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F1: Shock in Melbourne - Charlie Whiting dies suddenly

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Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

I can't claim to have known Charlie Whiting personally but I can say that, like one or two other people over my decades of enjoying Formula One as a spectator, he has been an important figure in my life. And then, suddenly, he's gone, as if someone turned out the lights. This time, they say "gone" not "go."

Formula One drivers, in the 1960s were the spiritual successor to Spitfire and Hurricane pilots. Plucky young men, a devil-may-care attitude, woefully unprotected in stupidly dangerous machines, glamorous, daredevils who might (as did many) die at any minute. In the 1970s, as F1 cars became upside-down aircraft, the death rate became terrible - and so did the fact that we watched the drama unfold live, in our own living rooms, in full colour. Into this cavalier world stepped the young, chubby, socialite with, it often seemed, more money than sense Lord Alexander Hesketh (that's the truncated version of a rather long name). Just because he could, he started a Formula One team, fuelled in equal measure by petrol, scantily clad young women and champagne. The white cars were matched by the white overalls of James Hunt. Into the mix went a young mechanic, Charlie Whiting.

When the Hesketh team left F1, Whiting moved to Brabham, then owned by a young Bernie Ecclestone. The two formed a lasting friendship and, with Professor Sid Watkins and Max Mosely, they built F1 into the global, monster, sport that it is today. Mosely and Whiting went to the FIA where they organised the regulation of the sport: Watkins became F1's medical expert and, with the aid of a number of drivers, not only was F1 turned into the most technologically advanced form of motorsport, it gradually became one of the safest. Bernie just became a deal-maker and turned in a tidy (for which read obscene but not undeserved) profit for doing so.

At the centre of the safety and technical innovation, as a core part of the sport's regulator, the FIA, Charlie Whiting became the FIA's point-man at meetings. He ran briefings, made decisions as to safety of cars, track and conditions - and he became the man with his finger on the button. Literally. Races didn't start unless Charlie Whiting said so. He had absolute authority.

By all accounts, he never stopped listening to the drivers, even more than he would listen to teams and circuit owners and TV companies, who each had significant financial investments in the events, were a long way down his list of priorities. Anyone who wanted to build a new track in the hope that, one day, F1 would race there had to go through Whiting. If he wasn't happy, F1 didn't go. If during a race a barrier was broken or deformed, there was no racing. It was he who had the power of the safety car (real or virtual) and the red flag. Drivers knew they had his ear and would send messages to their teams during races, clearly intending that the message would reach Whiting's ears But he never allowed the drivers to run the show: if they complained about the rain, he would make his own decision. Sometimes he would slow the race down or stop it but if he felt that complaints were primarily strategic, he would often let things play out.

It was Whiting who set event-specific rules, directing the stewards what infringements were not to be tolerated. In fact, it was one aspect of this which caused pretty much the only criticism of Whiting's career: inconsistent rules and enforcement relating to "exceeding track limits" in which value judgements were allowed to take over from fact.

When he wanted his way, Whiting would stand firm: he championed the halo when almost no-one else wanted it. And it remains controversial, especially when a car is upside down. But most people agreed his position was vindicated when, last year, Alonso's flying McLaren flew over the car of Charles LeClerc, leaving scratch marks on the halo - which undoubtedly meant that the car didn't hit LeClerc's head.

This week, the first week of the 2019 season, Whiting and his team were in Melbourne, Australia, supervising the annual re-creation of the temporary race track in Albert Park. Yesterday, he did one of his frequent track walks, looking for minor imperfections as much as he looked for major problems. Often he was accompanied by drivers and yesterday was no exception.

With practice starting tomorrow, today was the final day for the race organisers to fix whatever Whiting had found. The organisers would have been nervous: no fix, no race. And if it was a safety issue, Whiting would not compromise. Everyone knew where they stood: do as Whiting said and everything was peachy. Don't do as he said, and face the wrath of sponsors, spectators and TV companies because the famous green light at the end of the pit lane that signals that cars may enter the track would stay resolutely red and no amount of hopping about, shouting or pleading would make a difference. If Whiting said "no," Whiting meant "no."

This morning, Whiting was found dead. Rapid investigation showed that the cause of death was a pulmonary embolism: it's a blood clot between the heart and the lungs and, if it's big enough, death is sudden and quick.

This weekend is going to be very sombre affair. There is no part of the sport, no member of the paddock or support team including volunteer marshals that don't owe debts to Whiting: quite a lot of them are alive and still engaged in the sport because of work in which he played a huge part.

For me, I'll miss the odd glimpse of the gentle giant who controlled the sport I love. Whoever takes over from him (there are contingency plans in place even though he has missed less than a handful of races over several decades). will have huge challenges not least being the fact that it was Whiting, more than the logo on his shirt, that inspired respect and loyalty.

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