Electric open-wheel cars are changing the sound of racing on television
Electric cars are the future of transportation, and they’re creeping into motor racing as well. Formula E — officially the FIA Formula E Championship (F-E) — uses electric-only open-wheel F1- and IndyCar-type racers built by a growing array of manufacturers, including BMW, Renault and Jaguar.
What’s driving Formula E is not just its novelty but a very purposeful promotion of e-cars as ecologically sustainable (F-E has coordinated at least one race with a locally held UN Climate Change conference) and their lack of noise (compared with conventional racers), a point underscored by the choice of urban street-circuit sites: Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Rome, Paris, and Brooklyn (scheduled for July, with the Manhattan skyline in the background). And it’s the sonic angle that most obviously sets F-E apart from F1 and any other conventional motor sport.
The championship series, which also acts as the format’s organisation, began in 2014 and has run nearly two dozen races in Europe, China, Morocco, and elsewhere. Fox Sports owns the broadcast rights in the U.S., and many of the races air live on either Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2 and on the Fox Sports Go mobile app.
In F-E cars, the familiar roar of an F1 motor is replaced with a piercing whine that can be compared to either a jet engine revving up for takeoff or a dentist’s drill about to penetrate enamel. Westbury Gillett, who directs the broadcast of F-E races for Aurora Media Worldwide, the London-based company that acts as the sports’ host broadcaster, prefers the former description.
“When people first hear the cars, they can be a bit skeptical about the sound,” he says, acknowledging how dramatically different F-E cars sound from any other race car. “But it’s surprising how quickly they come to accept it, because it actually opens up a whole new world of race sounds that they would never have otherwise heard.” He adds that the crowd sounds that collisions and crashes elicit are part of the soundscape of F-E races, something not heard over the sound of passing engines when conventional cars wreck.
What the lack of roar and rumble reveal are the braking and tire sounds masked by conventional race engines, which saturate the low and middle frequencies with massive SPL. By contrast, F-E’s sound leaves lots of room for the other sound effects that Gillette says are heard at the tracks and on television.
These, he says, are captured using the same techniques as conventional races, with shotgun microphones aimed at the track and camera-mounted mics inside the cockpits adding ambience to the team radio chatter that the broadcasts also tap into (without the benefit of a delay; to Gillette, the potential for raw language is part of F-E’s attraction).
The result, he says, is a more nuanced audio show. “You can hear the cars braking into turns and the sound of the tires as they accelerate out of them. These are cues that internal-combustion engines cover up.”
The broadcasts, which are done in HD video with embedded stereo audio from a flypack production system onsite (Gillette says 4K and surround audio are under consideration for future series), don’t use equalisation or processing to manipulate or enhance the car audio. However, F-E cars have a surprising amount of latitude when it comes to their design, and that can affect their sound.
Various manufacturers have produced new motor, invertor, and gearbox solutions. Because F-E tracks larger developments in electric-car technology, cars in the same race may have as few as one or two gears or as many as six and, in some cases, more than one motor. A source at the FIA Formula E Championship, speaking on background, says that gear-shifting is a welcome sound on the broadcasts, a link to the world of conventional race sound.
The format has other quirks. Because of the limits of current battery technology, drivers into this season use two cars per race, changing mid-race; next season, the cars are expected to be able to complete an entire 45-minute race on their own. An average Formula E car has a power of at least 250 hp, with a maximum speed of 140 mph. The noise levels are approximately 80 dB; NASCAR track levels, according to studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2011, can reach as high as 140 dB.
Not that F-E volume levels are exactly party favors. Gillette notes that electric cars can sound especially aggressive at lower speeds and as they accelerate, which they can do extremely quickly: a typical F-E car is able to go from zero to 62 mph in three seconds. But the highly individual sonic signatures of each driver’s car let viewers begin to recognize them based on their sounds.
“It’s racing, but Formula-E is also its own sport,” says Gillette. “You can hear things you’ve never heard before at an auto race,” including, for those at the tracks, “each other talking.”