Obituary: Charlie Whiting, 1952-2019

Hugely respected by several generations of drivers and team personnel, Whiting grew from humble beginnings as a club racing mechanic to play a significant role in the development of modern F1 through the multiple functions he filled with the FIA over the decades.

As well as writing the regulations, Whiting was responsible for policing them, and inevitably his interpretation of technical developments or on-track incidents was often challenged, leading to many stressful situations over the decades.

And yet Whiting, who had a calm and analytical approach to any situation, always maintained his cool, and dealt even-handedly with everyone. He was the perfect man for the difficult role of referee.

“People tell me I’m quite calm, and I do try not to get excited about things, because it’s counter-productive,” he told me in 2009. “I’ve had a couple of drivers kicking things in the office when they’ve been angry, but it definitely hasn’t done them any good. So I’m not going to start doing it myself.

“It’s a bit like football, isn’t it? When you’re the referee, it’s impossible to keep everybody happy. I accept that from the outset; I’m not going to keep everybody happy.

“But I try my best to do unpleasant work politely, and obviously fairly. I try to be even-handed. I think that’s the best one can do.”

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari and Charlie Whiting, FIA Delegate

Photo by: Sutton Images

He remained at heart a fan of the sport who loved to see a good and fair race, even maintaining a huge collection of F1 programmes from down the decades.

A self-confessed workaholic, he was rarely in one place for long. When he wasn’t at grands prix he was usually to be found in FIA meetings in Paris or Geneva, carrying out safety inspections at current circuits, or visiting cities to assess potential future venues. He always had a punishing schedule, one that must have taken a toll on family life.

“The travelling is not a problem, it’s just keeping up with everything,” he said. “You get questions, enquiries, technical stuff coming through all the time. If I don’t pick up my email for half a day, I’m behind again. It’s really that frantic. I can get a lot of work done sitting on a plane.”

Whiting’s first involvement in motorsport came through older brother Nick, who competed in autocross before becoming a big name on the British circuit racing scene.

“We lived about a mile from Brands Hatch,” he recalled. “And I would sneak through the woods and under the fence to watch. I think the first Grand Prix I saw was in 1964, the first one at Brands, when I would have been 12.

“Later I used to come home from school and go to work for Nick in his garage at night, and when he went racing I helped him build and prepare the cars. He started in autocross in 1968, and in ’71 he started circuit racing. He won a few championships in Special Saloons, when his biggest rival was Gerry Marshall. Good days!”

Whiting decided that cars would be his career: “I went to technical college and then to Borough Polytechnic – it’s now called South Bank University – and got various qualifications in mechanical engineering. Much to my mother’s disgust I went to work in a garage. She wasn’t very happy about that.”

Whiting’s first brush with F1 came when he worked on the Surtees TS16 that his brother entered for Divina Galica in the 1976 Shellsport series, and which the former skier failed to qualify for that year’s British GP.

Divina Galica, ShellSport/Whiting Surtess TS16

Divina Galica, ShellSport/Whiting Surtess TS16

Photo by: LAT Photographic

He landed his first full-time job in F1 when he joined the works Hesketh team, which was in decline after the golden James Hunt era. He worked with the likes of Eddie Cheever and Derek Daly until the struggling team folded after the 1978 Belgian GP.

Out of a job, Whiting soon found a new home at Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team, whose designer Gordon Murray was always pushing the envelope, and had just developed the BT46B fan car.

“I don’t remember who suggested I approach Brabham. I went down for an interview with Herbie [Blash], and got a job on the test team. I did one test in Austria, then someone left and I was co-opted onto the race team from Paul Ricard onwards.

“That year I was working on the T-car, and then in 1979 I was working on Niki [Lauda]’s car, and in 1980, Nelson [Piquet]’s. I became chief mechanic in 1981.”

In that role Whiting would oversee Piquet’s world championship victories in 1981 and 1983. It was a fabulous era for the sport, and Brabham was very much the maverick team, pulling off tricks like fitting heavier bodywork for post-session weight checks, and introducing refuelling and planned tyre changes in 1982.

“Things have become far more complex – things that were going on then were very crude by comparison. Everyone was naive. The measures to stop us putting a heavier rear wing on weren’t exactly sophisticated! Certainly it put me in good stead for the first few years of my current job.”

Murray, Blash and Whiting were the key players in a close-knit team that didn’t take itself too seriously. “Gordon was such a laid-back sort of person, and that rubbed off on everybody else,” Whiting recalled. “That’s where it came from I suppose, the silly little things we did, the jokes we had and stuff like that, because we could, as Gordon encouraged it.

“Obviously Bernie had a reputation in those days for getting quite cross from time to time, and he’d come out into the factory and have a bit of a rant about something he didn’t like.

“At the end of the day he’s a perfectionist, and he wanted everything to be exactly right. When you look at the Brabham factory and the sort of things Bernie started, you can see he was right. It really was state of the art, and he made sure it was kept like that.”

Nelson Piquet, Brabham BMW

Nelson Piquet, Brabham BMW

Photo by: LAT Images

In 1986 the team suffered the tragic loss of Elio de Angelis in a testing crash at Paul Ricard. It hit Whiting hard, and influenced his later focus on safety matters.

“That was tragic in that he wasn’t injured. There were only about four gallons of petrol in the car, but unfortunately he tipped over, the petrol came out, it caught fire and there was no-one there to put it out.”

Distracted by running the F1 business, Ecclestone sold Brabham in 1987, and the following year the team didn’t take part in the world championship. Rather than move to another team, Whiting – who latterly held the title of chief engineer – took the unusual step of joining the FIA.

“It was Bernie’s idea. He always thought that no one there knew what they were doing. He said: ‘Why don’t you go and work there?’

“At his request I went over to Paris, and had a chat with Yvon Leon, who was the Secretary General under Jean-Marie Balestre.

“And we agreed that I would go along as part of the technical team in 1988. Initially I worked with Gabriele Cadringher, who was the technical delegate, and in 1990 I got that job.

“When Max [Mosley] became president in 1991, he asked me to take a more formal role, because prior to that I was mixing it between FIA and Bernie, and he wanted me to be 100% FIA.”

Whiting admitted that initially he struggled to adapt to his role of poacher turned gamekeeper.

“It was very strange indeed. I couldn’t get my head around it at the beginning, but I got used to it. Quite a lot of teams were rather sceptical, and thought I was gathering information for Bernie to make a comeback.

“And that carried on the next year. Brabham did come back in 1989, and any time I was in the garage – sealing an engine for example – people assumed I had gone back to do a little bit of work for them part-time!”

In 1994, Whiting was deeply involved in the aftermath of the Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger fatalities at Imola, as well as the other accidents that blighted that season. It was a difficult time for all involved in the FIA that saw some knee-jerk reactions, including changes to circuits – although at the time tracks were not Whiting’s responsibility.

“To be absolutely honest if one looks back with a rational mind, after Imola 1994 some rather odd things happened. The chicanes in Barcelona and Canada are two that spring to mind. I’d like to think that wouldn’t happen these days.

“If there was – heaven forbid – an accident of similar impact should we say, then we would look at it and try and analyse it properly. Although Imola was a very black weekend for the sport, when you looked at everything in isolation there was no one element you could put your finger on and say, ‘Ah, this is what’s gone wrong with F1.’

“I don’t know what, if any, political pressure there was to make lots of changes, but it just seemed to be that some unnecessary things were done. In my personal opinion that chicane in Barcelona was potentially dangerous.”

Charlie Whiting, FIA Delegate observes the scene of the Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR13 crash in FP3

Charlie Whiting, FIA Delegate observes the scene of the Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR13 crash in FP3

In subsequent years Whiting’s role gradually expanded. In 1996 the race starter role became what would remain his most high-profile job, and it was quickly followed by promotion to both race director and safety delegate, and responsibility for circuits.

“Roland Bruynseraede, who had been safety delegate, starter and race director, left or didn’t get the job for 1996. Max decided that Roger Lane-Nott would be a good bet for the race director’s role. We were left with no one to start the races, so I volunteered, and I’ve done it ever since.

“Everyone agrees that Roger tried hard, but he just didn’t gel with the whole thing. In Monza in 1996 Max said to me that he was not particularly happy with the way things were going, and would I like to do it? I jumped at the chance. I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t had my eye on that job for a while.”

Whiting would run race control for over two decades, and for most of that time he worked closely with his long-time friend and former Brabham colleague Herbie Blash, who held the title of deputy race director.

His roles extended far beyond overseeing race weekends. He wrote both the sporting and technical regulations, and along with Sid Watkins he played a key role in the FIA’s push for safety that began after the Imola tragedies, and that has continued ever since.

He faced many difficult moments, notably the deaths of track officials Paolo Gislemberti at Monza in 2000, and Graham Beveridge in Melbourne in 2001. Jules Bianchi’s Suzuka accident in 2014 – which led to the Frenchman’s death the following year – was another tough test for the man who was ultimately responsible for safety.

Every grand prix weekend Whiting would chair the FIA drivers’ briefing, and that – along with individual meetings with drivers after on-track transgressions – gave him a unique insight into the characters of the men he dealt with.

Charlie Whiting, Jean Todt, FIA President, Charles Leclerc, Sauber F1 Team

Charlie Whiting, Jean Todt, FIA President, Charles Leclerc, Sauber F1 Team

Photo by: Steven Tee / LAT Images

“I think I get on with most of them, some better than others. You can’t please all the people all the time, and that’s a fact. I’m sure some of them think I’m an idiot, but hey, I can’t help that. I do my best.

“It’s true to say that some are more technical than others, definitely. And some drivers come up with some very good ideas. Others have not such good ideas! Quite honestly some of the things people come up with sometimes are ridiculous.

“I got asked once to extend the kerb at the exit of Turn 11 at Indianapolis at both ends. It was already 50m long. I could never understand it. It’s either too short or too long, it can’t be both! To this day I don’t understand the rationale behind that. It was a very well-known driver, which surprised me even more, because he was known for his intelligence…”

Another part of Whiting’s job was to try to keep the FIA a step ahead of the engineers whose job was to find loopholes in the regulations he’d written.

“We discuss them in technical and sporting working meetings and they get refined, so it’s not just me writing a rule and publishing it. By and large teams don’t try and pull the wool over our eyes, because they know that if it emerges that a rule is not as robust as it could have been, then we’ll change it.

“The fact is there is one FIA and 10 teams, each of which have got an average of 100 engineers doing their utmost to get their best out of the rules. The double diffuser [of 2009] is a perfect example of that.”

It helped that Whiting had a meticulous and organised approach to everything he did, so it was rare that loopholes were left: “I’ve always been known for it. It’s quite embarrassing sometimes. I don’t think I’m anal, but I like things to be right and straight and neat and tidy.

“I hate not being able to find things. If I want a drawing from Suzuka in 1997, I know exactly where to find it. That’s how I am.”

Charlie Whiting, FIA Race Director, Ross Brawn, Managing Director of Motorsports, FOM, on stage

Charlie Whiting, FIA Race Director, Ross Brawn, Managing Director of Motorsports, FOM, on stage

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images

Under Jean Todt’s stewardship there were many changes at the FIA. Blash left his job at the end of 2016, and it says a lot for the respect in which Whiting was held – and the sheer breadth of his responsibilities – that he continued in his senior role. He was almost impossible to replace, and it was clear that no one man could fill his shoes.

Attempts to plan a succession faltered when Marcin Budkowski and Laurent Mekies both had a spell working with Whiting, in effect training to eventually take over, only to move to high-profile jobs with Renault and Ferrari respectively.

While latterly some of his workload on the technical side was taken by Nikolas Tombazis, Whiting showed no sign of slowing down, and was as busy as ever. After recharging his batteries with a rare holiday in Hawaii over Christmas he had been flat not just on preparing for this season, but also contributing to plans for 2021.

On Wednesday in Melbourne he was conducting his usual pre-weekend procedures, ensuring that the Albert Park track was ready for action to get under way.

Back in 2009 I asked him how long he expected to maintain his busy lifestyle.

“I don’t feel any different to how I was 20 years ago,” he said. “That’s the worrying thing! I think probably I’ll carry on until I get told to go, I suppose. I would have thought that you wouldn’t want to be doing all this stuff beyond 65, really.

“Apart from anything else all the drivers are so young, and although I don’t feel old, they probably look at me now and say, ‘Silly old fool, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he’s out of touch.’

“I’ve seen 75-year-old people holding senior positions, and I must admit I’ve thought they’ve been a little bit past their sell-by. I hope I never get thought of like that!”

The outpouring of respect and affection from drivers and others since the sad news emerged today shows that Charlie had never reached that stage. He will be much missed by everyone who knew him.

Charlie Whiting, FIA

Charlie Whiting, FIA

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images