One of the cornerstones of the magic of Ferrari is the sound of its formula one engines. from the howl of the 12-cylinder to the mellow tones of the eightcylinder, via the weighty notes of the v10, racing cars from Maranello have always been recognisable. Even if future engines will no longer have the option of these classic configurations, the sound of a Ferrari will always be different and unique
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At the beginning of the ‘90s, Steven Spielberg had a problem. The king of cinema, the prophet of Hollywood, had got it into his head that he wanted to create a film based around an improbable reappearance of dinosaurs on Earth. Jurassic Park was realised with three enormously successful films, but before all that Spielberg had a big hurdle to overcome. What exactly did a velociraptor or tyrannosaur sound like? Legend has it that the director, a huge fan of cars, considered using the aggressive melody of a Ferrari 12-cylinder engine (not that a V12 built in the Racing Department at Fiorano is necessarily Jurassic of course – far from it). The idea was eventually shelved, mainly because Prancing Horse tifosi spread across the globe would have immediately recognised such a distinctive sound. The engine has always been the soul of a car, and Ferrari, above all others, is the company that places the highest value on the near spiritual relation that exists between the propulsion unit and body; between power and elegance, fury and style.
The 12-cylinder engine: those faithful to “made in Maranello” traditions will doubtless be well aware that the V12 was the engine size preferred by The Drake. Enzo Ferrari’s feeling was happily shared by his successor, chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo; together the two enjoyed some of the V12’s finest exploits in competition. This was the mid-ʼ70s, in a Europe still divided by the wound of the Berlin Wall, a period that tormented minds with its contradictions and exasperating uncertainties. As recompense, the 12-cylinders from Maranello sang, shouted and poured forth a deep desire for compensation, for revenge.Ferrari had not won an F1 World Title since 1964 and among the Company’s detractors suspicions were gaining ground; that the V12 was a leftover from the past, too bulky and even too noisy, compared to the eight-cylinder engines used by the competition. Fortunately, Ferrari and Montezemolo, despite being from different generations, stood their ground. They shared a vision. Working on a V12 that was a miracle of technological perfection, engineer Mauro Forghieri developed the transverse gearbox and, with Niki Lauda at the wheel, Ferrari began once again to collect titles. From that time on, the V12’s vitality was no longer questioned, until technical regulations eventually forced its retirement from Grand Prix competition. The engine, with its wonderful shrieks, was like a childgrown up too quickly, one always hungry and thirsty. But how much satisfaction it gave… And how it made itself unique when you listened to it: a true aficionado could always tell one from a distance, as if it were a sound arriving from beneath the earth. Maybe it was this kind of emotional pull that prompted Spielberg to think of making dinosaurs speak with a Ferrari roar. Moreover, even after its racing days, the appeal of the V12 (which Ferrari, the Company, has continued to use for production cars, testament to a lasting fascination) is coloured with emotion. It’s the autumn of 1995. From the following season there will be a young man climbing on the Prancing Horse, one already touched by glory. He’s called Michael Schumacher and he has just signed the contract that will tie him for 10 long years to Montezemolo’s Ferrari. In his trophy case, Schumi already has two world titles, both won with Benetton.
In the first, his car was propelled by a V8, in the second by a V10. Schumi arrives at Maranello and, conscientious professional he is, asks to test drive the car Ferrari is about to send off to the museums. It’s the last racing car powered by a V12, the one in which Jean Alesi was first past the post at the Canadian Grand Prix. It’s already almost a museum piece, but the German has no intention of depriving himself of such a piece of racing poetry. So, the farewell V12 goes on track at Fiorano. And the more Mr Schumacher drives, the more intoxicated he becomes, intoxicated by a noise that is love. As the test finishes, he’s wearing a smile worth more than a simple farewell gesture. And fixed in the memory of those around is the phrase that serves as suitable epitaph: ‘It would have been beautiful to become World Champion with an engine like that.’ That’s the truth, not fantasy; the news, not invention. Don’t take offence, but the Ferrari V12 sang like a choir of sirens.
It could never be confused with the rumbling of a Cosworth or with the whistling of a Honda, a Renault, a BMW. Everyone is free to choose a different soundtrack, but Maranello isn’t so very far away from the home of Giuseppe Verdi and, as a boy, the Drake nurtured the dream of becoming a professional tenor. From the music of opera to the concert of the multicylinder propulsion unit, with the same intensity and the passion, because an engine is the sum total of feelings born of work, devotion and painstaking creativity. Of course, the racing history of the Prancing Horse is an infinite story, certainly one that doesn’t begin and end with the V12. In the ‘80s there was exploration of the frontiers of the turbocharged engine. In more recent times, F1 has timidly introduced “eco-compatible” measures such as KERS, the device for recovering lost energy. In 2009, in a technical context completely devoted to the V8, it was Ferrari who were the most efficient in using KERS, as demonstrated by Kimi Räikkönen’s prestigious victory on the legendary Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. To clarify, behind and within the musical score of an engine, there is always the spirit of research, the onward rush of an evolution that does not give in to the boredom of repetition. Ferrari has always accepted the challenges of modernity, both on and off the track.
The proof is there in its ability to interpret ever more rigid regulations, introduced to stabilise construction costs. The “freezing” of propulsion units has not put a dampener on the imagination of Maranello’s engineers; on the contrary, they actually see it as a starting point for further invention.
There was an exemplary lesson in the V10 used in the cars with which Schumi won his five World Titles, between 2000 and 2004. Obviously, the sound of the V10 was softer compared to the very high notes of a V12. The engine’s harmony harked back to glorious symphonies of the past.
Even in the increasing standardisation of the category, the Ferrari sound remains recognisable. A trademark, an emotion for the eardrums, like an orchestra or rock band of incomparable stature. Because from Giuseppe Verdi one can get to Pink Floyd: it’s not for nothing that Nick Mason, drummer in the legendary British band, is a Ferrari collector, as well as being Contributing Editor of this magazine. There is a piece by the Red House Blues Band (Maranello’s in-house band of musicians) that miraculously sums up, in a single track, the high notes of the Ferrari V10, using the rhythmic sequences of Another Brick In The Wall, the mantra-like tune by Pink Floyd.
Next year, F1 will return to turbocharged engines. And so the sounds of Grand Prix will change too. But we can be certain of one thing: the melody of Ferrari will remain unique. And unforgettable.