Formula One engineers are a tricky lot. Their job is to take the rules and stretch them as far as they will go. A few years ago, somebody figured out how to take the hot exhaust from the engines and duct it under the car so it flowed back over the diffuser, adding downforce at the rear of the car. Pretty soon, every car in the pit lane had weird exhaust pipes that ran forward from the engine compartment to direct exhaust gasses underneath the car.
When the new hybrid rules package went into effect at the start of the 2014 season, FIA rule makers went out of their way to forbid such shenanigans. They required the cars to have just one exhaust pipe that exited at the rear of the car and behind the diffuser. The era of the “blown diffuser” was over.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the race track. The new powertrains, which make heavy use of exhaust gasses to spin turbochargers, are about as quiet as a ’56 Chevy with the Blue Flame 6 cylinder engine. The fans complained. The drivers complained. The race promoters complained. Bernie Ecclestone complained. Sebastien Vettel said it sounded like he was driving a vacuum cleaner instead of a race car. Here, for your edification and amusement, is a YouTube video that captures the sound of F1 machines over the years. It includes twin turbo V-6, V-8, V-10 and v-12 engines. This, boys and girls, is what Formula One cars are supposed to sound like.
What has everyone upset is that the new engines sound like what you hear in the video below. It doesn’t help that today’s engines rev about 10,000 rpm less than the engines of prior years. Blame that on fuel flow restrictions. The rule makers have made it so the drivers have to keep their engines from turning too fast in order to conserve fuel. The teams have tried various things to make the cars louder, including one especially odd device that looked for all the world like a megaphone welded to the end of the exhaust pipe –which is exactly what it was. It didn’t help.
Leading up to the 2016 season, the rules have been modified to allow one or two separate exhaust pipes running straight back from the turbocharger in an effort to increase the sound of the engines. Mercedes’ engine chief, Andy Colwell, told F1 Technical at the start of winter testing in Barcelona last week that the waste gate pipe works as a silencer on the main exhaust. In particular when the waste gate is closed, its pipe is actually a dead end, making it a dampening chamber on the main exhaust. By removing that dead end, and creating a separate exhaust pipe for the waste gate, the sound “is more pure, with less distortion”.
Basically, some teams have added two small diameter pipes that exit below the main exhaust. Viewed from the rear, they look like an inverted Mickey Mouse logo. Not surprisingly, the teams have dubbed this arrangement the Mickey Mouse solution. Other teams have added a single small diameter pipe above the main exhaust pipe. It looks like a snowman and so that is exactly what it is called. Does either arrangement make the engine sound louder and more pleasing to fans? We will find out in 17 days when the cars take to the track for the first race of the season in Melbourne, Australia.
This isn’t the end of the story, though. Bernie Ecclestone is still firmly opposed to the new engine rules and wants to go back to using V-8’s. Whatever Bernie wants, Bernie usually gets — eventually. There are rumors of big changes coming for 2017, but rumors are a constant part of Formula One competition. In fact, were it not for rumors, there would be very little to talk about in a sport that seems hellbent on self destruction.