14 March 2019
The F1 world arrived in Melbourne full of energy and the enthusiasm that is always there when a season begins. There was a good season launch in Federation Square in downtown Melbourne and all 20 drivers and the 10 team principals all managed to turn up. There were probably 10,000 people there, but there could have been more if the people at the back could have seen more. They couldn't, so they left, but it was still a good initiative.
On Wednesday everyone was talking about the Netflix series about F1 - Drive to Survive - which is terrific for fans and, more importantly, for non-fans. It isn't really a secret why it is successful: it is about the people in F1, not the corporate veneer. It's a about having the passion to swear a lot when things go wrong. People fascinate people, no matter the age, the demographic, the media platform the nationality. People are engaging if they are allowed to be. Anyway, it was a great show and I highly recommend it. Netflix never give out numbers (apparently), but it looks like it has been popular enough to do a second series. They are already filming, even if no agreement is yet in place. And for 2019 there are some fantastic potential storylines. I noticed a lot of cameras around Robert Kubica…
But then, on a bright sunny Thursday morning, came the news of Charlie Whiting's death overnight in his hotel room. It was a shock because, these days, 66 is still very young. Like all such shocks, it reminded everyone of their own mortality. It was felt deeply by F1's community of lifers - those who are in the sport for life, not just passing through - because Charlie was a friend of many, and losing one of "the gang" is always painful.
I've known Charlie since he was at Brabham in the late 1980s and I've always got on well with him, even if we didn't always agree. The F1 lifers are bonded by our passion for the sport and that usually overcomes all the day-to-day pushing-and-shoving. It is a family and Charlie was one of the big brothers, having been active in F1 for more than 40 years, beginning in 1977, when he was 25.
His involvement in the sport came through his big brother Nick, a car dealer and racing driver, six years his senior, who drove with great bravado and was a fan favourite in races at Brands Hatch, with a team called the All Car Equipe (ACE). Charlie started working with him when he was 15, preparing saloon and rally cars. By the mid-1970s the brothers had turned to running single seaters and prepared a Surtees F1 car in the 1976 Shellsport International Series, a British Formula Libre championship, under the banner of ShellSport Whiting for Divina Galica. Charlie enjoyed the experience and in 1977 he joined Hesketh a team then in deep decline.
A year later Charlie found a new job with Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham in Chessington, where he would spend the next 10 years, firstly as chief mechanic for the World Championship successes of 1981 and 1983, but later as an engineer and manager, working with Ecclestone and a group of staff who would become known as "Bernie's Boys". They would end up with big jobs in the Formula One group as it grew after Ecclestone sold Brabham. By then Ecclestone had become the FIA Vice-President in charge of promotional affairs alongside eccentric FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre and Bernie convinced the Frenchman that Charlie would be the right person to be the Formula 1 Technical Delegate, his job being to scrutineer the F1 cars. By 1991 Balestre was gone and Ecclestone ally Max Mosley was the new FIA President and Whiting's roles increased.
But his path through life was not without pain, particularly in 1990 when Nick was brutally murdered after being abducted from his garage. His body was later found on a remote marsh in Essex. He had been stabbed nine times and shot twice with a 9mm pistol. No-one ever really knew why it had happened, except that he had some dangerous associates, notably his schoolfriend Kenneth Noye, a murderous thus. At one point Nick was questioned by police about laundering the proceeds from the celebrated Brink's-Mat robbery in 1983 when a gang of robbers, expecting to find £3 million in cash, stumbled upon 6,800 gold bars, weighing three tons and worth £26 million. Probably, some of the those involved thought Whiting had talked too much, but no-one really knew.
Charlie was a decent man. He played the F1 game and did his fair share of rule-bending in the days when everyone was doing it. There is an the legendary tale of Brabham having a seat made of lead which would be slotted into the car after qualifying and before the cars were weighed. There was also a celebrated rear wing made from lead… That was part of the game in those days and it was why later on, Charlie was such a good technical delegate, a classic poacher turning gamekeeper. He didn't miss much...
His roles within the FIA expanded and he became F1's circuit inspector, the official starter of F1 races, the head of the F1 Technical Department and later the F1 Race Director and Safety Delegate and ultimately became the head of the FIA's F1 team. He played a key role in terms of safety, particularly in relation to circuit safety. He worked incredibly hard, was forever on the move but was respected by all. For a journalist he was terrific because he could explain complicated technical matters in simple terms and was always great company, always having a new joke and living the F1 life to the full. A lifer.
The loss of Charlie will change the way that things are done in F1, as his roles will go to different people.
But F1 without Charlie - or Charles, as I always called him - will not be quite the same. More's the pity.
© Graham Read