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Noise at work


This is not a Health and Safety briefing about the perils of excessive noise in your place of work. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Here's a question: how many of those attending the unveiling of the first 2012 F1 car will rush to look at the engine? The focus will be on the actual car, the aerodynamics and all the fiddly bits costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Very little attention will be paid to the collection of alloy and iron poised to create a lot of noise. That's because the V8 will look very much as before and, in any case, the specification has been frozen; so why bother? Talk about watching a male swan floating serenely by when, beneath the surface, his little legs are working like pistons.

Talking of which (did you see what I did there?), I've never ceased to be amazed when a F1 engine man emerges from his dynometer, sniffs the fresh air, blinks in the daylight and tells you about World War III that has been threatening to break out all morning as each of the eight pistons in his pride and joy goes up and down 300 times per second.

I mean, have you tried to visual that? It gives me a headache just thinking about it. And then imagine the explosions of ignited fuel and air across the cylinder block and the 8000g acting on a piston head that, given its natural trajectory, would prefer to fly a mile into the air. And all of this going on for an hour and a half during each Grand Prix. Non-stop.

You may think that the 50,000 kms (310,000 miles) each team completes in a season is as far as it goes for engines. Mercedes-Benz supply three teams - McLaren, Force India and, of course Mercedes GP - which makes a total of 150,000 kms of track action. But that's literally only the half of it.

Mercedes will do that distance again on the dyno; a reminder that the engine is only area of an F1 car that goes testing all year. Indeed, even before a new engine finds its way into the back of a car, it will have undergone a 150 kms (95 miles) shakedown on the dyno.

As you read this, there are guys and girls sitting in manufacturing plants such as Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth and examining tiny detail you and I would never dream of. Not just that, but they have to think of the repercussions caused by the F1 hierarchy deciding to add another race to the calendar, or a Grand Prix being forced to run for endless laps behind the Safety Car.

We tend to shrug off that sort of thing as a fact of F1 life; 'Tough, mate; deal with it.' But spare a thought for what the seemingly innocuous decisions made in a cosy Paris boardroom or in race control are doing for the barely restrained mechanical mayhem waiting to kick off inside an F1 engine.

Throwing in an extra race is all very well for the money-grabbers at CVC Capital Partners but there is no concession for the engine manufacturers as they try to find ways of making the eight engines per driver stretch across this extended season.

Adding another race means and extra 100 kms (60 miles) of running. Doesn't sound much, does it? But the fact is the season's opening engines are loaded more highly than the rest and require an extra 800 kms (500 miles) to give the manufacturer a comfortable set-up for the rest of the year. And, don't forget, this is at 18,000 rpm, give or take the odd drop to a mere 14,000 rpm when the duty cycle gets pushed to the limit going in and out of slow corners.

Then there's the business of the Safety Car. Do you remember the lengthy period we had running in the wet in Montreal last year and the anticipation of an exciting restart? The engine boffins were having kittens - or mental valve bounce or piston knee-knock, or whatever it is that affects these wizards of the whirring crankshaft.

When F1 cars run behind the Safety Car, we often talk with alleged authority - well, I know I have - about the problem of engines overheating because not enough air is passing through the radiators. Right?

Well, here's a thing I didn't realise. If the engine temperature drops too much then it affects the pistons because they shrink. Of course, 'shrink' is a comparative term here. We're not talking about the diminishing of personal private dimensions in brass monkey weather, if you follow my drift. We are talking about a physical reduction which the naked eye and a microscope would never detect but one which could cause damage inside that cylinder bore if the parts are not up to proper working temperature when the driver calls for 18,000 rpm at the restart. It's a very fine balancing act as engine manufacturers do their best to ensure any shrinkage is at the absolute minimum.

I discovered all of this a couple of weeks ago during a visit to the pristine Mercedes facility at Brixworth. They had on display an exploded - not literally, heaven forbid - view of the F1 V8. I'm not mechanically inclined (as you've probably gathered after reading this and previous columns) but even I was hugely impressed by the beauty and intricacy of this shining jewel. It is not pushing the bounds of poetic licence to say it is a work of art.

And then to think, in a month's time at the first F1 test, one of these highly-paid heroes with a crash helmet and heavy right foot is going to come along, rev its nuts off and complain about a lack of power. The driver should see it as a minor miracle that, given the controlled anarchy going on behind him, bits of fractured metal are not winging their way past his ears. It's noise at work - in every sense.