McLaren driver Jenson Button came to Budapest on Tuesday to show what it’s like to do 150 MPH on a downtown avenue. What must be a PR burden for a modern F1 driver is an aural delight for an entire city, sweltering in the early spring heat. The McLaren was loud in a rather cosmic way.
These things happen because Formula One is financed by big companies and big companies—British telecom Vodafone in McLaren’s case—are not always content with having their logos slathered all over racing cars which grace hundreds of millions of television screens every other Sunday. Sometimes, they demand more of the fabulously talented and lucky young men who get paid fabulous amounts of money to race fabulously fast experimental machinery. Sometimes, these men have to suit up between races and entertain the masses.
Budapest was the scene of Jenson Button’s crafty win last summer on an uncharacteristically wet and chilly Hungaroring. His return to the city, nine months later, coincided with conditions typical for Hungarian Grands Prix but very atypical for spring in Budapest: dry, 90-degree heat. This time, he raced not in the dust bowl 20 miles from town, where the Hungaroring is, but on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út, an avenue which cuts a diagonal across downtown Budapest.
Gawker Media, the company which publishes this website, has an office in downtown Budapest, and Button’s impromptu circuit came to within 100 yards of that office. For a few glorious minutes, I got to experience what it’s like to live in Monaco during the Grand Prix. In an empty conference room, drink in hand, I closed my eyes and listened to Button’s impossibly loud car doing burnouts outside the windows, then accelerating off in the direction of the Gustave Eiffel-designed Nyugati railway station. This is what beautiful, manic engineering will do with 2.4 liters of displacement and a very short exhaust manifold. The noise was all-enveloping, it was alien, diaphanous, crystalline. The windows rattled in their 120-year-old frames.
I never saw Button’s car, but I heard it was the very car he scored his greatest win with, at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix, where he came from last place to pick apart an imperial Sebastian Vettel and force him into a mistake on the last lap.
I have no idea how Formula One’s 1.6-liter turbos, to be introduced for the 2014 season, will sound like. They may sound wonderful. They may sound crap. But the current 2.4-liter V8’s, like the Mercedes-Benz FO 108Y fitted into Button’s McLaren MP4-26, are an epiphany. Go and hear one while you can.
Photo by Gergely Rácz.