It’s safe to say that the noise of the new Formula One cars has caused some controversy since they broke cover in Jerez in late January. And just as the public is vocal about their opinions regarding the sound, some drivers have made it abundantly clear just how they feel.
I won’t even pretend that all of Formula One’s problems have been solved with the new regulations. They send a clouded message to the watching world: they’re confusing, innovative but not groundbreaking, not environmentally friendly (still), and most importantly, expensive. Times being as they are, it seems irresponsible to dive head first into such uncharted waters (Formula One ‘needed’ to make a change, though, but that discussion is for another time). These new “power units” are far more expensive than their predecessors and emit a much quieter and, some would say, less enjoyable noise. I’m not of the opinion that the new engines sound terrible, but I do see where some of the naysayers come from. There is a deep-seeded attachment to sound in Formula One’s devoted fans, and a sudden departure from what often defined the quintessential Formula One experience is nothing to shrug off.
But while noise in Formula One is an important characteristic, it really isn’t the be-all and end-all of the sport.
Public opinion of the new sound is divided into three distinct groups: the “make this horrendous droning stop or I will have a cow” group, the “this is really cool and interesting, I love the change” group, and the thoughtfully diplomatic “let’s give this some more time to really get used to it” group. All three have distinct voices and are unafraid to make them heard, but when one of those voices is Sebastian Vettel’s and it’s calling the new sound “sh*t”, things can get a bit (actually a lot) more complicated.
First and foremost, Sebastian Vettel is an employee of Formula One, and with that comes some very important responsibilities. Let me explain.
He is an employee of Infiniti Red Bull Racing directly and is paid quite generously to represent those companies both on and off the track. Infiniti Red Bull Racing pays the FIA to participate in the Formula One World Championship, thereby connecting Sebastian to the FIA via millions of dollars. This connection makes him, no matter how many championships he wields, a mere cog in the complex Formula One machine. By calling the new sound of Formula One “sh*t” he has insulted the FIA with blatant disregard and suggests a lack of control on the FIA’s part over its employees. While it is noble for Red Bull to say that their drivers have a right to their opinions, and I’m not saying they don’t, there must be some level of control over what their lead driver says in regards to their employers and their reputation, for the FIA’s reputation rests on the success of Formula One, its most popular and globally-exposed championship.
If this were the “real world”, Sebastian would have been fired. Let’s say he was working for a clothing company and said to a prospective customer that a particular item was the excrement equivalent of the fashion world. He would be fired on the spot. Instead today, Sebastian is facing no repercussions for his actions (rumors that the FIA would use this as leverage against Red Bull in their upcoming appeal over “Fuel-gate” are wide of the mark, though I wouldn’t judge them if they did).
Sebastian needs to recognize his role in the global perception of the Formula One. He is arguably the most recognizable figure associated with the sport, and his remarks on even the most mundane of topics carry with them a significant amount of weight. He is a spokesperson for Formula One whether he likes it or not, and it’s time he recognizes the impact his words have. Just as when he spouted profanity on the podium after last year’s Singapore Grand Prix, by describing the new sound the way he did he threatens a sport that is trying hard to reinvent itself. His remarks, along with those of other notable figures in the paddock (yes, Bernie, we’re looking at you) will have done the FIA and FOM no good whatsoever in their bid to keep fans interested in an increasingly “distant” sport. People are already disillusioned with Formula One, what with its complicated new rules. The last thing Sebastian needs to be doing is bashing one its most recognizable features.
It must also be noted that Sebastian’s perception of the sport and those of viewing audiences are poles apart. His involvement is such that he doesn’t get to watch it on television and thus his impression of the sound produced by the engines is totally different. The fact that the general consensus ringing up and down the paddock is that the engines sound better in person than on TV only makes Sebastian’s comments all the more, let’s say, unusual.
It’s hard to believe that engine noise is his biggest concern at the moment, either. He gets paid millions to drive the car as fast as possible, not give his opinion about how it sounds. That may make him sound like a bit of a robot (and I know people wish there were more “characters” in the sport), but his take on the auditory quality of F1 is neither important nor relevant to his job. He would do well to take a leaf from the Alonso book of diplomacy by saying it is still too early to judge the sound of the engines just yet. Is it boring? Perhaps, but Alonso is no robot and it would have saved Sebastian the now inevitable added media attention.
Had Sebastian arrived in Malaysia the Australian Grand Prix victor, he would most likely have taken a more diplomatic approach to questions aimed at engine noise. There’s a reason Nico Rosberg had nothing but glowing reviews for the new-for-2014 Formula One after his dominant win Down Under. With time, Red Bull and Renault will realize their full potential, of which there is an abundance, and Sebastian’s views may be completely different. If he wins a couple of races in the near future and is then asked questions about engine noise, don’t be surprised if his answer follows a similar vein to Alonso’s.
Sebastian doesn’t need to be censored as some have suggested, but there is a certain amount of prudence that must be observed when it comes to criticizing aspects of your source of income. No one is going to be fired over this (and wouldn’t that be the story of the year?), but I do believe it needs to be addressed in some way. I would be surprised if the FIA put a clause in teams’ contracts that prevented drivers and personnel from speaking out against the sport, but it would be in the FIA’s, and even Sebastian’s, best interest if measures were taken, regardless if it makes them look like an overbearing tyrant. And if the noise is still that important to Sebastian then, just as Jenson Button said before the Malaysian Grand Prix, he can go race somewhere else. Otherwise, things like this are best left unsaid. As the old saying goes, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Images courtesy of Infiniti Red Bull Racing/Getty Images and Octane Photographic