THEY ASK THE QUESTIONS
F1 race director and safety delegate Charlie Whiting is subjected to a grilling from his paddock peers
He’s the man with his finger more truly on the button than anyone else in F1. And for once, FIA race director Charlie Whiting is answering the awkward questions, rather than asking them…
This year’s Bahrain GP was the 900th round of the Formula 1 world championship. Precisely two thirds of those races have been attended by Charlie Whiting. The 61-year-old who enforces F1’s rigorous rulebook and starts every race hasn’t missed one since the 1978 French Grand Prix.
So this year’s British GP will be his 600th consecutive race. By any measure, he’s a stalwart of the sport. And now here we are, in his airconditioned ofce overlooking the pitlane, about to put to him questions gathered from a stellar roster of peers.
The great and the good from team principals to drivers, from Jean Todt to one B Ecclestone all had a question for Charlie. And the first came from no less a luminary than Mr N Lauda…
How long do you leave it to turn off the ve red lights – I want to tell my drivers.
A lot of people ask me that, mostly drivers, and I don’t know how long it’s going to be. It’s not automated – it’s down to me. When I press the button once, the red lights come on in sequence automatically. When the last red light comes on, I can’t turn it off in any less than 1.4 seconds, but after that I can leave it as long as I like.
It’s a funny thing because you look at the red lights coming on one by one and when they’re all on, I think to myself: ‘I’ll hold them a bit longer today.’ But you just can’t! If you looked at every race start over the past three or four years, you would probably find that the scatter of the time between the last red light coming on and them going off will be very small. So I’m sorry Niki, but I can’t tell you that.
Are there any rules that F1 shouldn’t apply because it makes itself look bad, such as penalising Seb Vettel in India for the donuts he did?
No, I don’t think so. If there were any rules that we thought were bad, we’d set about changing them. And that’s a case in point. The only reason for it looking bad is the application of the rule. We have lots of mechanisms for changing rules if there is one that is clearly flawed. I don’t think there are any at the moment. I think what happened with Sebastian in India was unfortunate, but I believe it had to be done. We’ve dealt with it now. Interestingly, no one has done any donuts since we lifted the ban: I suspect they’re worried about their gearboxes, now that they have to last longer.
Have the rules become too complex and out of control?
To some extent, yes. I think they are more complex than they need to be. I don’t think they are out of control though. We can look at ways of trying to make them less complex, but the problem is you can’t un-invent things and it’s difficult to try and turn the clock back. You can’t wipe memories clean, but I think things can be
done to make the rules a little simpler in the fullness of time.
F1R: Every time you look at the new, subtle yet minor, changes to the technical regulations, you see the additional wording…
CW: Yes, what happens typically is that questions are asked of you all the time. Some of those result in clarifications that get sent to all the teams and these ones usually find their way into the rules. Unfortunately it isn’t a matter of taking words out, it’s a case of adding more in to cover things we hadn’t really thought of. Don’t forget the rules are discussed by all the teams: we have technical working groups and everyone sits down together and it gets discussed.
Inevitably, there are increasing demands to make sure Formula 1 is tightly controlled. Everyone wants things to be perfect; they demand perfection of themselves. So we have to do our best to make sure that we are able to check the cars with the level of precision that they require – and that’s where things get complicated. Things where it previously may have been alright to say: “That’s okay, don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine,” now require absolute precision – hence the rules have to be more precise. They’ll never get smaller as far as I can see.
What keeps you working with Bernie?
Well, because he’s such an inspiration really. Working with him is enlightening to say the least. He comes out with new things all the time and some things that you think are a little bit crazy actually more often than not turn out to be absolutely spot-on.
F1R: Can you think of an example?
CW: Given time, I could probably think of lots of examples. Articulated lorry trucks. Who on earth would have ever thought that you would need a big truck. In the late ’60s and early ’70s everyone had small trucks, but one day Bernie decided he wanted an artic’ and everyone said; ‘He’s mad, what does he need that for?!’ Now they bring 40 of them. What Bernie did, others followed. That’s a relatively poor example… I can’t think of any
“There are increasing demands to make sure Formula 1 is tightly controlled… the rules have to be precise. They’ll never get smaller”
more recent ones, but he’s not often wrong. He has a great sense of humour, too.
CW: You could say that. I didn’t [laughs].
F1R: Does Bernie command a fear factor? CW: I think if anyone said they hadn’t at one point in their career been frightened of Bernie, they’d be lying. He’s quite an intimidating character. I think most people nd that.
What’s your favourite type of red wine?
Oh my word! That’s a bit of a tricky one. I would say a nice Cabernet Sauvignon from South Australia.
F1R: Why do you think Adrian has asked you that question?
CW: Because he probably knows that I like red wine; I can’t think of any other reason or anything less controversial.
F1R: Do you think his tactic is to find out which wine you like to try to ingratiate himself with you?
CW: He’s welcome to buy me wine but it won’t work. No, I think that if he offered me a nice bottle of red from South Australia, I might be a bit suspicious now! F1R: Has anyone done that in the past?
CW: Not that I can think of.
Do you think that the new penalty licence points system is really fair and good from an entertainment point of view when it stops drivers from racing?
Yes, it is good for the sport, and no, it doesn’t prevent the drivers from racing. Whether you collect penalty points or not, you still have the deterrent of a penalty and it could be like poor Ricciardo’s penalty from Malaysia. The reason that was so stiff is that it had to act as a deterrent to any team who were attempting to short-cut their pitstop procedures a little bit. So you have to have a deterrent, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to enforce the rules fairly and rigidly.
The penalty-points system is not so much to act as a deterrent, but more to make sure you don’t have any persistent offenders. In the case of persistent offenders, they will automatically be handed a one-race ban.
Monitoring the fuel-flow during a race is an interesting case of realtime scrutineering. What else can be monitored in real-time throughout a grand prix and will it be extended?
This is a very good question. We do monitor other things in real time, such as the use of DRS, for example. We can see when it isn’t working, when the cars don’t get the detection. We get a live data feed so we can see a lot in real time. We are able to look at a driver’s lap to see if he has slowed down for yellow flags, for example. As far as scrutineering is concerned, I think there is a very good chance that we would use that more. The whole point of having this live data feed was to save us from having to download the data from the car and then analyse it after the race, which added three hours to the post-race checks.
Having sat in many Technical Working Group meetings over the years and having heard many ridiculous points of view, what has been the most stupid thing you have ever heard?
[Long pause] I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone who is a member of the TWG say anything ridiculous, because they are all sensible people, really. But we have discussed some ridiculous things. These tend to be mad inventors who come to me with various ideas, that I’ve offered to put to the TWG. F1R: Any examples? CW: Exploding canopies – or to put it another way, canopies loaded with explosive devices in case a car tipped over and trapped a driver inside. There have been some quite odd and very impractical suggestions.
But that pales into insignificance in comparison to the safety refuelling system idea. After we had that fire in Hockenheim [in 1994, when a refuelling error caused Jos Verstappen’s Benetton to burst into flames during a pitstop], someone came up with the idea of changing the fuel tank of the car. So the car would come into the pits needing fuel, the top would be hinged off the fuel tank, and a crane would then lift out the empty fuel tank and lower in a full one. What could possibly go wrong! I keep all of these ideas and still have that one somewhere.
Have you ever had a hiccup involving the start button?
Herbie Blash [Blash, Whiting’s deputy, has up to this point been pretending not to listen, sitting on the far side of the office behind a computer screen. We suspect he might already know the answer…]. Yes, we commence the start procedure by setting the box to work on the starting platform. That
will automatically open the pitlane and begin the countdown to the race start. We then have a key to lock it to ensure that no one tampers with it, but at the Turkish Grand Prix one year, my colleague forgot to unlock it as the cars were doing their formation lap.
All the cars were sat out on the grid and the starting box didn’t work. I pressed the button and nothing happened. I pressed it again. Still nothing. Then I asked my colleague for the key and it was tied to his trousers. He was desperately trying to undo it as the cars were all being held on the grid! They were there a long time with nothing happening. That was a bit of a worry.
Why don’t you raise the minimum weight of the cars immediately, for the sake of the health of the drivers?
We can’t do that. We’ve been made aware of some drivers’ concerns about being pushed to lose a bit more weight than they usually would, because the weight limit is currently quite tight. We’ve tried to go through the process of getting that increased. We failed because not all the teams agreed to it. Some teams with lighter drivers said it was not in their interests to do it and we needed unanimous agreement. This came to light after 30 June, which is the cut-off point when you then need unanimous agreement. So, now, it is in place for next year: a ten kilo rise in the weight limit.
I don’t see that any driver would make himself ‘unhealthy’, but obviously the heavier drivers feel that they are put at a disadvantage when it comes to getting a drive. I don’t know if it is true but I did hear that Nico Hülkenberg was unacceptable to McLaren and Ferrari because of his weight. Well, all that will disappear as of next year. If you are two kilos overweight, that will make you 0.07secs slower. Why would you compromise your own health for that?
What was your rst race and how many have you done?
Jean-Eric Vergne My first race in Formula 1 proper, apart from an abortive attempt to qualify Davina Galica for the 1976 British Grand Prix in a privately run Surtees, was the Argentine Grand Prix in 1978. I don’t know exactly how many races I’ve done, but it’s somewhere around the 600 mark. F1R: Can you remember the last time you missed a grand prix? CW: In 1978 I went to work for Hesketh and we did Zolder. But they packed up after that race and the next race was Sweden where Brabham ran their ‘fan car’. Around that time Herbie gave me a job as the number-two mechanic on the T-car. So I haven’t missed a race since Paul Ricard in 1978. I think Herbie drove there, didn’t you Herb? [Whiting looks over to his old colleague]. He’s not listening again…
I had no particular aspirations to do the job I’m doing now. When I was a mechanic working with saloon cars in the 1970s, my aspirations then were just to get myself into Formula 1. I used to dream about being a mechanic to a world champion, that was my one goal in life at that time.
As F1 adopts more technology would you welcome the return of traction control and active suspension?
I don’t think traction control should be embraced because it is a true driver aid. It’s helping a driver do something that he should really be doing himself. Active suspension on the other hand is something that shouldn’t frighten people any more. It was done previously and outlawed because of the aerodynamic influence the suspension had over the car, but these days, with single ECU control, active suspension on the car would be much simpler. And much cheaper, because if you put it in its simplest form you have an actuator on each corner and you can throw away all your springs, dampers and roll bars because the active suspension would do it all for you. So all these very expensive, sophisticated hydraulically linked suspensions would be a thing of the past – or could be – if we went for an active suspension system. It is something that is hovering on the radar.
What should Formula 1 do to become more ‘fan-friendly’?
Well, Bernie’s not going to like this, but I’m going to say something like opening up the paddock. But that’s going to be a bit too much… it could be a bit of a nightmare. But I think a pit walk that was truly for the paying public
would be very popular. Even more so if you had a pit walk each night and the drivers would have to come out. I can’t see what else you could do to make it more fan-friendly. That’s if he was talking about fans coming to the race track?
F1R: Given his role in television, it was perhaps aimed more at TV viewers…
CH: I saw that Fernando and another driver sat inside the bus as it lapped the track on the drivers’ parade in Malaysia – that was just ridiculous wasn’t it? It’s taking the P…
Have you ever seen a driver more emotional than Fernando Alonso was at Monza in 2006 when he was given a penalty for impeding Felipe Massa?
No. I never have. He was incandescent. He wanted to come and see me and Steve brought him up. First he explained that he hadn’t done anything wrong. Then he started to get a little more excited, saying “What am I going to tell my grandmother about this when I speak to her? I call her every night!” Then he stood up, got more angry and threw his sunglasses across the room and really started shouting. I’ve never seen a driver do anything like that before and I felt for his health, really. Seriously. If anyone went into a race so fraught then they are a danger to themselves. Whether or not a penalty was right was neither here or there, but I’ve never seen a driver get that cross before.
Have you had any thoughts about starting your own Twitter account?
No. I don’t even know what Twitter is to be quite honest with you! When I look at how much trouble people get themselves into tweeting, I can only see a downside to it. I can understand with so many people using Twitter how it can be used, so if someone wanted to share information with the press, it could be done via Twitter. But I don’t want to become a twit. Why do people want to tweet they’ve had bacon and eggs for breakfast, “Yum, yum!” – who wants to read that sort of rubbish? I just don’t understand it. I presume Max is referring to the @FakeCharlieWhiting account that’s out there – I’ll leave it to @FakeCharlieWhiting, I think; he’s funnier than me. F1R: What do you think Alonso might have tweeted on the night of Monza ’06? CW: Probably something that would have got him hauled up in front of the FIA World Council!
Who is your least favourite driver and why?
I think for somebody to be your least favourite driver you have to actively dislike them and I don’t actively dislike any driver, nor have I ever disliked any driver I’ve worked with in Formula 1. I’ve argued with some more than some others, and I can clearly identify two drivers in F1 who have been the most argumentative. That would be Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya. They seldom thought they were wrong and I’ve had quite a few disagreements with them over the years – never anything too heated, but you could always rely on them for a little bit of a debate in drivers’ briengs and things like that.
F1R: We asked JV to contribute to this and he couldn’t think of a question. Not one. CW: I rest my case.
Since you’ve been in this position, has anyone tried to inuence you over an important decision?
The decisions that I have to make are generally made on the spur of the moment, Safety Car and the like, unlike the stewards who usually have more time to deliberate. Therefore the chances of anyone trying to influence an important decision of mine would be very small. And it has never actually happened. When it comes to decisions over technical matters we often have lengthy debates about the legality of a particular system with an individual team – and of course they try to get me to change my mind sometimes. But that doesn’t really count as ‘influencing’.
Whiting worked for Ecclestone’s Brabham team in the ’80s: “Working with Bernie is enlightening to say the least”
Hülkenberg (right) was not considered for a McLaren drive due to his weight. Whiting says minimum weight won’t increase until 2015