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Regulator plays catch-up in the F1 arms race

Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton drives during the first practice of the Canadian F1 Grand Prix in Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.


Give people an opportunity to complain and they will almost always take it – humans are reliable that way.

Fiddling with the sensory appeal of sports, then, is an excellent way to provoke swift and immediate fallout.

In Formula One, a technical and engineering arms race that is disguised as an automotive competition, the consequences of the 2014 engine standard were not so much unintended as foreseeable.

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Shrinking the displacement, adding turbochargers and dispensing with some of the aerodynamics and exhaust diffusers, it was always going to make for quieter cars.

For some gearheads and race enthusiasts, this is emphatically not a good thing, for others the issues lie elsewhere.

In the Senna Corner grandstand during the free practice sessions for this weekend's Canadian Grand Prix, an unscientific survey suggested opinion is split on the changes.

"I love it … I'd like it more if the cars were a little more powerful, and it's a big difference so I can see why people wouldn't like it," said Sylvain Lemay, a Sorel, Que., native who was clad in McLaren team colours. "It's the first time I can remember the Ferrari Challenge cars being louder."

It's not a unique point of view.

In the paddocks, former F1 champ Jacques Villeneuve said "[the sound] is good, you can bring your kids and you know you won't blow their eardrums. That's a good thing, you can have a phone conversation and that's quite a nice thing as well. The problem is you can feel there's no power, no grunt."

A few feet away from where Lemay stood, a different take.

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"My Harley sounds better," snorted Dennis Nagy of Calgary, in town to watch the weekend's racing with his Montreal-based brother Jimmy. "[The sport] is in the sound, you know?"

Jimmy Nagy said he misses the characteristic whine of engines past, "I like the old one better."

Even four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel complained earlier this year about the way his Red Bull sounds, grumbling that nightclubs are louder – "it's shit," he said.

"The first time I was five or six years old when we went to see the cars live … the one thing I remember was the sound – how loud the cars were – to feel the cars through the ground. The whole ground was vibrating. It's just a shame that we don't have that any more," Vettel said earlier this season.

Rather than a shrill keening sound, the engines now make what could be described as a throatier, more muted burble.

Whereas ear plugs were mandatory equipment in previous years they might be considered optional now; it's possible to carry on a conversation at track side without shouting.

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Oh, and the cars are more efficient, plus they present a hardier challenge to drivers; this is sometimes elided in the great sonic debate.

Much is made of the ruthless competition on the track – can Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton peacefully co-exist? – but the various teams and their engineers and development scientists are locked in a battle that can be just as merciless.

There are cloaks, and maybe even a dagger or two; industrial espionage is de rigueur, cars and their components are often covered so as not to be photographed but it doesn't matter: Innovations are inevitably copied.

The new standards for 2014 haven't increased the pitch or intensity of that battle, but they have shifted the ground on which it is fought.

"The engineering battle in Formula One was always fierce. The format has changed a bit. You could say that in the last couple of years because of the rules and regulations the aerodynamics played a major role, this is why you could improve the car, the balance has switched more to the power unit," said Toto Wolff, the executive director of Mercedes' F1 team.

This season, the Silver Arrows have dominated the early going thanks in part to their innovative split turbo design – the short explanation is it forces cool air, which is denser, into the engine to create more power – although the team fully expects the competition to catch up.

It's the way of F1: come up with a good idea and watch it get ripped off, or if it's too big an advantage, the sport's governing body will ban it.

"Has that happened in the past?" Wolff said in mock surprise. "I think what is most important for Formula One is that you have clear, transparent and stable rules. People talking about costs, the single highest contributor to cost escalation is the rules are not stable."

In 2013, the Red Bulls were clearly faster than everyone else – because they came up with a blown exhaust system that also created down-force to suck the car to the track – this year they're also-rans because of the enforced design changes.

In a sense, the relationship between F1 teams and the Fédération internationale de l'automobile (FIA) is a little like that between Olympic teams and doping agencies: the governing body is out-gunned in terms of engineering talent and resources, it is forever engaged in large-scale landscaping on a playing field that stubbornly refuses to stay level.

Scandalous amounts are spent by F1 teams on developing new technology, and the results are often astounding.

The 2014 engine all the F1 teams use is a Mini Cooper-sized 1.6-litre affair; Mercedes' version churns out nearly 800 horsepower (a souped-up Mini, by way of comparison, musters about 180).

It's also a hybrid, which will have knock-on effects for the German conglomerate's street-legal cars (as Wolff pointed out, this really is still about advancing the Mercedes brand and selling cars).

Already, the consumer-model engineers have helped the F1 team find a solution to a cooling issue similar to what they had previously dealt with – they were so intrigued by the racing engine system they're trying to incorporate some of its elements in the next generation of road cars.

The immediate challenge for Mercedes this weekend is to maintain their sizable advantage in the drivers' and constructor championship.

Wolff said he expects the knowledge gap to close shortly – he specifically mentioned Ferrari, which is said to be testing some new aerodynamics this weekend, and Renault – so it's a good thing his team has two of the circuit's top drivers in Rosberg and Hamilton (who sit 1-2 in the driver standings).

The pair dominated the afternoon practice session Friday on a dusty track that saw several cars spin onto the verge.

It was an illustration of how squirrelly the next-generation cars can be.

Wolff said drivers have essentially had to re-learn how to approach the various tracks on the circuit because "it's torque driving, not rev driving."

"There's only one driver who complained that he wasn't enjoying the new format. All the others actually say it's really exciting to drive those cars because they have much more power – more torque," he said. "The car has more over-steer, you need to control it much more like in the junior formulas, it's more like driving a proper race car and not like on rails in the last couple of years. I think they're enjoying it a lot – they're flat out."

In the case of Rosberg and Hamilton, that also means managing a rivalry that has yet to turn seriously bitter – although the two had a spat after a race in Monaco last month.

Wolff said the two are regularly reminded to keep their eye on the broader aim (the constructor championship) and that they regularly meet with their bosses.

"I don't feel like a headmaster, and they are not school boys," said Wolff, pausing for effect. "They are kindergarteners."

And while the focus of the racing world is trained on the contest of wills between a pair of young, impossibly wealthy athletes, the mechanics and engineers in the pits and production facilities in England and Germany are engaged in a skirmish that runs just as hot.

Mercedes started planning for 2014 three years ago and did so seriously midway through last season.

It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn they're already strategizing for 2015.

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