The outpouring of grief from across the F1 divide says everything about the love and respect for Charlie Whiting. The shock of his sudden passing at the age of 66 aside, such universal affection reflects Whiting’s success at achieving the seemingly impossible. He was unique in the sense of being Jack of all trades and master of every one.
The key to such an achievement was a varied background and an unerring ability to rule with a firm and fair hand, backed up at all times by a twinkling sense of humour. Whiting’s understated sense of self-assurance came from having been there and done it during more than 40 years spent working from mechanic to race director in a sport he loved.
The poacher-turned-gamekeeper aspect had an apt beginning when Charlie and his teenage mates snuck under the Brands Hatch perimeter fence to watch practice for the 1964 British Grand Prix. The lure of motor racing overruled his mother’s preference for the more secure use of a diploma in mechanical engineering, Charlie’s work on his brother’s Super Saloon extending to single seaters and making contacts within the sport. A short period with Hesketh in F1 before the team’s demise led to an offer in 1978 from Brabham, the team owned by Bernie Ecclestone and managed by Herbie Blash; people who would become central to Charlie’s life.
Starting from the very bottom as number 3 on the spare car, Whiting had become chief mechanic by 1981, the year Nelson Piquet won his first of two championships with Brabham. Despite Ecclestone’s demanding and at times bizarre exactitude, the team had a fine reputation for fun thanks to the laid-back presence of Gordon Murray as their brilliant designer.
That healthy balance of priorities appealed to Whiting and would see him through the very different challenge of joining Ecclestone once Bernie had sold Brabham and begun to focus solely on F1 administration. The job became even more taxing in 1991 when Max Mosley was elected FIA president and asked Charlie to become technical delegate.
Now firmly established on the other side of the fence, Whiting was perfectly qualified to deal with the clever and manipulative methods of engineers and team owners. His role increased further as race director in 1997, but not before he had become official starter the previous year. His first appearance at the control panel was actually in Melbourne and any nerves about dealing with the pressure would be put to an immediate test as Martin Brundle had a massive accident on the first lap. It was typical of Charlie’s calm outlook that he saw the positive in having the chance to carry out another start on the same day.
From there on, his workload would be immense. Apart from helping frame the technical rules, administer them and deal with sometimes-devious queries, Whiting also handled a sporting side ranging from track behaviour to claims from team management of rivals’ unfair tactics. Despite such a potentially explosive environment, it was a credit to Whiting that he maintained calm and respect and never once to my knowledge was he accused of incompetence or bias. Given the egos involved, that’s a mighty impressive tribute.
And still he wasn’t done. Circuit inspections alone would be enough for one man, particularly with bringing in new tracks. Whiting flew to India six times to ensure Buddh International was up to his exacting standards. Not satisfied with that, on the day before the start of practice, he would walk each circuit to satisfy himself that it was good to go.
Along the way, he would field questions from drivers, team managers and the media, answering each with a patience and generosity of time that ought to have been beyond anyone knowing there would be a massive email inbox waiting on their return. That’s assuming he wasn’t chairing some committee or other inbetween.
That was the way of it back in December 2011 when I flew to Monte Carlo to carry out an interview over lunch. Despite being in the off-season, this had taken some arranging, given his preparations and planning for 2012. Once away from the office, he was able to unwind in a quiet corner of a restaurant around the corner. The abiding memory is of his enthusiastic and smiling sense of recall as we trawled through the years.
Given my Northern Ireland background, Charlie always called me ‘Seamus’ and loved to trade Irish jokes from his vast repertoire. Everyone in F1 will have his or her personal memories of a very decent man and will miss him for any number of reasons. I will regret no longer feeling the gentle tap on the shoulder, followed by: “Hey, Seamus. Did you hear the one about…”