Fuel and air go in, power and good sounds come out. The engine as we know it is pretty simple externally, and this formula has worked well for us humans for over a century.
This fact was fully on display at the 2022 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, with cars from every era represented on track, as always. But the mighty internal combustion engine wasn’t alone this time. During lunch, a gaggle (or is it considered a gang?) of electric cars made their way around Laguna Seca at blazing speed.
Actually, I think it was at lunch, and I assume it was at blazing speed, but I couldn’t really tell.
Beyond the scraping of the Lucid Sapphire’s front lip as it careened down the Corkscrew, I just couldn’t hear them. In contrast, there was absolutely no problem identifying when the Gulf-liveried Porsche 908 was about to enter my line of sight. Each time it barrelled by, the echo of its insane air-cooled flat-eight left a stupid grin on my face. As it should.
I want to be clear, though, that this isn’t an attack on the electric car.
I’m as big an advocate as just about anyone for electric vehicles; they have their place. They make sense for a lot of use cases and a lot of consumers. Electric vehicles have very much made a foray into the sports car market in recent years, and that makes sense, too. Torque is in large part what makes driving cars fun, and there’s no debate that EVs have a lot of torque.
But the issue of sound remains a serious problem.
For me, this might be the biggest problem in terms of actually enjoying these cars. For a short commute, a quick run to get groceries, or a casual late-night cruise down the highway to grab dinner and listen to music, an EV could be great. But when I’m at 85% throttle on my way through a corner on an empty backroad, I need a correlating auditory sensation. I am wired to require this.
In a modern car, you’re already so separated from the road. Things like variable-assist electric steering, adaptive damping, thick sound deadening and comfortable heated seats help sell cars, but they also prevent you from connecting with the drive. Remove engine noise from the equation and this becomes even worse.
By similar token, when you’re watching a sport it’s much more entertaining if you’ve actually played it. You have a lot more appreciation for the skill on display, and you better understand the nuances of the more subtle mechanics and strategies. It just adds another dimension, and sound is the same way at a race.
Exhaust notes aren’t just pleasing to hear, on some level they also connect you with the driver and their right foot. You too have a right foot, and you’ve used it in a car. Thus, hearing the throttle open out of an apex is a very important part of the experience and how you relate to that experience.
While I am familiar with and very much enjoy the sound that results from burnt fuel being forced out of my tailpipe, I suppose any sound would do. Well, actually, no, not any sound.
Dodge’s solution to the problem seems to be blasting fake combustion engine noises out of the rear of their new Charger via what appears to be a glorified speaker, which I won’t dignify by discussing further. Hopefully there’s more to it than that, but if not, at least the memes were good.
In fairness, Ford pipes extra sound through the cabin speakers in some EcoBoost models, and I’ve sat in BMWs that have done similar. In all honesty, this also makes me uncomfortable on multiple levels, although I understand why they’re doing it. For the average consumer a quiet car is a good car, but from my own perspective fake engine tones feel like a poorly applied Band-Aid.
Formula E has dealt with this issue with some success, although I can’t speak about this firsthand as I haven’t actually been to a race yet. However, from the videos and highlights I’ve watched, each car does indeed make its own fairly distinct sound, a sound akin to a jet’s turbine. Mr. Paddy McGrath described it to me as “louder than you would expect.” On the other hand, Driving.ca characterized some onboard footage as “tinnitus-spewing,” which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
My understanding is that much of what you hear in Formula E is coming directly from the straight-cut gears in the single-speed transmissions, as well as sounds produced from the cars’ regenerative braking systems. As of yet, this can’t compete with the howls and cackles of the massive V8 in my friend Chad Raynal’s Camaro, for example, but at least it’s something.
More importantly, both the V8 and the Formula E cars make a real mechanical sound.
Surely there’s more to be done on this front. I’m just thinking out loud here, and prone to make a fool of myself as a result, but perhaps some sort of actual turbine could be engaged by an electric motor, which forces air through trumpeted channels that change shape and tone based on motor speed and power output.
Maybe the tire compounds could be made louder in some way, or perhaps Gordon Murray had the right idea with his T50. No, not the awesome V12 that revs to 12,000 rpm; the fan. Active aero could potentially generate some cool sounds that might help provide some extra haptic feedback to the experience for drivers and spectators alike.
Or maybe teams could carefully affix some playing cards such that they make a flapping sound as they contact the tread on the tires. The faster you pedal, the higher the pitch. It was a good system and one that I have firsthand experience with if any manufacturers need help with implementation.
In the meantime, do you know what sounded utterly fantastic at Laguna Seca at RMMR 2022? The naturally-aspirated 6.0L V12 in the Pagani Huayra R, which was absolutely screaming as it hit its 9,000rpm redline during some demo laps. I don’t think I’ve heard a sound that good since I experienced the ear-splitting roar of F1’s V8-era cars a decade ago. The Huayra R easily sounds better than a modern F1 car, and I can only imagine what a couple dozen of these cars racing together might do to my ears. Pagani, please create a Huayra R Challenge series — should be cheap!
Then, there was the unique and unparalleled tone of the rotary-powered Mazdas as they buzzed their way up the hill and down through the Corkscrew.
Not to mention the earth-shattering rumble of the field of V8-equipped Trans Am and IMSA cars.
Of course, you can’t forget the shriek of dozens of vintage F1 cars, or the absolute harmony from the 12-piston BMW powerplant in the McLaren F1. Or, the prodigious 962s. The list goes on…
I loved the Le Mans theme at RMMR this year, and seeing (and hearing) these legends among many others out on track was an experience I won’t soon forget. At the same time, it’s clear that electric cars are here to stay, but in order for experiences with those cars to be memorable there needs to be a distinct auditory component. I’m sure we’ll get there, and the traditions of motorsport will live on in the electric era.
I imagine that in another 100 years, someone else will be waxing nostalgic over the whine of the vintage Formula electric car. Because nuclear fusion cars have no character at all.
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