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The Makeshift Lingua Franca of Formula One Racing

June 26, 2017

Since the inaugural season in 1950, the FIA Formula One World Championship has been the premier class of auto racing. Attracting one of the largest global television audiences, Formula One can be seen in almost every country and territory around the world. The racing sanction's digital "World Feed" attracted a global audience of 500 million viewers per season. The feed delivers a real-time digital television "super signal" with hundreds of camera angles from trackside to inside the car's cockpit. So, what's the global fuss all about. It's the drivers. They can come from India to Ireland and the racing circuits from China to Dubai.

Over the past seven decades, it has been interesting to see how "English" developed as the makeshift Lingua Franca of Formula One and why. In the beginning, and to a lesser part today, most of the race teams from around the globe had headquarters in England. That was where the racing engineers and shops were. Drivers from Brazil, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Australia, etc. often moved to Great Britain to live near the teams and to test on England's famed Silverstone circuit. At that time, it was important to learn England's version of the English language to communicate with race engineers, global fans, the media and worldwide sponsors.

In today's Global Village, driver's and team members live wherever they choose from Monaco to Bahrain. They've attained "Rock Star" status in countries like Iran, China, Malaysia, and of course, Italy the home of Ferrari. The evolution of English as the makeshift Lingua Franca of the sport has been fueled by several new dynamics to the sport itself. Most teams now employ dozens of team members from around the globe. "American English" became the default language as neighboring European countries often refused to speak in each other's tongue. The complexity of the Asian languages made them an unlikely choice. In addition, business environments around the world have adopted American English as the global lingua franca used by today's sponsors.

With driver-to-pit communication feeds being broadcast live, English evolved as the universal language for broadcasting the sport. That's not say that an excited driver won't blurt out a remark in a combination of English and their native tongue, but most verbal exchanges are well spoken in English. Even race-specific terminology and an array of acronyms are mostly based on the English language. At a Formula One race today, the multilingual broadcasts, communications with team engineers and interviews in a driver's native tongue require all drivers to be fluent in several languages. It's like attending a function at the United Nations without interpretation booths and more than a hundred thousand fans pulling for their favorite.

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