Charlie Whiting is F1 old school and currently wears a number of FIA hats – FIA F1 Race Director, Safety Delegate, Permanent starter and head of the F1 technical department. However, his record on safety in F1 is at best suspect.
F1’s white haired grandfather-esque figure began his career in the sport over 40 years ago when joining Hesketh Racing. When the team was set to fold, Whiting joined Bernie Ecclestone’s F1 Brabham Team in 1977 to become chief mechanic and eventually chief engineer.
The Brabham boss began losing interest in being a team owner in 1986, due to prioritising his work with the F1 constructors’ association. Subsequently Ecclestone sold the team in 1988 and Whiting found grace and favour with the FIA – who appointed him their F1 Technical Delegate.
Now at the age of 66, there’s little Charlie Whiting hasn’t seen during the period when F1 came from racing in fields to the multi billion dollar global sport it is today. Yet in recent times, Whiting’s judgement has been called into question, most particularly over his decisions during the 2014 Japanese GP. The race where Jules Bianchi was fatally injured.
As Safety Delegate, Whiting allowed the race to proceed even though the medical helicopter was grounded and the time it would take to get an ambulance to the nearest appropriate hospital facilities was greater than the FIA regulations allowed.
Earlier that year, Charlie Whiting had issued a dictum interpreting his requirements for driver behaviour under yellow and doubled waved yellow flags. In March, Autosport revealed, ““They [the teams] have been told by F1 race director Charlie Whiting that they must now slow down by 0.2 seconds compared to their best sector time for single yellow flags, and 0.5s for double waved yellows”.
This was a monumental fail and flew in the face of the World Motorsport Council’s definition of double waved yellow flags, “…slow down and be prepared to stop”.
Bianchi crashed under double waved yellows, with rivers of rainwater flooding the Suzuka circuit.
Certain sections of the F1 media and the F1 establishment sought to lay blame for Bainchi’s accident at his own door, for driving too quickly. Yet the subsequent FIA investigation completely ignored Whiting’s gross error in the specific directives he gave to codify driver behaviour under double waved yellow flags.
The drawbridge was raised.
Last week at the 2018 Bahrain GP, Ferrari encountered difficulty removing Kimi Raikkonen’s rear left wheel at the pit stop. The result was the wheel was unchanged and Raikkonen given the green light pulled away.
Unfortunately, one of the Red Team’s pit crew was stood in front of the troublesome wheel and run over – breaking both shin bone and Fibula. Francesco Cigarini lay just outside the Ferrari pit box for almost 3 laps whilst treatment was administered, yet the Race Director/Safety Delegate failed to close the pit lane.
Clearly there was a safety issue with where Francesco was lying as F1 writer Mark Hughes revealed in his post race report. Having spoken to Mercedes about their race strategy, he wrote: “They could have taken advantage by switching Bottas to a two stop and getting three laps’ worth of undercut on Vettel – but those on the pitwall just couldn’t do it, felt it would have been too callous to do a live pitstop a few metres away from the wounded man being attended to when Ferrari was powerless to defend itself”.
Some may be sceptical about Mercedes ever adopting an altruistic attitude towards Ferrari’s inability to ‘defend itself’. It may be the pit wall call was made for PR reasons. The sight of a silver arrows hurtling away from its box hitting 80kph just metres from the injured Ferrari man would surely have looked bad on the Brackley team.
The exact reason is moot.
What isn’t – and is extremely concerning – is that the Race Director/Safety Delegate did not close the pit lane – and abdicated to the teams – the decision to avoid the stricken red suited body. Indeed, even UK channel 4’s commentary from Ben Edwards suggested that it was likely that the pit lane would close due to the proximity of the Mercedes box to the scene of injury.
Given that F1 fans have to endure the FIA’s new brainchild – the halo – on the grounds of safety, would it be too much to expect their main man of many hats in F1 to police the safety of the pit lane properly and act quickly in and decisively when required?