The 2019 Formula 1 season was one of those that started in a minor mood instead of the usual festive one.
Still, it’s the most anticipated motor race with millions of fans around the world, many of whom haven’t missed a race in years.
Just hours before the first race weekend of the season, traditionally in Australia, race director Charlie Whiting died.
The Brit then suffered a pulmonary embolism on Thursday morning and left this world at the age of 66. Whiting had been with the International Automobile Federation since 1988 and was among the most influential figures in the sport. For a long period he was responsible for safety in Formula 1, inspecting the tracks and giving ideas for technical changes to minimize the possibility of fatal accidents and deaths.
It is no coincidence that there has only been one fatality in Formula 1 since the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in 1994. Jules Bianchi lost his life in 2014 when he got stuck in an emergency crane, and it’s not as if this century hasn’t had its share of shocking accidents that would have claimed lives under different circumstances.
We remember what happened in 2020 during the Bahrain Grand Prix. Romain Grosjean crashed into the wall at 240 km/h, his car split in two and caught fire, and he got out with only minor burns, like in a Hollywood movie. The Frenchman stayed in the burning car for 28 seconds, and his survival would not have been possible without the work of people like Whiting.
One of the reasons that Grosjean came to life is the so-called “Halo” or as we say the halo, which is mounted above the drivers’ head to protect them in the event of a car rollover. The titanium shell that encased the pilot in his cockpit also saved his life on direct contact and accordingly left his limbs intact. If it weren’t for her, the carbon nose simply wouldn’t have prevented a fatal blow to the person inside. His legs and body would take the first blow. Less than a second later comes the intervention of a second technology – the so-called HANS (Head and Neck Safety), which has been part of Formula 1 for almost 20 years.
All of these technologies contribute to saving lives in Formula 1, although Grosjean himself has no explanation for how he managed to escape unscathed from the horrific accident.
There was one this season as well, when during the British Grand Prix the car of the Chinese Guan Zhou overturned several times and even jumped over the safety fence. He then rammed into another fence that, had it been missing, would have swept the crowd.
For several seconds, Joe was upside down and, like Grosjean, survived because of the halo. The technology entered Formula One in 2018 and many scoffed at it. Charles Leclerc may also be grateful, as at Spa in 2018 Fernando Alonso flew through his car and the right front tire went right through the cockpit. If there was no “Halo”, the Spaniard’s car would have greased Leclerc’s head. This was also the case in one of the crashes between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in 2021, albeit at a much lower speed.
It was Charlie Whiting who introduced the oriole to Formula 1 and to a large extent he himself became the guardian angel of the pilots. It was because of this that his death brought great sorrow three years ago, and at the end of this week he would have celebrated his 70th birthday.
The Brit is described as an extremely humble man who does his job conscientiously and dedicates his life to ensuring that no one gets hurt on the track. Even as a child he decided that he would become a racing engineer and at the age of 25 in 1977 he joined Hesketh Racing – Bernie Ecclestone’s team.
It was thanks to Bernie that Whiting was brought into the FIA in 1988 to fill the role of Technical Director. He is so talented and honest in his work that it is only a matter of time before he gets promoted.
1997 was the year he became responsible for track safety and headed the technical body in Formula 1. His job was extremely responsible and stressful, but Whiting devoted himself to it and was constantly coming up with new ideas. His proposals are not always successful and find support, but in most cases he turns out to be right. It is precisely because of this that he earns the respect of both his colleagues and the pilots.
This is an enviable accolade for Whiting, because the profession of flight director does not allow you to please everyone. His decisions over the years have often met with displeasure from teams or specific drivers, but time has in most cases proven that his innovations are, if not genius, at least well thought out and justified. And when he is wrong, he is the first to admit his mistakes. This earns him even more respect.
In recent years, Whiting’s authority was unchallenged. He has worked so long in Formula 1 and has overcome so many possible crises that no one disputes his decisions anymore.
In particular, the fatal accident with Jules Bianchi in 2014 does not give him peace and makes him even more inventive in his work. He realizes that the Frenchman’s death was not due to his helmet or anything else, but to the design of the car itself. In 2017, almost all teams resisted the decision to introduce the 9 kg “Halo” system, but time again proved that it was a life-saving innovation.
Charlie Whiting doesn’t even want to hear the reprimands. He knows that the safety of the pilots comes first and the focus should not be shifted to whether the halo makes the car ugly or if it degrades the aerodynamics.
This dedication of the Briton to the profession to which he dedicated his life made everyone in Formula 1 cry when he died in March 2019. Even an iron man like Ecclestone shed tears talking about his longtime friend.
The drivers had him as such too, and shortly after his death, Sebastian Vettel paid tribute to all of them with an emotional statement:
“In motorsports we depend on the stopwatch. We depend on the time. We chase it. We become experts in that pursuit. Sometimes we succeed and hang on to it for a moment before that moment is gone again. We go laps in that pursuit and forget about the world around us. We it’s like we’re flying and that’s the greatest feeling we can have.
However, it has its price. The risks we take are worth it to experience that feeling again and again. Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsports, with no other cars able to go faster in the pursuit of time. But she is the top because of you. You made this pursuit safer for our generation. Now we believe that getting into our cars is safer than getting into any other car. We call them ours, but many of them belong to you.
You are not our guardian angel, as they only appear on specific occasions. No. You are our guardian, working every day. You stand tall and watch our every move while we’re on the track. You are an important part of our lives – more important than we can imagine or express. Your efforts, ideas, love for racing, for sports have helped and continue to help save lives. Your influence is so significant that a “thank you” doesn’t seem like enough.
The marks you leave on the track are much more valuable than those of a perfect lap. Your style has always been so balanced and it’s like you’ve found the perfect settings. On behalf of all current F1 drivers and all others who worked with you, we want to say that you were a true race director, guardian, friend. You stay with us because everyone is alive until they stop being remembered. We’ll remember you, Charlie.”
The words of the former world champion describe in a very good way the appreciation of the pilots towards Whiting. Somewhat symbolically, Vettel’s time has come to step down from the big stage.