drivers, and these new machines certainly provide plenty of subtle differences for one to enjoy.
Where last year one learnt so much about a car’s ability through medium and high-speed corners, this year, with lower levels of downforce and increased power delivery, it’s the slow corners and their exits that provide the interest.
On a number of occasions over the four-day Jerez test I witnessed cars behaving in a manner I’m not familiar with. Exiting Turn 2, for instance, Kimi Raikkonen – a driver with awesome levels of car control – appeared to struggle with the handling of his Ferrari. Out of shape at the rear, the car squirming this way and that – with visible body roll to the left and right – was something new to behold.
On day three at the Curva Ayrton Senna one witnessed surely the slowest spin ever, as Jean-Éric Vergne in his Toro Rosso pirouetted through 180 degrees, seemingly completely unable to do anything about it.
Later that afternoon, as he exited the Curva Dry Sac hairpin, Adrian Sutil dramatically lost control of his Sauber C33. The nature of the powertrain’s delivery seemingly caught the hapless German completely unawares as he tank-slapped his way towards the wall, with the resultant impact smashing the front wing and droopy nose.
Once free from his ride, Sutil’s bemused and befuddled expression exposed his apparent confusion.
Obviously the way in which the electronic control units manage the new powertrains, with all their energy harvesting and delivery, is proving difficult for the drivers to come to terms with. Jenson Button’s statement that he’s now driving the most powerful engine he’s ever pedaled is revealing. Tons of torque that just keeps coming. Driver and computers constantly judging power delivery…
We’ll see lots of tail-out slides and carbonfibre-crunching shunts this year. No doubt.
While some appeared to struggle, others looked smooth and precise. Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa looked confident and assured. Stand-out guy of the test, 21-year-old Danish hotshot Kevin Magnussen, showed proper levels of pace delivered in a lovely controlled and balanced fashion, seeming to be instantly comfortable with the new technology.
As troubled on track as many of the drivers appear to be, there’s a similar amount of bewilderment apparent from the engineers buried deep in the teams’ garages and technical trucks.
Hundreds of hours running powertrains in factory-based dyno rooms is valuable, no doubt, but nothing compares to actually driving at speed on a race track. In its very nature 90 per cent of all dyno work is relatively simple, with engines running to set programmes, starting off at a comfortable pace and gradually increasing in their simulated lap speeds so as to work the engine and provide reliable and useful data.
Of course the vagaries of F1 testing and race weekends played out over a 19-race season are challenges a factory based dyno can never deliver.
Whole new engine maps have to be written, tested, learnt and applied for warm-up laps and especially the rain. Sure this has been the case in the past, but we’re talking a whole new level of complexity as a result of the advanced – and very new to F1 – technology now in use.
Thousands of man hours are being spent by the teams learning how all the ones and zeros can be knitted together to make as efficient, powerful, drivable, reliable, fuel-efficient and fast a powertrain as possible.
Plumes of white smoke as powertrains expire will be a frequent sight this year. No doubt.
One top team technical guru opined to me that F1 2014 is all about thirds. A third the powertrain, a third aerodynamics and a third how a team/driver uses them both…
Two tests to go before Melbourne, so we’ll see how things develop, but I’d say it’s a strong chance that the hare might be the fashionable ride to have on March 16 but the tortoise will be the winner…