Waking to the news that Charlie Whiting, the FIA’s race Director and a bedrock of Formula One, had passed away in his sleep from a pulmonary embolism was not how any of us wanted to celebrate the start of the 2019 season. Charlie, 66, leaves behind a wife and family, and in a world that often makes a virtue of cut-throat behaviour, was a man of outstanding warmth and decency.
Needless to say, drivers and others in the F1 paddock were absolutely floored by the news. “I have known Charlie for all of my racing life,” F1’s managing director of motorsports Ross Brawn said. “We worked as mechanics together, became friends and spent so much time together at race tracks across the world.
“I’m devastated. It is a great loss not only for me personally but also the entire Formula One family, the FIA and motorsport as a whole. All our thoughts go out to his family.”
The FIA’s President, Jean Todt, added: “He has been a central and inimitable figure in Formula One, who embodied the ethics and spirit of this fantastic sport.”
Charlie, of course, will be recognisable to millions as the figure in the gantry above the starting grid at each race who pushed the big button. But as Race Director and Safety Delegate he was also integral to every aspect of a Grand Prix, a man of infinite patience, wisdom, and supreme technical knowledge. His role would regularly put him at loggerheads with any team or driver deemed to have infringed the rules, but despite the frequently febrile F1 environment rarely if ever did anyone question his judgement. He also travelled the world between races inspecting circuits and ensuring that the venues were adhering to F1’s rigorous safety requirements.
Yet Charlie was a racer to the core. He was raised on a farm in Kent, not far from Brands Hatch, and early forays into club rallying and racing included preparing an ex-John Watson Surtees TS16 for British female Olympic skier, Divina Galica, in the 1976 F5000 series. He joined Hesketh the following year, but it was his move to Brabham in 1978, then owned by Bernie Ecclestone, that proved decisive.
As chief mechanic and later chief engineer, Charlie helped mastermind Nelson Piquet’s championship campaign, alongside a brilliant young South African engineer called Gordon Murray. When Ecclestone sold Brabham, Charlie went from poacher to gamekeeper, joining the FIA as technical delegate to F1 in 1988. In 1997, he was promoted to Race Director, and was also head of F1’s Technical Department.
As Race Director and Safety Delegate he was also integral to every aspect of a Grand Prix, a man of infinite patience, wisdom, and supreme technical knowledge.
Several of us on Top Gear had the privilege of knowing Charlie personally, and he impressed us with his passion, warmth and good humour. I spent a memorable afternoon with him in Race Control during the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix. “It’s scary how much we can see now, and how quickly,” he told me as he surveyed the wall of hi-def screens. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
I caught up him with again last year to discuss a typical day in the life of F1’s Race Director, although of course there was no such thing for a man in this position. “In the old days, the race director was like a headmaster barking instructions at the drivers. I prefer to engage them more. Be helpful, basically,” he told me. “Sometimes there’s a bit of a shouting match, if the previous race has been contentious.”
Remembering Sebastian Vettel’s tirade during the recent Mexican GP, he laughed off the German’s salty language. “Remember Piquet and Eliseo Salazar? [Piquet was taken off by the Chilean during the 1982 German GP, and got a bit… fighty.] It shows there’s a human side to the sport, and if there wasn’t we might as well have robots in the cars. I very rarely lose my temper. It’s a sign of weakness, and I try to be relaxed, approachable, and diplomatic – in no particular order.
“I’ve started more than 400 F1 GPs but I still love it. The buzz is extraordinary. But you can’t keep everyone happy all the time, never mind 300 million F1 fans. You certainly can’t keep 20 drivers happy…”
Well you did a damn good job, Charlie. Formula One and Top Gear will miss you deeply.
Photography: Darren Heath