Sound, Sensation and Experience: The Formula 1 Crossroads


I absolutely love the Formula 1 Experience.

The creation of experiences happens mostly by the stimulation of human senses. Live music concerts, parties, games, stadiums and racing, for example, become long lasting experiences due to, among many factors, a carefully designed environment tailored to trigger human sensory receptors in order to trigger desired sensations.

Understanding the Dynamics of Experience Perception

As an absolute racing fanatic, over the years I have had the immense pleasure of attending a number of Formula 1 races. Form my own personal experience and observations, the main sensory stimulation on racetracks are:

  • Visual: The cars are obviously the focus of visual attention. Thus, the traditional livery colors, sponsor logos, personalized driver helmet designs, driver and mechanic overalls, asphalt colors, racing flags, fan gears and many other stimuli generate on consumers’ minds the overall scenario of a racing weekend.
  • Smell: The smell of gasoline, burned tires and engine smoke represent the main factors that can generate an association with the experience.


  • Hearing: For a racing fan, nothing, absolutely nothing affects more a live experience than SOUNDS. There are many sounds available on a track, such as gear changes, braking, crowds.

However, the sound of engines roaring is, bar far, the most important sensory stimulation element.

During a Formula 1 race, engine sounds signifies many things for spectators: power, risk, speed, battle, driving on the limit. These elements are the core of racing, the underlying reason why racing fans fall in love with the sport.

And here is exactly where the problem lies for Formula 1.

The Problem of Sound in Formula 1

Formula 1 represents the pinnacle of motorsport. From a marketing perspective, for decades there was a famous saying: “Win on Sunday, sell cars on Monday”. For this reason, manufacturers such as Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW, Renault, Honda, Peugeot and many others invested millions over decades in F1.

During this time, for manufacturers, Formula 1 served for two main aims:

Promote the brand globally and use the competitive environment for technology development to be later introduced on road cars.

And engines represented the most important technology to be developed by all manufacturers. The main problem, however, is that technology never sleeps and the urge to keep producing smaller, more powerful and efficient engines has led companies to change drastically the nature of engines along the years.


Because Formula 1 is not only a platform for technology development, it is also a spectacle that must deliver an experience for its consumers.

Click below to check a series of “Live Experience” packages available at:

However, society (and car manufacturers) is moving towards cleaner, electric and autonomous forms of transport. And the quieter these modes of transportation are, the better life quality on urban center is. But the live-racing experience is, unfortunately, compromised.

V12, V10 and V8 Engine Era: Incredible Live Experiences

During the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s decade, Formula 1 used V12, V10 and later V8 engines. Simply put, these engines varied by the number of cylinders they had. through the years with technological development, manufactures developed more efficient engines with less cylinders. But importantly, for many years, these engines were also Turbo charged.

What was the result? They produced an INCREDIBLE SOUND, especially when reaching high rev’s. These sounds became iconic and quickly conditioned to drivers, teams and a specific time in history.

Here is an example of a V12 engine driven by the legendary (GOAT) Ayrton Senna. This is truly magic and certainly reminds me of my childhood days.

Here is an example of a V10 engine, during a Ferrari test. Close your eyes and enjoy the sound!

These engines sounds were so loud and intense that it created reverberation on the stands and fans could actually FEEL the sound on their chest.

The live experience of fans on track was simply incredible.

The V8 engines were the last engine generation able to create an exciting sound and lasted until 2013. The video below shows a historical footage: Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, after the last race of the season, firing a V8 Renault engine for the last time. After this, a new era would begin.

2014: Hybrid Power Units are Introduced and Live Experience Is Negatively Affected

In 2014 Formula 1 introduced the V6 Hybrid era. They were so different from previous versions and included so many new parts for energy recovery (and much more!) that no even the term “engine” anymore. Now, they were called “power units”.

The aim of the FIA was to follow sustainable societal trends and have an engine that was cleaner, more electric and requiring less fuel. This way, it would appeal more to manufacturers and F1 would gain from this interest. Consequently, it would remain as the “pinnacle of motorsport”.

The expectation from everyone was immense, after all, a new era would begin. And the big test came in March 2014 during the Australian Grand Prix (first race of the season).

Have a look below on this video which compares the live experience during the Australian Grand Prix in 2013 (V8 Engines) and 2014 (V6 Power Units):

From a pure technological standpoint, the new power trains were considered “engineering masterpieces” and achieved all desired goals (although being incredibly expensive). On the other hand, from a consumer point of view, cars were slower and much quieter.

RESULT? Fans across the world complained heavily. The live experience had become much less memorable.

Moreover, the technical benefits of the new and highly complex power units were difficult for fans to understand and even for commentators to explain and communicate to the overall audience.

In other words, the cars were no longer “magical” because one key stimulant was missing: the SOUND.

The race promoters at the time were also not happy, as fans interested had declined. In the video below, Bernie Ecclestone (former F1 CEO) talks to the promoter of the Malaysian Grand Prix and jokes about the situation.

In sum, focusing purely on technology and neglecting live experience proved to be a negative managerial decision. And more, the new engine regulations were agreed until 2021, when new regulations my be implemented.

2017: Liberty Media Purchases F1 and Focuses on the fan Experience

In the end of 2016 a massive news in the world of motorsport was announced: Formula 1 was bought by Liberty Media, an American media group.

The new owners, from day one, made very clear their managerial position:

Their main goal is to focus on fan engagement and experience, not exactly on technology development.

For this reason, it is crucial for them to work on new regulations regulations that will trigger sensory stimulation during race weekends. This is how experiences are created. And one key decision refers to the type of SOUND that the engines that will be introduced in 2021 will make.

Chase Carey, the new F1 CEO named Ross Brawn (Former Ferrari and Mercedes engineer) to lead the sporting group that will set the new F1 regulations. Brawn has a very challenging role: To develop a set of regulations that appeal to racing fans but also to manufacturers.

The problem though, is that these two “stakeholders” have very contrasting desires and the first proposal made caused already a negative reaction from manufacturers.

The challenge ahead is immense.

2021: Which Road to Take? Understanding Current Societal Trends

According to the current regulations in 2021 F1 will introduce a new engine. It is a historical change to “fix” the previous regulation which compromised the live experience. The problem is that developing new engines require heavy investment and if focused on sound, they would have low “road relevance”.

The reason for it are the current societal trends related to transport. Some of them include:

  • Electric and Autonomous Vehicles: Companies such as Tesla, an all main manufacturers, are investing heavily in the development of electric and autonomous vehicles. In fact many countries have already established end date for combustion engine cars to be sold.
  •  Lower Interest Towards Cars: The value and interest towards cars in society has reduced. Societal interest has shifted, and mobile and wearable technologies have gained greater interest especially from millennials. Cars are more and more seen as outdated and replaceable technology, which cause societal disruption due to heavy traffic. And once the interest for cars reduces, so does the interest for motor racing as a sport.

Thus, for 2021, the new Formula 1 management and all teams and manufacturers involved have a historical marketing crossroad decision to make:

Should it leave once and for all the focus on technology development and fully focus on the fan experience or should it run the risk of compromising fan experience once more?

A basic principle of marketing is: to generate value for customers. Otherwise, there is no business.

And Formula 1 is no different.