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F1 2014: Better than it soundsMaurice Hamilton May 12, 2014
A quarter of the way into the season and debate continues to rage. Is F1 in 2014 any good? After five races, is motor sport's flagship looking good? How does it sound now that we're full steam ahead into the European sector?
It's looking great. As for the musical accompaniment? There's a few bum notes and a need for fine-tuning.
I held my audition in three parts. The first came courtesy of Mercedes F1 and a seat in the front row of the guest area at the back of the garage in Spain. The purpose was to hear the latest generation fire up. It's - no pun intended - quite a performance.
As the long rod of the starter motor is finally inserted beneath the gearbox of FW05, 13 mechanics, in a rare moment of freeze frame in this hive of activity, stand motionless while the V6 comes to life. A deep mellow growl is followed by gentle revving and a series of machine-gun like 'bap..bap…bap…bap…bap' as if hitting the rev-limiter but actually part of the process to prepare the clutch.
Dropped off the jacks, it's time for this extraordinarily detailed piece of kit to get going. The engine revs harder and a harmonious build up of turbo whistle and whine brings the first hint of guttural power wanting its head as the car leaves the garage. It's an intriguing and pleasant sound; an ensemble made sweeter through not being blasted by the violence of the 18,000 rpm screamers that preceded this complex hybrid.
Part Two of the audition is at the braking area for Turn 10. The cars are approaching downhill and flat-chat on the circuit's second longest straight before banging through the box for the second-gear left-hander. One of my favourite spectating spots has always been the entry to the first chicane at Monza. Here you see the truly phenomenal braking power of an F1 car; barely contained violence as the speed plummets from 200 mph to 60 mph in less than 200 metres and within three seconds.
Okay, the entry to Turn 10 at Barcelona is nothing like as fast but the speed ought to be enough to produce the expected drama. Except it doesn't. There is a comparatively effortless flick through the gears, the urgency diluted by low revs and heightened only marginally by the sound of the exhaust-driven turbo doing its work. The cars do not look stable thanks to low downforce and the nervous uncertainty of the rear brake-by-wire. And yet the potential spectacle of this phenomenon is lost because there is no background music to heighten the moment. That's the bad news.
The good news begins almost immediately. From the second the driver thinks about turning in, the effect of F1 2014 is shown in a myriad of different lines and a variety of problems created by the complex ERS technology doing its thing and conservative hard tyres struggling for grip. The graphic result is the inconsistency and insecurity you get when driving on snow and ice. Turn 10 was hard work for the drivers and fun for those watching.
A slow corner taken care of, it was time for some quick stuff - and Turn 3 is as good as they come. The long, long uphill right comes immediately after acceleration from the tight left at Turn 2. In days gone by (i.e. last year - which now seems a totally different age), Turn 3 would be a downforce-inspired, don't-even-think-about-lifting, hang-in-there ride on rails.
It's still quick; the cornering speed impressive when you haven't seen a F1 car on the move for some time. But no way is this taken flat. Standing halfway round, you can hear the fluffy giveaway of nearly but not quite full throttle; the audible verification of a top driver's skill as he modulates the right pedal and finds the balance between speed and doing a Pastor. (The Lotus driver's shunt during qualifying was a long time coming, Maldonado lurching on the edge of disaster each and every time through Turn 3). Throw in gear ratios that are frozen and the need to grab fifth three-quarters of the way through; never a problem before but unhelpful in 2014.
The Mercedes wins all the way through. Not only do Hamilton and Rosberg rush into view with the right-front cleanly hugging the kerb at the apex, the Mercedes power unit is capable of absorbing the up-change torque almost as if the car is travelling in a straight line. Other drivers, dabbing opposite lock and struggling not to visit the outside kerb sooner than planned, would probably wish they were so lucky if they weren't busy taming these recalcitrant machines.
That's the point, of course. We've actually got the formula all classes of racing car ought to have; more power than the chassis can comfortably handle. All that's needed is a more stirring musical accompaniment to match.
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.