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 ofce 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.

Niki Lauda

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?

Martin Don­nelly

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?

Gary An­der­son

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?

Bernie Ec­cle­stone

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.

F1R: Mis­chievous?

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?

Adrian Newey

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?

Franz Tost

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?

Martin Brun­dle

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?

Mike Gas­coyne

[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?

Bruno Senna

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?

Ge­off Wil­lis

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’?

David Coulthard

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?

Steve Nielsen

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?

Max Chilton

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?

Jonathan Neale

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’ briengs 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 inuence you over an im­por­tant de­ci­sion?

Jean Todt

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

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