There’s a popular current debate in the Formula 1 paddock about engine noise – namely, that a 1.6-litre turbo V6 has less ‘shriek’ than the 2.4-litre V8s of before.
That’s true; the more cylinders we lose, the more that distinctive high-end tone disappears. And the further addition of turbo-charging, which mutes the engine’s exhaust note, only adds to the reduction in decibel level.
If you believe the naysayers, it’s the end of Formula 1 as we know it. In reality, it’s nothing of the sort: having spent a week in Jerez earlier this month, it’s safe to say that, come Melbourne, there’ll be little audible difference between the old and the new power-units. And, when there are 22 lined up on the grid, all being thrashed hard, you’d be hard pressed to notice the change.
So while we at McLaren do not lament progress – it’s inevitable and welcome – we still thoroughly enjoy celebrating the unique idiosyncracy of grand prix engines designed with more cylinders than most people have had hot dinners – whether they be V16s, H16s, W24s or, more commonly, ear-splitting V12s.
In particular, we recently took a little time to enjoy Honda’s glorious, wailing banshee of a motor, the RA121E V12. It’s an engine that won eight grands prix in the back of the McLaren-Honda MP4/6 in 1991, with Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger at the wheel.
While a little moderate revving in MTC’s backyard isn’t quite enough to do the engine justice, imagine it back in its racing heyday; with Ayrton at the wheel, notching the ’box down into fifth, and strong-arming the car into Copse corner, dabbing delicately on the throttle as he approaches the apex, the car nailed to the ground beneath him.
The ground shakes and rumbles beneath your feet. Ayrton puts two wheels over the exit kerbs, the engine-note more assured now, the car crests the rise, emits a brief shower of sparks and disappears from view.
You can still hear that V12 screaming, however. Hard.
Through Becketts and out onto the Hangar Straight, where each crisp, curt, gear-change is apparent even though the car is nearly a mile away by now. The engine hits its peak, its bark transforming to a shrill, whining scream as it reaches the limiter. Still surging, straining, screaming.
A beautiful memory, isn’t it?