- Formula One's referee
Who on earth is ... Charlie Whiting?Laurence Edmondson February 25, 2010
When the lights go out in Bahrain, the fate of the teams' multi-million pound cars, and all the months of painstaking development that has been put into them, will be put in the hands of 20 plus adrenaline junkies. Worrying, isn't it.
Formula One isn't like football or rugby where a referee can step in and calm things down a bit. In fact, the last man who tried to get between an F1 car and its intended destination was an Irish priest at Silverstone in 2003 and he was, quite rightly, arrested. So officiating a grand prix is a near impossible task, and that's exactly why it's a job held by one the most experienced men in the sport, F1 race director Charlie Whiting.
Put simply he is responsible for the start, the circuit, the safety, the fairness, and the (potential) untimely finish or stoppage of a race. It's an incredibly high pressure job, and he has to call on all of his extensive experience and vast knowledge of the rules and regulations - many of which he was instrumental in creating - to keep everyone happy.
Like most men at the pinnacle of F1, Whiting is absolutely besotted by it. The love affair started at the age of 12 when he snuck under the fence at Brands Hatch to watch the 1964 British Grand Prix. From that point onwards his mind was made up, and when he was old enough, he became a mechanic for his racing-driver brother Nick. The pair became notorious in motor racing circles at Brands Hatch and it wasn't long before they moved from touring cars up into F5000, where they prepared a Surtees for female F1 driver and Olympic skier Divina Galica. In 1977 Whiting was poached by Hesketh, but by that time the team was in decline and its James Hunt's glory days were well and truly in the past. He finally made the big time with Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team, where he quickly rose up the ranks, and by the age of 29, achieved his dream of working as a chief mechanic on a championship-winning car with Nelson Piquet. A second title followed in 1983 and he was duly promoted to chief engineer at the British team.
A year before Ecclestone sold up at Brabham, Whiting left and in 1988 became the FIA's chief scrutineer. Essentially it was his job to catch the cheats, and after working at a top-flight team for several years, you could argue that he had the ultimate qualification for the job. After all, this was the man who in his first year with Brabham was involved in the production of the infamous BT46B fan car - the ultimate rule bender if ever there was one.
After nine years in that job he was promoted to the position of FIA race and safety director, the role he's still in now. It's a heavily scrutinised job, and like nearly all top sporting umpires, he has overseen his fair share of controversy. But he openly admits he doesn't do the job expecting to be praised.
"While I would never expect anyone to come up to me and say that was a really well-run event, if I don't get anyone complaining about something then it's nice," he admitted. "And you do get a certain amount of satisfaction out of coping with difficult situations because sometimes it's not that easy. For example, if we need to use the safety car four times during a race you've got to have your wits about you. One gets satisfaction out of knowing that you've done a decent job and if no one comes complaining then that's usually the yardstick."
But Whiting's remit goes well beyond grand prix weekends. He is also chairman of the technical and sporting working groups in Formula One that oversee all major changes to the sport's rules and regulations. It's another unenviable task, as he has to appease all the teams while trying to solve near impossible problems such as finding a way to increase overtaking. Add to that the task of approving all the race circuits on safety grounds each year and working as an FIA inspector and you have a very busy man.
Essentially Whiting has to be a referee, a scrutineer, a safety inspector, a politician and an engineer all rolled into one. So remember, if you don't hear his name again all season it means he's continuing to do a brilliant job. F1 simply wouldn't work without him.
Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1