Are formula 1 cars too quiet?

Last year, I was in Montreal just before the Canadian F1 Grand Prix. Chatting to fellow acousticians over a beer one evening, I was surprised to be told that they were taking ear plugs and muffs along to the race to protect their hearing. Up until then, I never realised how loud formula 1 cars were. At the Montreal race, acoustic engineer Craig Dolder took measurements, reporting peak levels of almost 140 dB; this is above the pain threshold [1].

2012 Canadian Grand Prix
2012 Canadian Grand Prix (c) Nic Redhead

For the 2014 season, the engines in the F1 cars have been radically changed. The piercing scream from the old V8 engine has been replaced by the more dulcet tones of the 1.6-litre V6 turbo. There have been complaints about the quietness of the new engines, and headlines like ‘Bernie Ecclestone admits to being ‘horrified’ by quiet engines on new F1 cars’ [2]
According to the sport’s governing body FIA, the sound pressure level for the new cars is 11 decibels lower than before (134 dB compared to 145 dB). [3] Normally in acoustics, a rule of thumb is that a 10 decibel change sounds likes a halving of loudness. Although, both new and old engines produce noise levels likely to produce pain in the ear.[4]
This YouTube video gives a great comparison (although the 2013 recording suffers from the recording device being overloaded):
The difference in the cars isn’t just about the absolute sound pressure level, there is also a big difference in the sound quality. The old scream has been replaced by a car sound that reminds me of a superhero’s car from a movie. The old V8 produced sound particularly in the frequency range 500 – 2500 Hz, this is the range where our hearing is particularly sensitive and at the top end is where human screams sound. The new engines are producing their energy about an octave lower, away from the range where the ear is most sensitive, and at a frequency lower than human screaming. No wonder fans have complained of a less visceral feeling.
Below are spectra comparing two onboard recordings of 2013 and 2014 cars.
2013 vs 2014 F1 engine spectra onboard
2013 vs 2014 F1 engine spectra onboard

One interesting thing to note in the YouTube video, is that in 2014 the spectators seemed to have dispensed with hearing defenders. If that is the case, the sound level reaching their ears would be greater with these new quieter cars. If I was an F1 fan, I’d much rather listen to the new cars, and be able to dispense with the hearing protection.


Photo: Nic Redhead from Birmingham, UK

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0 responses to “Are formula 1 cars too quiet?”

  1. To me I can see both sides of the argument. As an acoustician I can see the point that spectators need to protect their ears as 140dB is far too loud and especially for those who are at numerous races it will easily cause NIHL.
    As someone who likes to watch on TV however, I would say that the cars do not sound as ‘nice’ this year as they have sounded a certain way for many years and the new sound just doesn’t seem right (as if they aren’t going as fast)! Personally I would say they should try to maintain the way they sounded but with a priority of reducing the SPL first.
    Interesting article though!

  2. It seems deceptive to say that the new sound is less damaging, even though the spectrum shows less amplitude in the perceptually sensitive frequency range. How about weighting that (relative) spectrum in terms of absolute energy-at-frequency levels, and compare it with the (nominal) levels for temporary hearing damage for 4h periodic exposure? With increased energy at higher frequencies, I’d hedge a bet that the new engine might be more damaging than the old.

  3. quote “If I was an F1 fan, I’d much rather listen to the new cars, and be able to dispense with the hearing protection.”
    If you’d much rather listen to the sound of the new cars then that would go a very long way to explain why you’re not a fan of F1.

  4. Pretty bad when the pace car sounds better (more like a race car) than the actual race cars! I used to get excited coming home to watch a F1 race. Now they are slower than before, don’t seem to handle as well, and they have made it into a fuel economy race. To me this is just not racing! I cant get excited this year!

  5. The seriousness of the topic deserves appropriate factual reference to current research, no?
    Dolder’s work is detailed in a 2014 article in the journal Proceedings of Meetings on Acoustics by the Acoustical Society of America:

    Noise exposure in the general audience of a Formula 1 race:
    authors: Craig N. Dolder, Joelle I. Suits and Preston S. Wilson
    POMA 20, 040003 (2014);
    presentation: 5aNS7
    summary: “Formula 1 cars have a reputation for being among the loudest race cars. As such, noise exposure should be a major concern for not only drivers, crew and staff, but also audience members. Calibrated acoustic measurements were taken at multiple general admission areas at a Formula 1 race. Analysis of these measurements show that the exposure exceeded multiple standards for daily noise exposure limits within a fraction of the race. This presentation predicts the total noise exposure experienced at different track positions and what noise reduction rating would be required in order to reduce the exposure to safe levels.

  6. Its not f1 anymore. The sound is the reason why many fans love it. Seriously its the sound that make it so special.

  7. I remember one of the first “historic” races I attended. The rumble of the american V8s (GT40s, Cobras, T70s) was moving the ground at Montlhéry. and I thought it was even a better feeling than the current F1 cars I just heard in Castellet (this was back in the late seventies). I mostly enjoyed the sound of late sixties / early seventies Formula cars somtime in the early 2000s when the Force guys came to Le Mans where the grandstands provided a very welcome echo chamber. The last time I reallly apreciated the sound of “current” F1 cars was in 1992 at Spa, although they were rather too loud I admit. After that, digital control made the engines produce new kind of sounds, which I never came to like, whether loud or not, so I quit attending formula one races and I joyfully expect eletrical F1 to get ground. Better have no sound than a bad sound. Good sounds live in places like Goowood nowadays…

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