Sochi chaos raises questions over FIA Safety Delegate’s role

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There’s something about a broken record – vinyl, gramophone style that is – and indisputably that something, is the record is broken.

Much like a broken record, TJ13 has repeatedly called out the FIA on its woeful management of Formula One. And much of the spotlight has been cast upon the FIA’s man – Charlie Whiting.

The FIA is a shadowy world which few understand and even the shifting sands of politics within the Place de Concorde regularly see individuals reassigned, reclassified but rarely replaced.

But for all intent and purpose, Charlie Whiting is the FIA’s ‘go to guy’ for all things Formula One.

This was confirmed from the horses mouth when following a recent spate of questions from a TJ13 contributor asking, ‘why does the FIA not do this…. that… the other,’ Whiting retorted ‘as far as F1 is concerned, I am Mr. FIA.’

A laudable acceptance of responsibility one would think.

Yet the intention behind the assertion was quite different, it was a claim to authority and power.

Charlie Whiting was born in 1952 and is 64 years of age. He has been in and around F1 since the early 1970’s and his first job in the sport was working for Hesketh Racing.

In under a year, Whiting moved across to the Brabham team owned by one Bernard Charles Ecclestone, where he remained for a decade.

Whiting was the chief mechanic for the world championship successes of Nelson Piquet in 1981/83 and later was promoted to chief engineer of the team.

The Brabham success story began to disintegrate. Champion driver Piquet left at the end of 1985 and was followed a year later by Gordon Murray – the genius designer behind the Brabham years of success.

Ecclestone then sold the team and threw himself full time into managing the commercial interests of Formula One. Charlie Whiting simultaneously moved across to become the technical delegate for the FIA.

However, Charlie Whiting’s tenure as part of Bernie’s team, would forever see aspersions cast upon his ability to act without influence from his former boss and friend.

In 1997 Whiting was appointed as the FIA Formula One Race Director and Safety Delegate.

Charlie Whiting is currently, Race Director, Safety Delegate, Permanent Starter and head of the F1 Technical Department. And in these various capacities he manages the logistics of each F1 Grand Prix, with a team to help him. He is responsible to ensure the circuits are properly prepared, cars are in parc fermé before a race and that FIA rules technical and sporting rules are enforced.

So Charlie is responsible for everything that happens on track over an F1 race weekend. The buck stops with him.

And herein lies a problem.

At times there will be an inherent conflict of interest between the role of a safety officer and that of race control. Further, given Whiting’s close association and friendship with Ecclestone there have been times when the independence of his judgement has been questionable.

At the ill fated 2014 Japanese GP, all week long the chatter coming out of the Suzuka paddock had been about the impending tropical storm. Typhoon Phanfone was steadily heading across the Pacific Ocean on a collision course with the Japanese archipelago.

As each day passed and the weather projections became more accurate, it was clear the F1 race was going to clash with the ferocity of the storm passing overhead.

There were discussions held between the FIA, Bernie Ecclestone and the race promoters about running the race at an earlier time than the scheduled 3pm.

Christian Sylt revealed Ecclestone’s position on the matter in Forbes on the Friday before the Suzuka race. “I’m not moving anything anywhere. Nothing is changing at the minute. If it rains the teams will race.”

Whiting was deeply concerned. He knew there would be issues with the helicopter being able to fly and recommended strongly the race be moved.

Adam Cooper wrote: “Can confirm that yesterday the FIA offered the organisers the opportunity to start the race as early as 11am. The organisers, ie Honda, did not want to move, even by an hour. Officiially it is their choice, not the FIA’s, not Bernie’s.”

This would seem to absolve Ecclestone and the FIA (Whiting), however the reality was somewhat different.

As safety delegate, Whiting could and should have called off the race – if the other parties refused to agree to a time switch.

The ambulance helicopter was unable to fly and the roads to the hospital were flooded. This meant the mandated maximum 25 minute transfer time by ambulance would be impossible to achieve.

However, calling off the race would mean Honda would not pay the $25m hosting fee to Ecclestone – something Whiting would be well aware of.

However, Charlie Whiting as Race Control had a plan to get Whiting the safety delegate off the hook.

Start the race under the safety car. Run the prescribed minimum laps required. Bernie gets paid – everyone is safe and happy.

The race was duly started under the safety car in what was nigh on universally agreed by far the worst conditions ever by this procedure. The cars did the minimum laps. rolled into the pits and that should have been that.

However, the eye of Typhoon Phanfone storm was passing over the circuit – meaning the weather conditions significantly improved for a while.

So the race was bookended by two significant downpours – and the second downpour was entirely predictable, it was a matter of when not if.

Massa said of the second tranche of rain, “I was already screaming on the radio five laps before that there was too much water on the track, but then they just took a little bit too long and it was dangerous.”

But Whiting’s roll of the dice was so close to being a masterful display of brinkmanship. Complacency about the quickly flooding track appeared to take over because the race was almost complete.

The result, Jules Bianchi’s death.

Niki Lauda observed post race, “They could have started earlier. There is no question about it. It was foreseeable, we could have started the race at 1 p.m,”

There was a subsequent internal investigation by the FIA, and Whiting et al. were all exonerated from any wrong doing.

As TJ13 observed at the time, this attitude of complacency would return to haunt Formula One in the future.

And this weekend in Sochi, there were neon flashing signs that all the lessons from Suzuka 2014, have not really been learned.

1) Fuel spill across most of track delaying practice, damaging track surface.

2) GP3 is run in the dark and rain.

3) Carlos Sainz submarines under Tecpro Barrier (It appears the barrier may not have been installed properly, our research is ongoing)

4) Marshal runs across track and is almost hit by Vettel driving at full speed

5) Questionable repairs to the damaged Tecpro barrier during the F1 race. The sight of it being finished with duct tape did not instil confidence.

6) Carlos Sainz is OK’d to drive after a 46G impact less than 24 hours earlier, despite the fact he was feeling “dizzy” prior to the race.

Each of the above of course can be argued to have related mitigating circumstances. Yet the overall image presented of the weekend’s organisation is one of disarray and a lack of control.

Most sports now take head injuries extremely seriously, and a driver suffering a 46G impact we can say for definite – HAS a head injury – whether visible or not. The brain is rattled around inside the skull and it should be mandatory drivers suffering such incidents should be prevented from driving for a fixed period of time.

There is no excuse for the GP3 session being run in in the dark in Sochi, and whilst most of the F1 media remain silent on the lax safety in Sochi at least Will Buxton spoke out on the matter.

Marshals on the track is an occupational hazard. After all, ‘Motorsports are dangerous’. Yet this is only because it is accepted that marshals should run around on a live circuit.

Why?

The much lauded Virtual Safety Car was supposed to give relief to areas of the circuit where marshal’s were working. Yet Whiting and his team have failed to find a working solution for this proposal despite it being one year on from Suzuka.

Apparently, technology is the problem.

So apply a none technological solution which may focus minds on delivering the technology. Sessions where marhsals are required on track can be red flagged and restarted when the debris is cleared or the barrier is repaired properly.

TJ13 learned that for the 2015 Russian GP weekend, the organisers refused to have marshals imported to manage the circuit – as happened in 2014. On the whole the marshal’s were Russian national volunteers.

The FIA and Charlie Whiting need to wake up and smell the roses before another marshal is killed. A core team of professional marshals employed by the FIA must be recruited to control the various sections of the track.

These full time individuals should travel with the F1 circus to each event. They ca can supervise the local volunteers and ensure that prior to the cars hitting the circuit, proper training on protocols and procedures is delivered to their team.

These nominated professionals would also have regular experience on the installation/repair of barriers and be qualified to give the all clear that they are safe.

It’s time Charlie Whiting was forced to abandon what appears to be an approach to safety epitomised by complacency. If not, another death on a Formula One weekend will be sooner rather than later.

Here’s a few more examples of dubious practices at a Formula One weekend in recent years.

 

1. Germany 2000: Spectator in raincoat runs on to the track and down the main straight.

 

2.  Silverstone 2003: Spectator in kilt runs on track and down the main straight.

 

3. Spa 2008: Not as serious an incident, but clearly displays a lack of training for the Marshals. The marshal hanging off the back of the car could have been hurt, or hurt the truck driver on the front of the rig when the front end dropped.

 

4. Canada 2011: Marshall runs on to active track to pick up debris and stumbles in front of a car.

5. Valencia 2012: Marshall runs on to active track to get debris.

 

6. Canada 2013: Marshall dies when run over by crane.

7. Korea 2013: Fire truck deployed on active track whilst cars are racing at full speed and before the safety car deployment following Mark Webber’s car catching fire. (no embed code available)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zk-k-y_fxwo

 

8. Hockenheim 2014: A Sauber is stranded after last turn, completely blind to oncoming traffic. Multiple marshals run on the track, several drivers nearly hit them. Hamilton claims its the worst ‘marshal on track’ incident he can remember.

 

9. Suzuka 2014: Sutil/Bianchi accident and the subsequent death of the young French driver.

10. Singapore 2014: Half dozen marshals run across active track to clean up carbon fiber. TWICE.

 

11. Singapore 2015: Spectator walks on track during race.

 

12. China  2015: Verstappen engine failure on main straight causes marshals to try and push behind pit wall while track is active.

13. China 2015: Spectator runs across track to try and reach pit lane.

(Research from TJ13 contributor Tourdog)

In conclusion, the matter of proper marshal training and supervision by professionals was no more stark than in the conclusion reached by the Canadian CSST report into the death of Mark Robinson – a marshal who was killed by a recovery tractor.

The report stated, “there was inadequate training of volunteers in the operation of the forklift equipment and that the manufacturer’s instructions for safe operation of the forklift truck were ignored”.

As to the various roles of ‘King Charlie’, they should be split.

TJ13 believes the hat of the safety delegate at an F1 race weekend should be worn by someone other than the Race Director.

This separation of roles should provide better checks and balance and proper lines of responsibility and accountability – even some tension at times.

All of which would be good for the image of the FIA and Formula One.

 

 

 

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20 responses to “Sochi chaos raises questions over FIA Safety Delegate’s role

  1. Well said. Safety Officer needs to just have 1 responsibility, safety. Problem is would anyone actually listen to the Safety Officer and take action?????? Bernie would just look at financial loss and ignore or fire the safety officer.

    • +1
      Valid points both – the role of safety officer should clearly be separate from Race Control (its like being chief fire officer and chief arsonist…well, they do kinda sound the same I’ll admit, but there’s the rub, they’re not).

      But under current management one would have to believe also that anyone willing to put their neck on the line and put safety first would most likely be treated like Eva Carneiro – with typical ‘you don’t understand the sport’ logic being spouted if a safety officer dared to act on the basis of, well, safety, rather than the good of the show (ie commercial health of the show).

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with one small exception. It’s not like there isn’t any money floating around, so that can’t be a reason – possibly a lame attempt at an excuse, but not a reason.

  3. “a driver suffering a 46G impact ”
    I distinctly recall either EJ or DC remarking that Sainz’s impact G reading was something like 4G. 46G doesn’t even sound survivable to me.
    Clarification please.

  4. “Dubious practice” #10 is a video of marshals clearing up debris under Safety Car, before the SC train comes back around. Why is this a problem?

    And you do realise that Virtual Safety Car has been used this year – so clearly Whiting and his team have found a working solution…

  5. It’s time the F1 world becomes honest with itself and admits that the reason Jules Blanche died was because of his own mistake, albeit compounded by the vehicle laying in wait for him.

    We live in a world these days where people don’t seem to hold people to account if they are the victim of their own actions, it’s always someone else’s fault – we are trying to always place the blame at the guys or the organisations at the top. It’s not just F1, it’s everything.

    • I know and agree with your sentiment, but think it’s a little unfair in Jules’ case.

      He was going too fast, that caused the accident. But his death was caused by other factors (the recovery vehicle being on the circuit).

      Sure, the saying “you’re 50% in the wrong for being there” has some merit, but the way F1 is structured means nobody expects to die by going off the track.

    • The rules that Jules Bianchi was operating under are what lead to his death. Rules that allowed drivers to treat a yellow flag with a minimal reduction in speed meant that all drivers were effectively forced to treat a yellow flag with a minimal reduction in speed, or be caught by their competitors. Everything else was bad luck.

      • With respect, the rules were clear. Double waved yellows as per WMSC regs means “slow down and be prepared to stop”. They were not enforced properly.

        In fact Whiting issued in March last year a directive in effect stating a 15% speed reduction was all that was required to meet the double waved yellow flag obligations

        There are always problems when the legislator and the enforcer are the same organisation.

  6. Video #3 is not from 2008. It was shot recently during a Ferrari Clienti F1 track day at Spa.

    • There was something not quite right with the Maru/Manor. It wasn’t only the Japanese crash but also the one earlier in testing,both ending promising careers. From what I can put together there was something about the engine not cutting power when the brake was applied,a bit like what Nico had in Russia so forcing the car to run over when braking. I can’t get a clear answer to the JB crash but the weather and visibility didn’t help but both ended with disaster when heavy machinery was on the track.

  7. You really need to not conflate all marshal incursions onto an “active” (hot) track with being some breach of safety rules or norms. Marshals are trained and used to working within a metre of a “hot track” so they are constantly aware of the cars, their speed and the dangers involved. An incursion onto a hot track is overseen by a senior sector chief at the location who has asked permission from, and who is in constant radio contact with, race control – who are aware of where all cars are on the track at all times, and who give the command for when it is safe for the marshal to go onto the track.

    The fact that you have been unable to find more than a few incidents of (questionable) “close calls” or actual incidents, amongst hundreds and hundreds of races is a testimony to the effectiveness of the marshals’ activity. I have considerable experience in working beside an F1 track and not one has gone past without a marshal being required to enter a “hot” track. Many, many cars have been recovered under double yellows. And every one of these incursions have been completed effectively and safely (and generally without ending on YouTube or the TV). The fact that, in my country, we have lost a marshal to a freak incident of an escaping wheel entering the marshal zone only means safety barriers were increased and the thought of the incident focuses us all on our job, to this day.

    Yes, there are some safety practices that need improvement and investigation (there always will be) – and some regions that need more training and oversight from more experienced practitioners – but to condemn the overall operation of the local marshals at all tracks is a broad slur that is undeserved.

    We work within metres of cars on the limit of control for hours on end and for all days of an F1 event – but most of these people do the same all year ’round at tracks and other events throughout the country. Most are very experienced and most are very professional, especially the overseeing Sector Marshals – that is, we work and conduct themselves professionally… even if we are not paid more than a shirt, a cap, lunches and an after-party.

    The fact that increased safety barriers have potentially impinged upon some practices of the marshals (and drivers), is accepted as probably a necessity in these times, but I really see the sport being damaged if you go down the CHAMP Car route (yes, I worked CHAMP Cars in their time) of a travelling safety team and the order for no marshals to attend to stricken vehicles. Constant safety cars (virtual or otherwise) and red flags will kill the sport.

    You need to concentrate on each incident of concern and see if it occurred due to a process or practice failure. If it is a practice failure (a mistake) then you need to think very carefully before changing the process. If you think you can make it impossible for people to make a mistake or impossible for mistakes to have consequences in activities such as motorsport, then you will probably end up disappointed.

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