Popular Science

How will Formula One reckon with electric cars?

A noisy debate about the world's fastest and most popular motorsport.

Drivers take turn 11 at Circuit of the Americas pretty slowly. It’s tight, and they’ll only hit about 60 miles per hour, depending on the car. Then they’ll charge down the main straight, a three-quarters-of-a-mile descent that lets the right machine clear 200.

As I stand in the grandstands before turn 12, a black-and-gold racecar quickly fills my field of view. It’s Texas-hot in Austin today, close to 90 and humid, but the car brings a wind with it. The wind is made of noise.

Fans come to Formula One races for this kind of sensory experience. When the series spun up in 1946, following the exhaustive end of World War II, fantastic machines replaced the terrifying cacophony of bombs with the joyful chorus of speed-linked sound. Over the years, millions of fans have swarmed the edges of racetracks to hear F1’s roar.

But you don’t just hear an F1 engine. You feel it. As the car flies by the grandstand, the concussive wave emanating from its eight pounding cylinders hits me in my chest, the back of my neck, and behind my eyes. Is it fair to call this a noise? It feels more like an emotion.

Too bad I’m not technically witnessing Formula One. I’m watching the Masters Historic series, an undercard to the next day’s U.S. Grand Prix. This full-throated racer is an F1 car, yes, but it’s one that hasn’t competed for the championship in nearly 40 years.

The modern cars, whose complex hybrid powerplants are more than twice as powerful as the old-school V-8 that just streaked

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