First of all, what is a sound and how do we hear it ? Well, vibrations travelling through the air create a sound. It’s the series of small pressure variations, also called pulsations, which stimulate the eardrums. The frequency of these pulsations, ie how many times the pressure changes per second, determine the pitch (do, ré, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, etc). A deep sound has a lower frequency than a high-pitched one.
A Formula One engine swallows air and consumes fuel, burns both and then repeatedly releases combustion gas. Thus, it stirs up the surrounding air by creating pressure pulsations, which in turn travel to our ears. Their frequency changes according to the engine’s rotation speed, known as its rpm, which can be clearly seen on the car’s dashboard. Engines make a higher-pitched sound the more we accelerate until shifting up a gear. Therefore, we can make the connection between engine rpm, pulsation frequency and pitch of the sound produced.
We can then match each note with a corresponding rpm and turn any engine into an instrument. Children naturally do this when making the sound of their toy car’s imaginary engine.
Of course, this is only a first step. Simply identifying pitch does not suffice to play a tune. Rhythm is also a key component and for this you must determine the value of each note. A strong knowledge of musical theory comes into play here as it’s necessary to transfer each note (minim, crotchet, quaver) into duration. Having a good ear certainly helps, too.
Once all the notes have been converted into rpm and value, this ‘mechanical music score’ is entered electronically into the F1 engine’s control unit. This in turn tells the engine to string together each programmed rpm (note) at the correct value (rhythm) – just like any musician would do with his or her instrument – to replicate the chosen melody.
Although the theory remains fairly simple, putting it into practice is often much trickier as an F1 engine also has its limitations. Too low an engine speed may stall it, while damage will be caused if the rpm is too high. Therefore you must tweak the tune so that it fits into acceptable rpms for the engine.
Of course, the car is stationary, which makes cooling more complicated. Unlike our road-going vehicles an F1 machine isn’t cooled by air when not in motion, which can lead to the engine overheating. Therefore, the song must remain quite short.
What’s more, a melody is not only a mere succession of notes. Rests, no matter how brief, must also be taken into account. Yet, our F1 engine cannot stop running – ie producing sound – in between notes, meaning we have to use some tricks to convey the impression of silence between two rpms. Fine-tuning these illusions requires both a strong knowledge of engine mapping and a good ear for music. Initial attempts were a bit approximate and it’s only through trial and error that we’ve been able to obtain an acceptable end result.
The Renault V8 has performed some of the world’s most emblematic tunes, starting with Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’ on the dyno. Then it sang the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’, when Fernando Alonso won his second consecutive world championship in 2006. At a demo run in Russia, the V8-led national anthem moved people to tears and even received a vocal accompaniment from the local crowd ! It’s not just national anthems, however : the V8 has also sung Nirvana, Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones. Rock ‘n’ roll, from the most unlikely of instruments !