Formula One’s travelling family, gathering for the first days of the new term, were united in grief as news broke of race director Charlie Whiting’s sudden death.
The 66-year-old was found dead in his hotel room on Melbourne’s Southbank on Wednesday morning, having suffered a pulmonary embolism.
World champion Lewis Hamilton led the tributes to the widely respected official who pressed the start button on every race of his career.
Whiting worked at Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team before joining the FIA in 1988 and had been race director for 22 years. He was part of the fabric of the sport.
Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton said: ‘What he did for the sport and his commitment, he really was a pillar.
‘I’ve known Charlie since I started in 2007… what he did for the sport, his commitment, he really was an iconic figure.’
The defending world champion also posted a message on Instagram with a picture of himself alongside Whiting.
He wrote: ‘I’ve just this minute heard of Charlie Whiting’s death this morning and I am shook. Can’t believe it, naturally and ultimately deeply saddened. Charlie did so much for this sport and helping push on so many areas for the drivers and their safety. My condolences to his family, I really enjoyed our talks over the years Charlie, you will be missed by us all. God rest your soul buddy.’
Jean Todt, the FIA president, said: ‘Charlie was a central and inimitable figure in F1 and embodied the ethics and spirit of this sport.’
Formula One’s head of motorsport Ross Brawn said: ‘I have known Charlie all my racing life. We worked as mechanics together, became friends, and spent so much time together at tracks across the world. I was filled with immense sadness when I heard the tragic news. I’m devastated. It’s a great loss for me personally but also for the entire F1 family.’
Team principals paid their respects too. Red Bull’s Christian Horner said: ‘Charlie was the referee and voice of reason for many years. He was a man of great integrity.’
Hamilton’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said: ‘He was balanced in his approach, subtle in his understanding and always had the interest of Formula One as his main focus.’
CHARLIE WHITING: THE RACE DIRECTOR WHO ROSE THROUGH THE RANKS TO BECOME PILLAR OF FORMULA ONE FOR 20 YEARS
Whiting began his motorsport career preparing his brother Nick’s yellow Ford Escort for races at Brands Hatch in their native Kent, United Kingdom.
He entered Formula One with the Hesketh team. He then fell under the wing of Ecclestone, working his way up to chief mechanic as Nelson Piquet won two world titles for Brabham in 1981 and 1983, before taking on senior roles at the FIA.
His high-profile job made Whiting a millionaire, but nothing could prepare him for his brother’s grisly murder in 1990.
Nick, who fell into gangland circles, was stabbed nine times and shot twice. His body was later found on Essex’s Rainham Marshes.
Gang members had suspected him of being an informant over the 1983 Brink’s Mat robbery in which £28million of gold bullion was stolen from a warehouse at Heathrow airport.
‘Life was quite difficult for a while but we had to get on with it,’ said Whiting. ‘Certainly Nick would have wanted me to get on with it.’
Whiting, who was married to Juliet and had two children, travelled the world almost perpetually, inspecting tracks and attending races.
His role here in Melbourne, where practice starts today, will be taken over by Australian Michael Masi.
Officials were on Wednesday night considering how to honour Whiting’s memory over the weekend.
His FIA colleagues, meanwhile, wore black armbands as dusk fell on a community in mourning.
One of the more controversial incidents of his career took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Fears had been raised about the safety of tyres brought by Michelin to the race and Whiting was asked to alter one of the corners which would allow seven teams to race safely.
He refused, leading to the farcical sight of 14 cars retiring after the parade lap.
In a letter to the teams at the time, he said: ‘To change the course in order to help some of the teams with a performance problem caused by their failure to bring suitable equipment to the race would be a breach of the rules and grossly unfair to those teams which have come to Indianapolis with the correct tyres.’
But fairness and safety were key to Whiting, so often referred to as Charlie within the paddock and over the radio, particularly when drivers thought an incident warranted further investigation.
He would rigorously inspect circuits, checking a range of new circuits on the GP calendar for suitability, as well as looking at how safety could be improved within the car.
Speaking about his role in 2017 to Top Gear magazine, he said: ‘I still love it. The buzz is extraordinary. ‘It’s rare I find myself thinking ‘well, this is boring’.’
He is credited with major improvements to the safety of drivers such as the halo, headrest, survival cell and high-sided cockpits.
The halo in particular was praised for saving Charles Leclerc from serious injury at the Belgian Grand Prix last year.
Tributes began to pour in on Thursday night – Friday morning in Melbourne – after the news broke as the world of motorsport mourned his death.
Daniel Ricciardo said the drivers sometimes tested Whiting’s patience, ‘but you always felt like he was on our side.’
‘He did a lot for the sport. I’m sure we’ll all race with a lot of passion this weekend. It’s a reminder we’re all very lucky to be in this position,’ he added.
McLaren’s British driver, Lando Norris, wrote: ‘I think everyone is the paddock is gonna miss Charlie. Very sad news to all of us. Thoughts to his family and friends. Thanks for all you’ve done for our sport. #RestInPeace’.
His fellow British rookie, George Russell, said: ‘I’m deeply saddened to hear the news of Charlie Whiting’s passing. Such a huge figure in the world of motor sport. All of my thoughts are with his family and his many friends right now. We’ll all miss him very much.’
CHARLIE WHITINGS CAREER
1977 – Joins Hesketh Racing
1981 – Becomes chief mechanic for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team
1998 – Is made FIA Technical Delegate to Formula One
1997-2018 – FIA Director and Safety Delegate
RESPONSIBILITIES OF A RACE DIRECTOR
The remit for a Formula One race director is a broad one.
Whiting managed the logistics for each Formula One Grand Prix race during the course of the season.
He inspected the cars before the race, enforced FIA rules and also had responsibility to control the lights to start the race itself.
– Daily Mail