Inside access to give the inside track: How research at Warwick is helping Williams Racing identify communicative strategies to gain an edge
Dr Kieran File analysed extensive audio recordings between drivers, mechanics and managers. His findings could help the team overtake its rivals.
Formula One is a high-pressure environment; you only really have to watch it on TV to tell that.
But until Dr Kieran File, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics at Warwick, listened in to how a team communicates during a race, he could never have realised just how much multitasking is involved.
It was a unique opportunity to identify and understand how the many people behind the car talk to each other – and could help put Williams Racing in pole position for success on the track.
Unique sport, unique communication
Through his role at Warwick, Dr File has been fortunate enough to work with many different athletes and teams in all kinds of sports.
From analysing how junior boxing coaches talk to fighters one on one to supporting professional rugby clubs in New Zealand, he has seen a variety of different environments and linguistic practices at play.
“Yet I’ve always been intrigued by the possibility of a research project with an F1 team,” Kieran explained.
“They consist of a huge number of mechanics, engineers, data specialists and designers as well as, of course, the driver.
“And with that many people involved, I suspected the communication dynamic would be fascinating – so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance to work with Williams Racing.”
Kieran’s career is focused on how professional athletes and coaches use language when engaged in team and media communication; the ways in which club cultures can influence that, and vice versa, for example.
But among the organisations themselves, there’s a growing awareness that effective communication can provide an edge, with executives and managers becoming increasingly interested in leveraging that advantage in a world that craves marginal gains.
It’s this idea that inspired Williams Racing to not only give Dr File access to audio recordings from past competitive races, but to let him listen in live during training events, too.
F1, after all, is a sport where the most subtle of mechanical changes has the potential to significantly influence racing outcomes – so if learning more about how teammates talk to each other could lead to beneficial changes later, it’s a no-brainer.
“From a research perspective, the amount of data to review has been staggering to say the least,” Kieran said.
“There are 15 operational radio channels during a race day, with experts in multiple different disciplines all needing to share vital information, provide clarification or ask urgent questions.
“Communication isn’t just part of the sport. It essentially is the sport."
As a result, Kieran feels the work with Williams Racing to date has merely scratched the surface; the relationship continues, with plenty more to uncover.
Nevertheless, the research has already provided some tantalising insights, with findings collated into a booklet to give the team practical information to consider.
Experts in communication (even if they don’t know it)
“From all that audio, we located and labelled several types of communicative strategies that members of the team deployed to support the rapid, efficient and effective distribution of key information,” Kieran explained.
These included ‘verbal handshaking’, where colleagues ensured their readiness for conversations by engaging in important rituals before sharing their main messages, ‘streamlining’, where words inessential for conveying meaning or that were easily retrievable from context were omitted, and ‘strategic eavesdropping’.
“That was an especially interesting one,” Kieran added. “Team members would frequently listen to radio channels they weren’t responsible for monitoring in order to proactively spot situations where they could help others deal with issues.”
The thing that most surprised Dr File during the project, though?
“Just how adaptable these people have to be,” Kieran said.
“They plan and plan and plan, but then one unexpected circumstance can arise on the track and they suddenly have to deal with so much uncertainty in an environment where everything happens so fast.
“That’s something I would really like to delve into in more detail; what patterns might there be in these instances, and what can we learn from them about how humans use language?”
No doubt more interesting discoveries will be made the longer Dr File works with Williams Racing.
But for now, he’s just glad he’s on the other side of the headset.
“I’m just glad I’m the one listening to these conversations, not having to make split-second decisions in a pitstop that could affect a live race being watched by millions around the world!”