If you were to ask anyone in the Formula One paddock about what they've found to be different in 2014, they are likely to comment on how great it is that they can finally hear what their associates are saying.
Of all the reasons for introducing 1.6 litre turbocharged V6 engines to F1 this season, “making Kimi Raikkonen audible” probably ranked low on the list. The sport being quieter does indeed mean that you can now hear things that you would never have heard before—but the trouble is that you might not want to have heard some of those things anyway.
That certainly felt like the case when Sebastian Vettel had his say on the sound produced by F1's new power units prior to the Malaysian Grand Prix. He was quoted by Paul Weaver of The Guardian as stating:
It is s***. I was on the pit wall during the (Australian Grand Prix) race, and it is quieter than in a bar. I think for the fans it is not good. I think F1 has to be spectacular—and the sound is one of the most important things.
When I was six years old we went to see the cars live in free practice in Germany, and the one thing I remember was the sound and how loud the cars were, and to feel the cars through the ground as it was vibrating. It is a shame we don't have that anymore.
Amid the hilarity of Vettel dropping yet another swear word into yet another formal press conference, the sheer magnitude of his comments was perhaps lost initially.
Vettel is a world champion, a four-time world champion. He is the fourth most successful driver in history in terms of grand prix wins and the youngest ever race victor. He holds the records for the most wins and pole positions achieved by a driver in a single season. He is almost certain to break the record for points scored as well as pole positions before the end of his career.
F1 has served Vettel well, yet here he was mocking it when, as a hugely successful figure, he not only has the power, but a sense of duty, to attract more fans to the sport.
From that point of view, you can understand why Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, did not react too kindly to Vettel’s criticism, especially when the German’s success played a huge role in F1’s loss of 50 million television viewers in 2013.
Todt’s anger with Vettel was revealed by Mark Hughes of The Sunday Times (payment required), with it being reported that the Frenchman could use the Red Bull driver’s comments to force the team to withdraw their appeal against Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification for breaking the fuel flow limit at the Australian Grand Prix, which is set to be heard in a fortnight.
Threatening to punish Vettel for his negative comments could conceivably be used as leverage by the FIA to convince his team to withdraw their appeal. Jean Todt has a non-confrontational style but was furious with the German. Todt has been instrumental in forcing through the green regulations, which place F1 at the cutting edge of the development of fuel-efficient technology.
Todt was dismayed that the world champion should be so publicly critical. During the era of Todt’s predecessor, Max Mosley, occasional use was made of article 151c of the regulations—bringing the sport into disrepute—to quell dissent. This is not Todt’s style, though the regulation provides an underlying threat to Vettel and Red Bull.
Todt would almost certainly prefer that the Red Bull appeal and Vettel’s negative comments are dealt with diplomatically, behind closed doors.
Although an FIA source was keen to emphasise in Malaysia that the two matters were unrelated, the existence of article 151c means that Vettel’s critical comments could play a part in Red Bull re-evaluating their decision to appeal against their Australian GP exclusion. Loss of points or a race ban are among the penalties that could be imposed on any competitor judged to have brought the sport into disrepute.
That Vettel’s sharp tongue risks critically harming Red Bull’s case means it might have been a good idea for team principal Christian Horner to warn the driver of his future conduct but, as we learnt during the Multi-21 fiasco of 2013, Vettel isn't very good at following orders.
Predictably, Horner defended his lead driver, telling Andrew Benson of BBC Sport:
No-one's spoken to me about it (Todt’s unhappiness) over the weekend. He (Vettel) should be applauded for saying what he thinks.
We live in quite a politically-correct world but part of Red Bull's philosophy, which has sometimes been quite uncomfortable, is to allow the drivers freedom of expression.
Sebastian has expressed his opinion and I don't think anyone would blame a driver for making an opinion. He's not alone. There are different opinions and he's entitled to his.
It could be argued, in fact, that Vettel’s status as the most successful driver on the grid makes him the ideal candidate to pass judgement on the state of the sport. After all, during races held in extreme weather conditions, the FIA value the feedback of drivers of his status most highly when making decisions to deploy safety cars, for instance, or halting the race with a red flag.
Vettel’s clear interest in the history of F1 and his awareness of the records he is determined to break mean he has a distinctive vision for the direction the sport and what it should aspire to become.
More importantly, the fact that he has retained a fan-like perspective despite his success—in contrast to his peers who are often consumed by their own self-worth—almost allows Vettel to act as a spokesman for onlookers, the majority of whom share the reigning champion’s concerns over the sound.
And although the engines may not sound as aggressive or loud as they once did, much-ado-about-nothing arguments such as this will ensure that F1 will never fail to create a noise of some sort.