Is language a barrier for non-English speaking drivers?

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The topic for this post came to me when I read through some of the drivers’ comments published in advance of the British GP.  One comment in particular: Pastor Maldonado stating “The car is predictable, but we have a problem making the front work with the rear” struck me as an odd phrase.  I’m not an F1 driver or engineer, and maybe it makes perfect sense to them, and I am sure that Pastor and his engineers are able to communicate well.  However as all bar three of the current F1 teams are based in the UK, the majority language used is English.  Describing complex car behaviour in a non-native language must be more challenging than for a native speaker.  Particularly when both the driver and engineer are different nationalities, and they are communicating in a third language.

In the not too distant past, the route to F1 was quite well defined: aspiring drivers from all over the world went to van Diemen to try and get a works drive in their Formula Ford team, failing that they raced in British FFord for one of the other teams, then progressed through British F3 before going straight to F1, or through European F2 or F3000 (depending on era).  In these cases, the young drivers were able to learn to describe the nuances of car behaviour in English to English speaking teams well before they needed to appear fluent to a predominantly English speaking F1 paddock.

Now however the racing ladder is massively fragmented, with many varied competing championships at each level, operating in different nations.  Young drivers no longer need to race in the UK to progress through the ranks, and in many cases other series in Europe offer better value for their sponsors money.  In fact, the common training ground now seems to be at the Junior karting level, where the most competitive racing can be found in Italy.  While learning Italian phrases for understeer and oversteer will ultimately come in handy if they end up at Ferrari, this won’t necessarily help if they end up elsewhere.

Having worked in a multinational environment I know from experience that meaning can be lost when trying to convey some precise technical description in another language.  While in the environment I was in we had the opportunity to check that the correct meaning was understood, and rephrase and explain further if required, it sometimes took hours or days before a misunderstanding came to light.  This time isn’t available in such a time sensitive sport as F1, where a miscommunication during a qualifying session could result in a driver missing the cut to progress to the next session.

Is this an explanation for the disproportionately high number of World Champions that have English as their first language?  After all Grand Prix racing started in France, and for the first ten years of the F1 World Championship it was dominated by Italian manufacturers, yet to date there has only been one French and two Italian World Champions.

So is language a barrier, and if so is this more of a problem now the junior ranks are more disjointed?  Post below your thoughts and opinions.

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