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All Ears

By Allianz
April 12 2003

This Allianz article gives you an idea of the lengths that Formula One teams go to in order to allow their drivers and team members work in the noisy world of F1. Drivers use special ear plugs while team members use head phones in order to deal with this noisy environment..

 

 

 
All Ears
 
Anyone sitting in one of the world’s loudest workplaces needs good nerves – and high-tech support. Formula 1 drivers use special earplugs and helmets to suppress noise levels in the cockpit. There may be noise emission limits for passenger cars, but there are none for an F1 car. The following tenet has been valid in the development of passenger cars for some time now: they have to be as quiet as possible.

When Formula 1 comes to Imola it is like being hit by an earthquake. Only a few metres away from the race circuit, thousands of fans cling to the slopes in front of the Rivazza corner to watch the San Marino Grand Prix. They will have paid out several hundred euros to spend a weekend on one of the loudest corners in the world. It is not only the unmistakable sound of the highly developed engines, but also their combined ear-piercing blare at more than 19,000 rpm, which makes the Formula 1 circus so fascinating. However, many spectators choose to protect themselves against the noise. They resort to perhaps uncomfortable, but tried-and-tested aids – they use earplugs.
 
Graphic courtesy of Allianz Click on image for larger version
 

There is a good reason for this: up to 130 decibels are measured on Formula 1 circuits – this is exactly to the same sound intensity that one would hear standing 100 metres away from an aircraft’s jet engine. Even the stands, which are positioned slightly further back, record up to 100 decibels. By way of a comparison: in many countries, industrial safety regulations require hearing protection to be worn beginning from 85 decibels and above. However, these laws assume that the worker will be subject to these noise levels for several hours at a time.

So, how do Formula 1 drivers cope with the noise level in their workplace? Measurements have shown that they are subjected to peak levels of up to 114 decibels – the pain threshold lies at 120 decibels – therefore: plug your ears. The most important aid for a driver is the earplug, however, these are high-tech specimens – tailor-made for each driver. The flexible and durable plastic nestles up against the shape of the ear and, despite the close-fitting helmet, there are no points of pressure. Integrated into the earplugs are acoustic filters which serve to suppress the high frequencies that are particularly damaging.

An earpiece is also fitted into the earplugs, which enables the driver to hear team announcements. This ‘ear button’ helps to provide a better sound quality than that of the previous radio communication devices which were only mounted into a driver’s helmet. By contrast, the latest high-tech helmets are equipped with microphones which suppress distant noise and boost sound that is generated close to the microphone. Thanks to these helmet designs, it has also been possible to reduce the noise levels that drivers have to contend with down to 98 decibels.

Despite this however, misunderstandings can still occur during radio communication. For this reason, the drivers and their teams use concisely formulated commands only. Thus “pit this lap” means that the driver has to come into the pit on this lap. “The terminology is defined beforehand to rule out any errors. This is backed up by the good old pit-board, which we display to the drivers from the pit-lane wall. It contains, for example, the current standing and the distance to the car in front or behind. Pit-to-car radio communication is particularly important when notifying the driver of any hazards, such as changes in weather conditions or a possible accident on another section of the circuit,” states Sam Michael, Chief Operations Engineer at WilliamsF1.

A communication system similar to the drivers’ is also used by the marshals. They however, can use conventional headphones with an integrated radio as they do not have to wear a helmet. The teams in the pit lane are generally equipped with tailor-made, re-usable earplugs similar to those used for the drivers.

The necessity of these protection measures has been backed up by medical investigations concerning the side effects of noise: excessive noise levels lead to temporary loss of hearing, whereby an extended period of exposure may result in permanent damage to the ear. Constant exposure to 90 decibels can cause damage to the sensory cells in the inner ear. Therefore 'plug up your ears’ is, the motto in Formula 1 – even if the typical sound of Formula 1 engines does give spectators and the teams a thrill.

By contrast, the average car buyer only holds the roar of an engine in high esteem if they actually intend to buy a sports-car. The following however, has long been valid in the development of passenger cars: they should be as quiet as possible. In order for a driver to enjoy peace and quiet, sound-dampening padding has been developed and the engines have been optimised to run silently. Each detail is put to test; after all, a low-vibration mounted cardan shaft (eg a driveshaft or propshaft) can ensure that driving comfort is significantly enhanced. This is supplemented by improvements in aerodynamics, coupled with low-noise underbodies and ventilation systems. Not hidden, but muted and silent: driving noise has been reduced to a minimum. You will hardly hear the difference, whether you are sitting in a limousine or at home in your living room.

However, reductions in vehicle passenger noise levels are not the last step. The minimisation of a car’s exterior noise is playing an ever-increasing role in today’s road traffic, as it is still one of the major sources of noise. Versatile acoustic measures for reducing traffic noise are being compromised by the total increase in vehicle traffic.

“Passenger car limits have been distinctly reduced during the course of the past few decades. A lot has been achieved with improved silencers, optimised air-intake tracts and engine compartment encapsulation,” says Dr. Christoph Lauterwasser, from the Allianz Centre for Technology. “Today, tyre-road noise is increasingly a dominating factor. Technical solutions for further noise reductions include low-noise road surfaces, optimised tyre tread lug and wheel well design, which serve to absorb noise.”

However, the fact that cars are getting increasingly quieter is also problematical. Pedestrians can no longer rely on driving noise to warn of an approaching car. This in turn means that they have to be more attentive. For their part, car drivers also have to pay more attention to critical situations and their immediate surroundings, particularly in urban areas.

 
 
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