• GP Week interview with Charlie Whiting

From the director's chair

Dimitris Papadopoulos
September 6, 2011
Charlie Whiting is Formula One's race director © Sutton Images

There are some remarkable people out there. People that started at the very bottom and climbed to the top. They have stories to tell. Stories that are mostly hidden behind their roles. We know them from their official activities, but rarely wondered or never got the chance to ask them how they made it or what they have to share.

We know Charlie Whiting as Formula One's permanent race starter, safety delegate and technical delegate. The teams and drivers simply refer to him as "Charlie". I wondered if he would like to chat about things outside his primary role and to answer questions slightly different to the technical and sporting ones he's used to. So I thought I'd take a long shot and text him, even though I was told he's not a 'texting' kind of person. His reply that he would love to chat caught me by wonderful surprise.

Fast forward to the Hungaroring, I found myself stood outside a door labelled 'FIA Race Director' in the ground floor of the pit complex. As the door opened, Charlie rose from his desk and gave me a warm welcome. He then sat back in his chair and started to answer our questions.

What kind of a childhood did you have?
I had great times! I was brought up on a farm and we had a very happy family.

What did you dream of doing when you were a kid?
The first time I can remember dreaming about my future was when I was about 12. I wanted to work on cars. That's what I wanted to do and I did it. My elder brother had a garage. After school and on weekends I worked at the garage until midnight. Very hard work.

How did you first come to work in Formula One?
I worked with my brother all through until I worked with Mr Ecclestone. From 1977 I worked for him as a junior mechanic. My wildest dream was to be chief mechanic to a World Champion. I looked at people like Jackie Stewart's mechanic [Roger Hill] and I thought: "How incredible that must be". So that's what I wanted to do. And when the story with Brabham stopped I started working for the FIA.

How was your relationship with Bernie in the Brabham days?
Very good, I think. He might think differently; I hope not! We had great times, a great team. It was fantastic. We always enjoyed ourselves - Bernie, Gordon Murray - who of course was the star of those days. He positively encouraged people to enjoy themselves and we had a very, very happy team. They were really good times.

How did you wind up becoming FIA technical delegate in 1988?
Bernie told us towards the end of the 1987 season that he wasn't going to run Brabham anymore, but said that he would find something else. Some guys stayed on for another project Bernie ran with Alfa Romeo, called ProCar - a silhouette formula that was supposed to be running out of the old Brabham factory. He suggested that I should go to work for FISA as I was familiar with the things teams could to do to cheat and he thought that I was probably a good person to try to catch them! I went to assist Gabriele Cadringher, who was the Chief Secretary in those days. The job became complicated and we needed to build a small team. We needed to employ more people like analysts and software specialists and so on, and the department grew from there.

Charlie Whiting and Gordon Murray work on Nelson Piquet's Brabham in 1984 © Sutton Images
It's still a small team you have today, though, given the number of competitors and the level of technical competition. Is it difficult to keep on top of everything?
Absolutely. There are not many of us. We cannot check everything on every car that goes out to the track. We have to rely on the deterrent of the check that might happen. It's quite a difficult job. You have the combined brain power of probably a thousand engineers working at all the teams and you have to find out about what they might or might not be doing. Sometimes it's quite difficult.

Speaking of engineers, what would your advice be to people who want a career in motorsport?
I don't believe that anyone who has a dream should give up on it. There's always more than one way to go about things. I was quite fortunate because my brother was racing, I had grown up with things like autocross and rallycross. We grew together and then obviously I had my dream. My brother Nick was scaling down his racing at that point so we parted ways.

Mentioning your brother Nick, 1990 was a tragic year for the Whiting family. Your brother was murdered. How did this change your life?
On a personal basis, obviously it affected the family. On a professional basis I don't think it affected my work. Life was quite difficult for a while but we had to get on with it. Certainly Nick would have wanted me to get on with it.

Since 1997 you have been the FIA's Race Director and Safety Delegate. Does that responsibility put a lot of pressure on your shoulders?
More so now than ever before. That side of my job does become harder in some respects because every incident is examined in more detail. But I believe that we are ahead of the game in terms of the technology we have available to us in order to analyze incidents and detect any wrongdoing on the track. Every race brings its pressures. For two hours I'm under pressure and you never know what's going to happen. We always come across incidents that we have never come across before and this is one of the best things about the job - the unpredictability.

People get to see you on TV as the man pressing the button to switch off the start lights. Do you still get excited pressing that button?
I must admit that I am still excited about it. There's high-tension because you have to make a split second decision on whether we have to abort the race or not. It's a thrilling part of the job. I pay close attention to where the cars are, if everything is in place, if there are any drivers in trouble - and I have to keep my concentration.

How does this starting procedure work? Is there any random algorithm?
When I start the sequence, the red lights go on automatically. When all the five lights are on I decide when they are switched off. I do this manually. No, there is no algorithm for the five lights to go off.

Charlie Whiting decides when and if the safety car is deployed © Sutton Images
Do you ever have any second thoughts on the decisions that were taken or not taken?
Every year I write a report on every circuit. Generally speaking, there are always things that can be improved. We learn things about the track, the organization and about ourselves. We are always trying to improve and we ask the tracks to make improvements that are not too demanding; but there are often things that we believe should be done for next year.

Do you like the fact that everyone calls you by your first name?
I think in F1 everyone is called by their first name. It's always been like that. I don't know what to say really. For example 'Bernie' is 'Bernie'. Only people who don't know him and who fear him call him Mr Ecclestone. I think that names like 'Herbie' and 'Bernie' are names that everyone knows. I'm sure this is not unique to motor racing.

From 1988 onwards you attended all the drivers' briefings. Do you see any difference between the drivers of 20 years ago and today? Are drivers more serious about safety and taking orders from the FIA?
Drivers are far more responsible. They are concerned about matters of safety. They know much more about safety, but that's what the world is like now. Look at road cars. Things we did back in the late 80's aren't done now. I think they are very responsible and they are all trying to give us input to make cars safer, driving safer and tracks safer. We do have regular meetings with the GPDA. We can't do everything they want, but we always endeavour to take their views into account. Going back to the drivers from the early years, my recollection is that it was more like an opportunity to give the drivers instructions. Nowadays, it's more like a meeting, a discussion, in order to share views. I believe that it has worked. It's more informal and we seldom have any stand-up shouting matches, which used to happen with one of our previous presidents! Sometimes the race director would start shouting at drivers, but that doesn't happen anymore.

How do you like to spend your time off?
I don't have much free time.

Do teams call you at all hours?

Has it crossed your mind to switch off your mobile?
Hmmm … yes, I do switch it off sometimes at night! On a serious note, everyone needs to take a break every now and then. I take weekends off when I can. But when I'm trying to keep up with all of the work, it's not simple to have a family life. I've got a family, I have a wife and two young children and I try to spend as much time with them as I can. But it is quite difficult sometimes.

Are you able to forget about the pressure of work when you're home?
I think so. I think I'm okay when I get home. Obviously, when I'm at home I check my emails at night before I go to bed to make sure that nothing terrible is happening somewhere.

So you are not a workaholic?
Most people think I am, but I don't. I just enjoy my work. I try very studiously to make sure that I do spend time with my family. If I have a weekend off, I have a weekend off. But that doesn't mean that I don't turn on my computer. I seldom have my phone on at weekends; that's too much, but if someone wants to contact me urgently they know that I always look at my emails.

Charlie Whiting with his old boss Bernie Ecclestone © Sutton Images
Do you have any thoughts about allowing bright ideas that were subsequently identified as illegal?
If you look at the double diffuser, that was a really clever idea to overcome a change of rules that prevented teams from having them. When the rules were changed, everyone thought that was impossible. Three teams independently found a way around that. Whilst it was a loophole, it was definitely legal. It was challenged by the teams that hadn't thought of it, but I thought it was a very clever thing. Going on to the blown diffusers, we have always known that the exhaust plume will affect the aerodynamics in some way. Provided that we were always satisfied that any aerodynamic effect was secondary to the main purpose of the exhausts, we were happy. Once teams started moving the exhaust down to the area in front of the rear wheels, it still didn't bother us too much because we had no idea what the end result was going to be. The end result was that they used the engine for aerodynamic reasons by mapping engines purely for aero. Then it had to stop because it was quite evident that the exhaust was being used to influence the aero. In fact, at times it was its primary purpose and that's where the discussion became difficult. It's not helpful to go into the detail of it, but we have it sorted out for next year.

People usually ask drivers about their retirement. When will it be time for Charlie to call it a day?
Either when I'm told to, or when I think I've outlived my usefulness! I'm 58 now and depending on everything I would probably like to take it a little bit easier in my middle-to-late 60s, given the choice.

Do you think you need a thick skin for this job?

Are you often under pressure from the teams to intervene, change the rules, or stop races?
Yeah yeah. In Korea, when it was getting dark, one of the teams wanted the race stopped because it was getting dark. It was really because their driver had a dark visor! It wasn't too bad and he was the only one complaining. But he was leading and it was in his interest. We have to be able to see through this - the biased questions being asked for spurious reasons.

Any funny things that never became public and you could share with us? You attended all the drivers' briefings from 1988 onwards…
I remember once in Spain, in the days when we used to have the opportunity to have an extra practice session on Sundays, when it was wet and all other sessions had been dry. So one driver asked what we would do. And I said: "If we need to do this, we would do it between 11 and 11.15 etc etc" and another driver raised his hand and said "What's going to happen if it rains this morning?" And I said "Damon" - oops, I gave it away - "Damon you were not listening were you?" and all the other drivers started to laugh. It was quite amusing. Sometimes we have a few laughs!

Has your loyalty to Bernie and the FIA ever been tested?
Some people felt that I might come under pressure from Bernie, for example, to stop a race or to pull out a safety car because the race was boring. First of all, that has never happened and I'm absolutely confident it never would, because Bernie doesn't do that. But that was the perception, that I was susceptible to that kind of pressure. But I can say hand on heart that has never happened and never will. A few times, people have said "why did you send out the Safety Car out" and so on. I'm not in the habit of justifying reasons to put out a safety car because I don't believe that we have to. It should be fairly obvious. People occasionally have different opinions. I cannot keep everyone happy all the time. I'm pretty happy with most of the decisions we have made. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, there are a few that could have been done better but everyone must have felt that from time to time.