Formula One Engine Noise

A open letter to Jean Todt, president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA),

Dear Jean,

I have some experience in the world of sound, both as a musician and a record producer. I also have some experience attending Formula 1 races. Regarding the recent criticism of the new rules and lack of loudness of the F1 cars, I applaud the reduction in engine noise levels for this season, and I think Luca Di Montezemolo's analysis that it is the "music of the engine, not the noise" that needs to be addressed is spot on. But louder is not better.

The attitude that "F1 is extreme from first to last" comes from an era 40+ years ago - the very same era when a driver was killed at almost every race. The safety of the drivers, crew, and audience has improved exponentially since that time. However, the legacy perception that louder engines provide a direct injection of macho bravado, a sense of danger, speed, urgency and wonder is just that - a perception - and perceptions can be changed.

It is now time to look at the consequences of excessive noise, and the damage it has inflicted on all of F1's participants. There are a couple of issues that come to mind.

First, the engine noise of previous seasons has been dangerously loud. As you are no doubt aware, the human pain threshold starts at around 110dB. The medical experts all agree that unprotected exposure to over 120dB for more than 9 seconds is considered severely hazardous, and continuous exposure to over 85 dB without hearing protection for extended periods will cause permanent hearing loss.

The major symptoms of this level of noise include hearing loss, sleep interference, pain, vertigo, blood vessel constriction, blood pressure increase, heart rate increase, increased hormone production (stress), as well as reduced productivity/output, and increased errors. The last thing the sport ever needs are more errors on the track and in the pits.

The engines prior to the 2014 season generated noise in excess of 140dB. We know noise diminishes the further away it is, but I have personally measured the ambient engine noise to be in excess of 120dB at several track side locations, most recently at the back of the stands/audience immediately after turn one in Austin, Texas, where drivers are at full throttle. Parents bring their children to F1 races, and all I can say is God help those people in the front row.

I've also experienced the effect of F1 engine noise in semi-enclosed spaces. One public location is under the East Coast Parkway (ECP) at the Singapore track - where sound is contained by the massive concrete roadway above and reflected straight back down onto the audience adding to the cumulative noise levels. At least the Singapore track has the good sense to give ear plugs out to every attendee.

Second, the success of the FIA's new Formula E races will never be dependent on any kind of loud engine noise. Formula E's engine noise is going to be around 80dB versus the 130dB for F1. There is a lot that can be learned from lowered engine noise in F1 that can be applied to Formula E, and vice-versa. If Formula E can do it, F1 really has no excuse.

Thirdly, excessive engine noise is actually a major commercial liability, as it handicaps the earning potential of F1. I'm sure F1's commercial rights holders will be interested in finding out how much money they actually are losing over this. Up until now, circuit audiences were limited to those who would put up with the overbearing noise. Sponsors get the privilege of sound-proofed enclosures to enjoy the race from, but the the average race-goer does not. They will not bring family, and certainly will not bring small children to excessively loud races. If you want to expand the paying audiences that will show up at the circuits, you've got to address the sound levels track side.

Lower sound levels will not materially impact F1 race broadcasts, as the lower sound levels will not really be noticed by the home audience. Thew only thing they will notice is the engine tone, which will hopefully no longer block out the other sounds of the circuit. F1 management (FOM)'s broadcast, as well as that of the BBC, Sky, NBC, Univision, etc., will actually benefit from manageable sound levels in the pit lane and around the circuit(s) which will, in turn, make races more accessible, with people less likely to tune out from unintelligibility issues.

Fourthly, every circuit has sound reinforcement for the audience that is under-utilized. Take the Circuit of the Americas track side public address (PA) system. It is a badly implemented throwback to a cheap municipal stock car track PA system that achieves a barely passing grade for a poor telephone conversation. It can't pass audio over 6kHz, which makes any pre-race program music mostly unintelligible. With a sound system that horrendous, you need 130dB engines to obliterate the PA's distortion.

Obviously, there is an opportunity here for an improvement in the way the audience hears F1. Just like every track side nuance was audible in the movie Rush, the possibilities open up for a better experience for both the live circuit audience, as well as the broadcast audience with better audio around the track.