Yesterday I spent the whole day driving home from Spain. The first stop was the first service area in France, which enabled me to file some copy that had been impossible from the hotel in Spain, where the Internet connection was being powered by a single sleepy overfed snail on a hamster wheel in the basement. When I mentioned it at Reception they simply shrugged, which is a typical reaction to problems in that part of the world.
It was a shame that I was in such a rush because the countryside of Catalunya looked very attractive at I sped by counting down the clicks to the border and a land where the Internet actually works. Once I was up and over the Pyrenées and the journalism was done, it was time to relax a little and enjoy the sunshine glittering off the Mediterranean and roads empty enough to be enjoyable. In the days before the electronic media revolution, I used to love pottering about from town to town on the tree-lined Routes Nationales of France, but these days one has to survive with the autoroutes. The A75 (known also as La Méridienne) is one of my favourites. It’s free, crosses spectacular country with some tremendous views and is in itself a formidable piece of engineering, climbing up to more than 3,600 ft at various points, across the rugged and often dramatic Massif Central. The high point of the journey (not literally) is the Viaduc de Millau, a two and half kilometre bridge that literally flies across the valley of the River Tarn, 900 feet above the river. The elegant towers soar even higher, topping out 1,125 ft above the earth. From Millau it is on to the volcanoes of the Puy-de-Dôme and Issoire (where there is a quiet working race track hidden behind the bushes just beside the main road). Next comes Clermont-Ferrand, where there is a history of motor racing that stretches back more than 100 years to the days of the Gordon Bennett Cup on the Circuit of the Auvergne. To the left, if one had time, there is the Mont-Dore hill climb course and what is left of the old Charade circuit, where F1 cars used to get hearts fluttering in the 1960s. Clermont-Ferrand used to be Michelin Town, but times are hard these days in France and many of the factories have closed. I hurtle past signs to Ladoux, where the Michelin test track is located and where French racing teams used to do their secret shakedowns. I think the first Renault F1 turbo car of the 1970s (badged as an Alpine) ran there first of all.
Ahead is the Berry and if one strikes off to the left one could visit La Châtre where, in my youth, we used to go racing in a long gone style, with the paddock in the town square and people bustling about in berets with baguettes under their arms. If you were rich you could spend your two-hour lunch break with the sponsor types at the Lion d’Argent, before the serious business began in the afternoon. It is on from there to Bourges, where one might turn right and go across country to Magny-Cours, and ahead is the forest of the Sologne, a dark place with little but trees and the international karting circuit at Salbris, which one passes at speed. Go east from there a few miles and you get to a bustling centre of F1 activity at Aubigny-sur-Nère, where Mecachrome builds Renault’s F1 engines.
After crossing the Loire at Orleans one is in the home stretch, belting across the plains of the Beauce, with its hundreds of wind turbines lazily looping around capturing passing energy.
There is a sneaky route into Paris by way of Rambouillet (but only when the commuter flow is against you). This seems a drab bit of road if you don’t know that once it was the old Route Nationale 10, down which the great city-to-city races used to run before 1903. In the town (a suburb really) of Trappes, one passes the Circuit Jean-Pierre Beltoise without knowing it and soon afterwards one is within spitting distance of the old Prost Grand Prix factory in Guyancourt and then the Citroen Sport HQ, off to the right, next to the tank training ground at Satory.
You head down towards Velizy, once the home of the Peugeot Sport F1 operation – where there is a permanent traffic jam – but before you get there you dive into the brilliant and little known A86 tunnel that goes north on a seven-mile journey under the whole of Versailles, the hills beyond and the River Seine, avoiding all the troublesome traffic hotspots to the west of the city. It pops you out up near Nanterre, from where you can shoot into central Paris through the tunnels under La Defense. It is magic, you emerge at the Pont de Neuilly and you see the Arc de Triomphe up ahead…
I was home well before dinner and enjoying a well-earned glass of wine.
The 1000km journey gave me plenty of time to think (and sing, come to that) and at various points I found myself ruminating on the matters of the moment in F1. This week in Barcelona there will be experiments to try to get some more racy noises out of the modern Formula 1 engines.
I understand that some people believe that sound is important in racing – and in some respects I agree – because every sport needs to have enough wow factor to wow people, on a very basic, physical level. People like being blasted with things that impress them. They get adrenalin rushing about their bodies. One might even argue (erroneously) that it is a form of energy transfer from the mechanical energy of engines to the chemical energy of humans.
The point is that not everyone gets adrenalin from hearing noisy racing cars. Some simply get headaches. People are different. Some get their kicks from horror movies, some from listening to music or looking at a great painting, while others are turned on by the enormity of the universe while standing in a desert.
The fact that the current generation of F1 fans is used to the noise and does not like change is the problem. Having said that, most of them love racing and will adjust and new fans may come along because of what F1 now represents. Who knows? We need time to see what happens.
However I’ve yet to find anyone who can remember complaints about noise in the turbo era in F1 in the late 1970s and 1980s. The wow factor then was not the sound, it was the power. The cars were skateboards that went like greased lightning with the drivers hanging on, particularly in the early days when the turbo lag was huge and power would arrive in vast quantities at inopportune moments.
Wow factor is all about emotion, but when you take the emotion out of it, and you look at the philosophy of F1 with the objectivity of a scientist, the arguments for more noise make no sense at all.
F1 is aiming to be two things: the poster boy for efficiency and a good show. Both are important and they are not mutually exclusive: amazing efficiency can meet amazing racing. The result we have now is good. It can be better and will be once the technology spreads around a little more (as it always does). Mercedes was cleverer than its opposition and that should be rewarded and applauded.
The racing today is good, if it is properly explained to the viewers. Sure, it is not a figure-of-eight caravan demolition derby, with fireworks and pom-pom girls, but it is just as valid as a form of entertainment.
In terms of physics, sound is produced when a force causes an object to vibrate and some of the energy transforms into waves of pressure which then move through the air until the energy is exhausted and the sound dies out. It is, in other words, wasted energy. If the energy that makes sound is being used more efficiently then the machine is doing a better job and is thus more impressive. So the less sound there is, the more efficient the machine.
If one appreciates what one is seeing (but not hearing) it becomes impressive. I hear, for example, that without the fuel flow restrictions the current Mercedes could be producing 900 hp, which (if true) is a spectacular number. The skill is squeezing every hint of energy back into the car.
When you stop and think about it, saying the F1 needs a certain kind of noise is not very different to saying that clowns should have red noses and baggy pockets, but humour (like energy) can take many forms and be transferred in other ways, which are just as effective, and often funnier.
Clowns are old-fashioned humour…