Matt Majendie talks to the man who wrote the Formula One rulebook, who would rather remain invisible
The Whiting version
Formula One race director Charlie Whiting still talks about motorsport like the same excitable 12-year-old that first sneaked under the fence at Brands Hatch to witness his first grand prix. Whiting lived nearby the then home of the British Grand Prix and, with his brother, walked through nearby woods where they could get into the ground without paying. His memory for details when it comes to races he has seen, including that first one, are a tad sketchy. He recalled: "I think Jim Clark won that day."
But Whiting is an absolute encyclopaedia of F1 when it comes to its immensely complex set of rules and regulations, in part because he has been instrumental in putting them in place. "I'd say I've got a pretty good grasp of the rule book and I don't tend to need to consult it during a race," said Whiting, who still keeps copies of the rules and regulations on his desk for every race, just in case. "For example, things are second nature to me, like if it comes to a driver that is forced to start from the back of the grid, that's very clearly defined.
"But as far as the technical stuff goes, that's a bit more complex. There's so much minute detail and vast amounts of correspondence that I have to be totally methodical about filing it in the right place and checking it when necessary." Trying to define Whiting's job specification in just a few words is virtually impossible. In short, he is responsible for how a race weekend runs from the Thursday morning right until the teams start packing up on the Sunday evening.
That entails not just overseeing Formula One practice, qualifying and the race itself, but also the various support races. He is responsible for checking that any section of the track damaged in an accident is immediately repaired and that the highest levels of safety is adhered to. In addition to his role as race director since 1997, for the last 16 years he has been chairman of the technical and working groups that come up with the various rules and regulations, and is essentially an enforcer, making sure those rules are followed.
For Whiting, though, his biggest responsibility is very clear to him. He explained: "It's without question safety, and not just the safety of the drivers. Ironically, they're probably the safest people out there, such are the designs of the modern F1 car. Obviously it's important to ensure their safety, but also that of the spectators, the marshals and the teams." To ensure spectator safety is paramount, Whiting inspects the circuit each morning of a race weekend at 7.30am before meeting with his fellow officials at the FIA to discuss any changes required.
The biggest headache of all the races on the calendar is undeniably the Monaco Grand Prix, not that Whiting is complaining. "Monaco is the notable exception to the rest of the calendar. You have to make sure the track's still OK and everything's in place, as each day after the racing the track opens to the public and becomes a public road. So it throws up its own set of complications, but it's still a magical place."
The other major concern aside from safety is ensuring that the F1 timetable runs like clockwork. "For me, that's a constant worry," he admitted, "and it's the biggest headache of a weekend. It's a packed schedule, so if damage is done to a certain part of the circuit it's important to work as quickly as possible to repair that damage. But if needs be, that can entail scrapping one of the support races. I've done that before and can't say it's made me particularly popular in the past."
Whiting, though, is not the sort to seem unduly concerned by winning any popularity contests, and he is all too aware that he may upset people along the way. Despite the difficult decisions, he is generally happy with the ones he has reached during his time in the sport. "There's maybe two or three I'm not happy with in hindsight, but I'm not going to tell you what they are!" For Whiting, a perfect weekend is one without complaint.
"For me, the trick is to be invisible. So ideally, everyone's happy with my decisions and there are no complaints. It does happen, but not necessarily at every race." To Whiting's immense credit, there has not been a single driver death since he took over the role, in part thanks to the improvements in safety he has made. The last F1 driver to lose his life at a race weekend was Ayrton Senna in 1994. Despite the impressive lack of fatalities since then, the F1 race director is far from complacent and admits to still worrying when a driver is involved in an accident.
"I'd never say I'm confident when a driver has an accident, but I'm certainly more confident they'll be OK than I ever have been. The problem is we can still have an accident that doesn't look like much initially but has a tragic end. The Senna one is a good example. I think everyone expected him to jump out of the car." Whiting himself had few ambitions to be a driver growing up and, from a young age, worked as a mechanic for his brother Nick in a variety of different race formats.
His passage into F1 came when he was signed as an engineer with Hesketh before being snapped up by Brabham, who at the time were run by Bernie Ecclestone. It was there Whiting gained an impressive reputation as the chief mechanic to Nelson Piquet as the Brazilian wrapped up the 1981 and 1983 world titles. His career as an engineer in F1 was relatively shortlived, as he was hand-picked by the FIA to become their chief scrutineer in 1988. His job was effectively to catch the cheats - a tad ironic as he worked on one of the more rule-bending cars, the BT46B, during his time at Brabham.
To this day, he is still there to ensure fair play by all the drivers and teams. He insists "there is no cheating in F1 today" but still praised teams for "some of ways they come up to maximise their advantage. "I'm incredibly impressed by what the teams do on a daily basis. I obviously get up close and personal to all the cars and they're so damn impressive. In my day as an engineer, everything was so simple, but now it's so advanced. You never fail to be impressed by the latest thing the teams have tried."
He produces a wry grin when asked about being impressed by teams trying to push the rules to the limit, adding "definitely". One recent example would be the double diffuser used by teams like Brawn GP, Toyota and Williams last season. In the end, they were deemed within the rules and Brawn went on to win the world title. "The disagreement with that was simple as a lot of teams did not have them and did not understand how it worked. But it was a very clever interpretation of the rules and completely legal."
Peace keeping in such matters means that he can never avoid his least favourite part of the job... F1 politics. He dodges it wherever possible and insists politics never play a role in his decisions. "For me it's about safety and fairness above everything else," he said, "and I'd like to be remembered as working to make both paramount."