There are 5 basic human senses. Touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. For people to get excited about something, at least one of these senses has to be stimulated. The real excitement however, comes when more than one sense is stimulated.
Picture this. You’ve just parked the car in the car park of your favourite motorsport venue and you’re starting the little walk to the entrance to get your ticket scanned. You’re chatting amongst your mates about the upcoming race, then, interrupting the conversation, you hear the piercing shriek of an engine coming to life over yonder in the pits. All of a sudden the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention, the feeling of anticipation is starting to build. You’ve still not even got through the front gate yet! Once you’ve passed through, you follow the excited crowd towards the paddock, the sound of revving engines and whirring air tools is getting closer. Then, the smell of burnt race fuel hits you, it smells glorious. You catch a glimpse of the fire spitting machines in the pit box, they’re surrounded by busy mechanics and engineers prepping the car before they’re rolled out onto the grid. It’s a complete overload of the senses. Hundreds of excited people swarming around, the smell of fuel, brakes and burnt rubber from the support races lingering in the air, the sound waves hitting your chest as a car blips its throttle. You’re not only seeing the action, you’re smelling, hearing and feeling it. You feel part of it.
Now picture that scene with electric cars. There’s no piercing shriek, no bassy rumble, no pops and bangs. There’s no smell of burnt race fuel. Any trace of cooked brakes or burnt rubber is cancelled out by the burger vans. You can’t feel the vibrations from those monster engines, no spits of flames, no theatre, no drama. It’s like watching a bacon butty being prepared without being able smell it, nor hear it sizzling in the frying pan. It’s a sterile and cold experience.
These are the reasons I believe electric power will never fully replace the internal combustion engine in motorsport. For me, sport in general is a form of escapism. I want to watch close racing of course but that’s only part of the spectacle. Look at how many eyes were on Fernando Alonso driving his 2005 championship winning V10 Renault in Abu Dhabi this year. He was on circuit by himself, yet everyone, including a lot of the mechanics that were watching from the pit wall, were fixated on that car, or should I say the noise. Hearing that V10 driven in anger again brought back a flood of emotions for those of us brought up listening to it and for those that only know the hybrid units, a glimpse into the what is the pinnacle of theatre and drama on wheels.
Think of the great eras of the BTCC, fire spitting Sierra Cosworths, rumbling Rover V8’s or the high revving Super Tourers. Some of the greatest tin top drivers in Europe such as Alain Menu, Yvan Muller and Rickard Rydell battled it out on a grid packed with works entries from a wide variety of major manufacturers. The onboard footage alone was enthralling, it really pumped up the drama and the engine notes took centre stage as the high rpm redlines and musical downshifts captivated audiences.
The same applies to the WRC. My dad was lucky enough to grow up in the era of the Ford Escort twin cams, Lancia Stratos V6’s and then the brutal, fire spitting group B madness. If you haven’t listened to the Audi Quattro 5 cylinder at full chat, then stop reading this immediately and head over to YouTube. Likewise with the insane twincharged Lancia S4, a supercharger providing the instant throttle response and then decoupling when the violent surge from the turbo spools up. Compare this to say, Extreme E and they seem like remote control cars. There’s a disconnect because less of your senses are stimulated.
What about Formula E? It was hailed as the saviour of open wheeled racing when it was launched in 2014 but attendances and TV viewing figures are gradually dropping year on year for race by race averages. Formula 1 isn’t exactly doing great recently but it still more than quadruples Formula E’s TV figures. A huge blow for the all electric series is the withdrawal of the big three German manufacturers, Mercedes, Audi and BMW. If these hugely successful and influential giants see no benefit to competing in the series yet all still race in DTM and Mercedes at the top of the field in F1, it doesn’t look good for FE.
What is the future then? If it is electric, there’s nothing we can really do about it. Racing will go on and no doubt the visual spectacle will continue to entertain, I’ll still be watching but probably just on TV. I’ll be content with taking advantage of the comprehensive coverage the broadcasters offer. Ticket prices for live events seem to be ever increasing, just look at how much a weekend at the F1 costs, I’m reluctant to pay that to listen to the V6 hybrids let alone electrical silence. If there’s going to be one potential saving grace it’ll be synthetic/E fuels but for how long will the authorities want to see engines “burning” fuel? In my opinion motorsport has been on a slow decline for some years now and I can only see it getting worse, no matter how much we get told how “exciting” an electric future is.
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