Sriram Narayanan on: F1 engine sounds

Posted by Sriram Narayanan at 11:33 am on Friday August 01, 2014

For around 26 years, I lived in a locality in central Mumbai, that’s always been subjected to violent sounds. There’s no telling what people take to for kicks, relief, relaxation, peace of mind… some take to bungee jumping, some go on a vacation, many enroll for Vipasana, some take to drugs. But the people in my locality seemed to seek salvation through renovations. Home renovations. Just moved in? Renovate. Relatives coming over? Renovate. Kids finished their board exam? Renovate. Some money lying around? Renovate. Monsoons over? Renovate. Summer about to begin? Renovate. Great grandmother died after a prolonged illness? Renovate. So, in those 26 years, there were only a few days when I couldn’t hear the sound of drills, hammers, graters and the worst – marble cutters.

Which is when my respect for internal combustion petrol engines grew. Every activity that involves machines also involves creating a racket. Your blender makes a racket. So does your hair-dryer. The washing machine will sound like it’s struggling through time travel at the peak of its spinning cycle. Even the water purifier makes high-pitched tones that makes birds outside your window change their nesting locations.

The internal combustion engine is never silent but it has a rhythm, a tempo and varying degrees of pitch. It murmurs, it roars, it sounds like it can express its moods and its state of mind without actually having one. The other man-made, racket-making devices that can do this? A violin, a saxophone, a mridangam, or what are broadly defined as musical instruments.

The beauty of internal combustion, though, is that it was never devised as an object that makes glorious sounds. The glorious sounds were just an incidental after-affect. Until now. Because turbocharging is killing the glory and throttle spontaneity of the internal combustion engine.

The 4.7-litre V8 of the old Maserati Quattroporte sounded like Pandit Jasraj. The new Quattroporte’s 3.8 turbo V8 sounds like Yo Yo Honey Singh. Audi’s 3.2 V6 in the TT sounded like Balamurali Krishna. The current TT’s 2.0-litre turbo sounds like Himesh Reshamiya. The old Ford Fiesta’s 1.6-litre 100bhp engine was incredible. The as-small-as-an-A4-sheet 1.0-litre EcoBoost in the Ford EcoSport sounds as tedious as climbing mountains in high heels. But turbocharging is the only way forward. These engines sound nothing like their naturally-aspirated predecessors, but their ability to touch 100kph quicker and go further on every litre of petrol is a fact that no amount of high-revving engines and thundering exhausts can suppress.

Turbocharged engines can be smaller in cubic capacity, and have fewer cylinders, yet they are more powerful than their naturally-aspirated fathers. If motoring journalists like me rue the passing of natural aspiration, you should ignore us. We pay for neither our cars nor our fuel.

As for engaging soundtracks, well, diesels used to be hopeless not too long ago. So were automatic transmissions. So it’s only a matter of time before turbocharged engines make no one miss natural aspiration.

Which brings me to Formula One. And the complaint that the new 1.6-litre turbo V6s sound horrible on an F1 track. I don’t know how these new F1 engines sound. Because I can’t be bothered to tune into a TV channel or waste bandwidth on YouTube to watch some teaser qualifying session. But I’ll say this. If I watch the World Rally Championship or the Moto GP or any Touring Car Championship with volume on mute, or in frozen frames, or in slow motion, I’d still find it more entertaining than an F1 race with cars running on loud 16-cylinder engines. So turbo engines and noses resembling human organs is frankly the last things F1 fans should be worried about.


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