Very few Formula 1 folk had been in the paddock longer than Charlie Whiting; none had worn more caps over the years than had the 66-year old, whose passing in Melbourne ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix sent seismic shock waves and outpourings of genuine grief throughout the sport.
@DieterRencken pays tribute to a giant of Formula 1, a man he respected absolutely, both professionally and personally.
Yes, eventually all bases will be covered – even if not in Charlie’s quietly but methodical manner – but the governing body may find it virtually impossible to find a single individual able or even willing to work Charlie’s 25-hour days and eight-day weeks.
It would be surprise if the FIA was to discover it needs to spread his job description amongst two or even three heads: race director and safety delegate; FIA F1 delegate on bodies such as the Technical and Sporting Working Groups, F1 Commission, World Motorsport Council and Strategy Group; and the go-to guy for regulatory question raised by drivers, stewards, teams personnel, promoters or pesky journalists.
Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff revealed how the difficulty of covering Whiting’s workload was beginning to dawn on those around him. “I think his shoes are impossible to fill. I had a chat with [F1 managing director] Ross Brawn on the way to the photo and minute of silence [held to remember Whiting and the New Zealand terror attack victims], and he said they just discovered how much Charlie was doing.
“‘Trivialities’ like cameras in dangerous positions, and a bunch of other tasks. I didn’t have any [discussion] with the race director during the race, but certainly there will be tougher decision to take in the future.
“I think it’s impossible to replace Charlie. But whoever takes up that job, we need to support him.”
As Haas team boss Guenther Steiner, a committed F1 ‘guy’ supreme and thus fully able to appreciate the depth of Charlie’s love for the sport said so poignantly, “I would say without the help of Charlie in the beginning five years ago, [when] he advised us how to do things best, we wouldn’t be here. So I’ve got a lot of respect for what he did.
“I think we always have to remember him being one of the big ones in this sport to make it what it is now. We never have to forget. We can show up here, have a good time, have a good life out of this, because of people like Charlie. So a lot of respect to him.”
While “race director” was the job description Whiting was most commonly referred to by – and understandably so, for that was his most visible function – that understates the scope of his responsibilities by a factor of at least four, so many other crucial duties and responsibilities did he carry out. It was clear his passion for the work was rooted in his love of F1.
Brawn estimated that Whiting’s race weekend duties may have made up only five percent of his workload. “[His passing] will leave a massive hole on a personal as well as a professional level,” he said.
In a pressure-packed environment in which very few genuine friendships survive, the standout mark of the man is that Charlie had real friends and, tellingly, no enemies. That takes skills and traits far beyond merely checking out cars or deciding when flags should be waved.
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Few (if any) of those present at Sochi in 2014 will ever forget the calm and collected manner in which Whiting addressed the media in the wake of Jules Bianchi’s horrific, and ultimately fatal, crash at Suzuka less than a week earlier. Emotions ran high, feelings were raw, the hack pack demanding answers ahead of pressing deadlines – yet Charlie ran through all factors logically and methodically, then quietly responded to questions put to him every which way.
Even with the benefit of hindsight and results of subsequent investigations, not a single aspect of his presentation has been disputed – although measures have been put in place. On that day my admiration for a man whom I respected immensely grew enormously, and nothing he said or did after that Friday has diminished my esteem for Charlie.
That his race director/starter role was quickly filled after his passing was down to two factors: a) foresight by the FIA in selecting and training understudies; according to sources this programme commenced over a year ago, and b) a touch of fortitude.
Two extremely capable candidates were selected: Scott Elkins, IMSA and Formula E race director – most recently of the Hong Kong round of the electric championship, held the weekend before Melbourne – and Michael Masi, an experienced Australian Supercar deputy race director and motorsport administrator.
Masi was ideally placed to step into the role in Melbourne at short notice, being right on the spot. Clearly, though, there were no doubts about his proficiency as evidenced by a glitch-free race despite the massive upheaval, which was a relief for all concerned. The last thing F1 needs is a hangovers from unresolved controversies.
That said, there never were any doubts about his ability to make the right decisions given his similar role in (primarily) the domestic Supercars, a championship as emotional and contentious as any on the planet. An Australian journalist who has known Masi for 20 years spoke highly of him, adding his decisions – though not always popular in a partisan series split 50/50 between Ford/Holden fans – ultimately proved correct.
US-based Elkins, too, has made good calls during his long career, so there are no doubts about his credentials, either. It is envisaged they will rotate duties based on logistics and other commitments for the foreseeable future, with one or the other eventually receiving the full-time gig. Who knows, one (or both) may withdraw given F1’s hectic calendar and even heavier schedules kept by Charlie – but, whatever, F1 is well-served.
As regards the various governance processes Charlie contributed to so diligently of late – F1 is well provided for by a similar combination of foresight and fortitude: F1’s post-2020 regulations well advanced, such that FIA president Jean Todt announced in Melbourne that a package comprising technical/sporting regulations, proposed governance processes and budget cap outlines will be presented on March 26th in London.
Arguments and counter-arguments can be expected, but the bottom line is the bulk of legwork had been put in by countless TWG and SWG meetings chaired by Charlie. True, there were valuable contributions from FIA technical / sporting departments – plus exhaustive data from Liberty following studies led by Pat Symonds (technical) and Steve Nielsen (sporting) – but Charlie played crucial roles in advancing the processes.
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The onus now rests on the likes of FIA secretary-general Peter Bayer, the governing body’s head of single seater technical and the technical and sporting teams reporting to Brawn to move the process forward sufficiently to meet the June 30th deadline without Charlie’s steadying hand and foresight. A big ask, but do-able.
In Charlie’s book safety was absolutely non-negotiable. Many were the times he took unpopular decisions, on occasion, it’s said, standing up to pressures from promoters, broadcasters and those who really should know better. Invariably his calm, considered approach was vindicated. HANS was introduced during his watch. Deform-able structures too. Cockpit foams – ditto. Halo – check. That is far from the full list.
Every circuit on the trail has benefitted from his inspections, whether during initial construction, upgrades or both. Countless venues applied for Grade A licences in the hope of eventually making it to the F1 calendar and all were treated even-handedly regardless of location or politics. Charlie’s role was not to decide whether circuits should host grands prix, it was to judge whether they could.
In fact, it became a standing joke between us during flyaway races: “Where did you detour to this time?” Although he was too discrete to divulge specifics, he seldom attended a race without detouring before and/or afterwards. Thus trips to Japan doubled as inspection opportunities in, say, Vietnam or China. Brazil provided a perfect excuse to check out Argentina.
I recall visiting Kyalami in my native South Africa during F1’s summer break about three years ago, only to be told I’d missed Charlie’s visit by a day. When next I saw him, I mentioned the trip – “Yes,” he said with his trademark grin, “I had a few days off due to the break, and they asked me to inspect the circuit…”
We first met at the 2000 Australian Grand Prix. It was my first full season, and a six-time South African F1 champion of my acquaintance, Dave Charlton, had been extended a guest pass for the event by Charlie, and for convenience had asked me to collect it on his behalf at an agreed time.
I make no pretences: I was terrified. It was my first full season, and all accreditation dealings I’d experienced during that Max Mosley/Bernie Ecclestone era had been nerve-wracking. Still, I asked for ‘Mr Whiting’ at the control tower office, and almost immediately he appeared, shook my hand as he smilingly handed over the envelope, then asked that I convey a message to (the other) “Charlie”. Nice guys did work in F1, after all.
As my years in F1 piled up, so did my dealings with Charlie. The FIA operates to strict protocols, and thus I seldom contacted him directly, preferring to work through the correct channels. Still, on the occasions I did text or email him, Charlie’s responses were as complete and comprehensive as he could provide at the time, with nuances providing unwritten hints. Any delays (understandable given his schedule) were apologised for.
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A highlight of 2018 was the introduction by the FIA of a ‘Charlie Whiting Debrief’, which provided us with opportunities of seeking the reasons and answers behind some of the decisions taken – whether by stewards or others – during the weekend, plus some pointers to changes for upcoming races. Occasionally, though, we strayed into other topics such as the upcoming regulation changes, etc., which at times continued off-record.
During these debrief Charlie displayed great patience and good humour, even on occasions when journalists asked him to explain some or other stewards’ decision that seemed unfathomable (or even inconsistent), particularly when these were taken in the heat of the moment.
Charlie’s initial responses to such questions became a standing joke: “I’m not a steward, so I can only tell you what I think they thought…’ then proceeded to explain what he believed to be their reasoning. He was, of course, scrupulously correct: His job was not to referee, but rather to provide guidance to stewards and officials, who would in turn take their own decisions after reviewing all factors.
That said, more often than not his guidance was followed, not because it came from the ‘Race Director’, but because it was founded on sound, logical sense and delivered in his trademark calm manner. It will be interesting to learn whether the Race Director’s guidance is as readily accepted under the new regime. However, the incoming incumbents have had a superb teacher, the best they could ever have hoped for.
After the final 2018 debrief, in Abu Dhabi, we walked out together, discussing the post-2020 regulatory process. He gave me an off-record steer on progress, having revealed that the FIA had decided to work to its International Sporting Code deadline of 18 months before effective date.
Long after most players had departed we debated the implications of the FIA’s decision in the warmth of that desert evening, then shook hands as we wished each other a pleasant break from track activities (if not F1 itself) and a merry festive season. “See you next year…” were Charlie’s final words to me.
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