During the first round of practice for the U.S. Grand Prix, I stood on a grassy hill about 50 feet from Turn 1 and had a lovely chat with a Jalopnik reader at just above room-level volume as the cars blasted past us. Neither of us wore earplugs. Last year, that would have been impossible.
There are a lot of things I love about going to a Formula One race. One of the biggest is the noise. It's indescribable. Back when they ran the 2.4-liter naturally aspirated V8 cars, you could hear the engines' high-pitched howl from miles away. When you arrived at the track, you could feel the sound in your chest and in the base of your skull. F1 cars didn't just race, they flew around the track screaming like banshees.
To put it simply, you needed earplugs.
The 2014 season, now on its way to wrapping up, brought with it new engines. They're smaller 1.6-liter turbo hybrid V6 motors now. And the audio experience just isn't the same.
I'm not reporting anything new. We've all known about the difference in sound since the beginning of the season. F1 supremo and possible real-life Bond villain Bernie Ecclestone famously said he was "horrified" by how they sound. It's a bad day when I agree with Bernie Ecclestone on anything.
But reading about the engines and hearing them through TV speakers can't compare to what they sound like in real life. I'd shoot some video with my phone to prove it to you, but the FIA doesn't like when people do that, and it wouldn't do it justice either.
You'll have to take my word that the new F1 motors are a disappointment. That epic, ear-splitting wail I came to love has been replaced with a low-pitched drone that's way too muffled and has far too much air sucking noise. They just kind of hum along now like vacuum cleaners or high-powered lawn care equipment.
It's like going to see your favorite Norwegian black metal band only to learn they decided at the last minute to play an acoustic set. Bummer.
There are several of reasons for this. First, the new engines now redline at 15,000 RPM, lower than the 18,000 RPM redline of the V8s. (ETA: And as several of you pointed out, it's really more like 10,500 RPM with the fuel cutoff.) Also, as with street cars, the turbocharger acts as a muffler, cutting off much of that sound.
One interesting outcome is that it's a little easier now to hear the differences in sound between the individual power units. The Mercedes engines have a deep, guttural growl; the Renault engines in the Red Bulls and other cars have more of a mid-level hum; and the Ferrari engines have moments where they put out that revvy, high-pitched sound we love so much. Say what you want about Ferrari, but they're good at sound.
I don't want to complain too much. I'm still thrilled to cover one of the greatest racing spectacles in the entire world; it's fantastic that F1 is here in Austin and in the U.S. And despite the smaller grid, we're in for great weather and hopefully a great race. Sound is just one part of what makes this sport great, and in no way does the change make it not worth going to.
I'll just miss that V8 noise is all.