Greg Zyla 2016-02-19 01:12:16
FIA Formula 1 Race Director and Safety Delegate Charlie Whiting discusses the safety considerations incorporated into Formula 1 race cars, the sport’s unique logistics, and the standout personalities that add to F1 racing’s widespread appeal. This month, we’re pleased to interview Charlie Whiting, the world-renowned FIA and Formula 1 motorsports executive. In fact, Whiting’s resume is filled with accomplishments, starting with his entry into the world of motorsports as a mechanical engineer in 1972. Instead of following the usual steps to success as a mechanical engineer, Whiting followed his dream of working on race cars, much to his mother’s disappointment. Although many jobs were available to someone with Whiting’s engineering degree, he instead joined forces with his brother, Nick, who owned an auto repair garage, and started working there as a mechanic. Nick, meanwhile, was already a successful rally cross driver, and Charlie stepped right in to become his new chief mechanic. After five successful seasons in the British Touring Car Championship, then known as the British Saloon Car Championship, Whiting jumped at the opportunity to join the Brabham Formula 1 team as chief mechanic and race engineer, where he spent 11 years before moving to the FIA F1 as technical delegate in 1988. In 1997, he was appointed the FIA Formula 1 Race Director and Safety Delegate, positions he holds to this day. Responsible for the overall safety, inspection, approval and confirmation of all F1 test and race tracks, Whiting oversees the day-to-day running of every F1 Grand Prix on the schedule and is chairman of the F1 Technical and Sporting Working Groups. Whiting is also a member of the FIA Open Cockpit Research Group, the FIA Safety Commission and the FIA Circuits Commission. Whiting and his wife Juliette are proud parents of eight-year-old son Justin and five-year-old daughter Charlotte. When he does get some free time (which isn’t often), he enjoys playing golf and collecting fine wine. On the following pages, Whiting provides an interesting “behind the scenes” look at what it takes to run a worldwide racing series, his thoughts on both the need for a United States Grand Prix and its new Gene Haas F1 team, the immense logistics and shipping demands he oversees, specifics about the F1 car, the new hybrid engines and much more. This interview was conducted the day after Whiting’s keynote address at the Race Track Business Conference (RTBC) luncheon during the 2015 PRI Trade Show in Indianapolis, Indiana. PRI: Let’s start with Gene Haas and his new American-based team that will join the F1 grid this year. How about your feelings on this big news event? Whiting: To have any new team is good, but to have a United States new team is very special. Gene Haas has gone about it in a very professional way, and he’s got a very good arrangement with Ferrari. They will be acquiring everything they are allowed to acquire under F1 rules from Ferrari. PRI: And can you explain what they cannot acquire? Whiting: Glad to. Under F1 rules, the two main areas a team cannot acquire are the chassis and the body fundamentals (those parts in contact with the airstream), all of which must be original. A team cannot buy a chassis and bodywork. PRI: Can you expand on the fact that chassis are not available to purchase in F1? Whiting: Yes, and for good reason. Unlike IndyCar, which is a spec chassis series, in Formula 1 we do not use spec chassis race cars because we award a constructors’ championship in parallel with the drivers’ championship. The definition of a constructor is that you own, design and have ownership of your (distinct) chassis and bodywork, and all the related bodywork including the nose, wings, side pods and so on. Each and every team competing must design and construct the chassis and body if you want to compete in Formula 1. PRI: Many companies use F1 racing for worldwide branding, one of them being Infiniti with Red Bull Racing. There have been many rumors of Red Bull leaving the series and questions about who would supply engines for 2016. There’s been much discussion concerning this situation, specifically, Red Bull and Renault and their futures in the sport. Any updates you can share with our readers? Whiting: I can share with you some. The good news is Red Bull survives for the 2016 season, and they will be using a Renault engine that we understand will be badged otherwise. As for Renault, they have acquired the rights to compete with their own Formula 1 team in 2016. So in that Red Bull survives is wonderful news, as it would have been catastrophic had they decided to pull out of the series, as that would have been two teams gone. PRI: What is the grid limit in F1 racing? Whiting: We have a limit of 24 cars comprised of 12 two-car teams. PRI: Which leads to the logistics of operating a worldwide F1 schedule each year. Just how complex is the transport of a race team that, for example, brings three cars, a bare chassis, backup engines, as well as all the other spare parts and electronics all over the world? Also, can you tell us something the average race fan might not Know about this critical transportation of the F1 series? Whiting: Glad to. Much of the race car transportation outside Europe is by air freight transport planes, sometimes utilizing eight decks. It’s a massive job that is not easily accomplished, especially in back-to-back races. As to something an F1 fan might not know, it deals with the pit area and support equipment. Most of what a fan sees on television pertaining to the pit stall and pit area setup is not shipped by air freight. It is shipped by sea, and includes the paneling, overheads, computers, and so on. Now, teams usually have six sets of their garage needs, not one. All six are set and ready for sea shipment each January, which is when I will begin shipping by sea one set per car for each to the upcoming races. For example, one will go to Australia, one goes to Malaysia and so on, so that for the first six races of the F1 season, all of that pit stall equipment is already at the location well ahead of time. It all is shipped by sea instead of air because it is much more economical to buy six sets of the needed garage area necessities and ship by sea than it is to have one set and ship by air. Each team also has a setup crew that comes in, they leapfrog each other getting everything ready, and then they disassemble and get ready to ship to the next destination, which then would be the seventh race of the season. So, as you and I discussed yesterday at the RTBC conference, it is indeed a huge logistical operation. PRI: Let’s talk about the electrical assist hybrid engines now used in the series. There were a lot of fans disappointed initially that the engines were much quieter compared to the non-hybrids. What are your feelings on this? Whiting: In my opinion, and following many discussions with the promoters, it’s not going to be as big an issue with the vast majority of the spectators. Some promoters note that today we have a different type of person coming to the races, and they bring their children (because the engines are quiet). Now, for people like you and me, the high-rpm, loud F1 engines were sweet music to our ears, but there is a new generation of fan attending, while the die-hards, who are known as “petrol heads” on the paddock, will always say it sounds like rubbish and we don’t like the sound. So, some of the “petrol heads” might not come to a race now, but the new fans far outweigh those that have been lost due to the lack of engine noise. And as for the millions of television viewers all over the world, it really isn’t an important factor at all. PRI: I understand you have made some adjustments for 2016 for the noise-loving “petrol heads”? Whiting: Yes, we have made an adjustment for 2016 to make the engines a bit louder simply by having a separate exhaust tail pipe for the wastegate. It will be louder, but overall the sound of the engine won’t be an issue in my opinion moving forward. PRI: Adapting to the new hybrid engine rules was a struggle for many teams. However, a few of the teams got it right. Is that correct? Whiting: Oh yes, and as for the actual sound and, not surprisingly, if a team is not up to speed, you can almost hear it in their engines. They emit a more dull sound going by. To me, I think Mercedes and Ferrari engines sound sweet when they go by. I love the sound, and don’t miss the shrill sound of the former V8s and V10s. PRI: Formula 1 racing has always been a worldwide, ultra-popular series with astonishing human interest stories. There have been many movies made with an F1 focus, most recently Ron Howard’s James Hunt and Niki Lauda saga “Rush.” We’ve had such great champions, from Juan Fangio to Jackie Stewart to Michael Schumacher and everyone in between. But right now the main human interest is Lewis Hamilton and his rise to the top. What kind of guy is he off the TV screen? Whiting: A wonderful story, a real character. First, there are many drivers that stand out today. Fernando Alonso for McLaren, Hamilton for Mercedes and Vettel for Ferrari are three of them. They each have their own qualities. Lewis Hamilton is a fantastic racer, he never gives up and he is quite the character. He has the jewelry and all the uncanny stuff he does. He’s not afraid to have some fun and show it. But as a race driver, Hamilton is very serious and exceptional behind the wheel. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) is another one who is extremely good, and a very popular racer when he has the right car, as is Alonso, who also never stops trying. Now Alonso may not be the character that Lewis Hamilton is, but as for today’s colorful drivers, we do have many to choose from. PRI: You were asked a question at the RTBC luncheon that if you held the ultimate Formula 1 race of all times, what three drivers would be on the podium? Whiting: Yes. To me, the podium would consist of Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton. PRI: Are you surprised Gene Haas didn’t name an American driver for one of his two cars? Whiting: No. I feel if a driver with the experience and talent was available, he would have chosen one from the United States. Haas is a racer and he wants to win. With that said, I think he’s chosen two very good drivers. Now, he isn’t too likely to finish in a top-three or top-four position, because the other great drivers are already under gigantic driving contracts and probably would never go to a new team anyway. However, Haas has a very good young driver in Romain Grosjean, who I think will be able to surprise a few people in the right car. PRI: And the importance of having a yearly United States Grand Prix? I know it’s been a struggle, and one that even Indianapolis could not successfully address. I know the sanctioning fees are high and that the COTA race is not yet signed and sealed for 2016 at this point. What are your thoughts? Whiting: In a World Championship, to not have a race here in the States is not right. We do have races in North America, with one in Canada and also one in Mexico. It just doesn’t seem right, with so many race tracks in the United States, that an F1 race could not take place at a permanent location, because there is so much F1 heritage here in the United States. PRI: There was some talk yesterday at a luncheon that there is hope that the business associations in Texas that have experienced the positive economic impact that F1 brings geographically thanks to COTA will perhaps step up to the plate and help. It is legendary the amount of money spent by those who follow Formula 1 in person around the globe, and the businesses in and around Austin, Texas, are the beneficiaries. Can this happen? Whiting: It can happen, yes. Sometimes the economic impact of an F1 race is quite hard to access as we travel the world, but one thing we know is that the positive economic impact to surrounding Businesses is without question a major factor. Hotel associations and restaurants will quickly realize how much money they have lost when a race does not return. Perhaps this group of individuals, and regardless of where the income comes from, can, as you say, assist with the sanctioning fee. It would surely make it easier on the promoter. PRI: How about the COTA circuit? Did the drivers like it? Whiting: Yes, and you don’t often here from the drivers positive comments about a circuit. Yet during the driver briefings and then after the race, the only area of concern was a bump due to settlement between turns 11 and 12. But the drivers said after the race, don’t change anything other than fixing the bump because the race circuit is fantastic and to make sure we can come back, please. To me, that is quite the statement of how well COTA is already respected. The F1 drivers love it, and especially how interesting the COTA circuit is between turns 12 and turn 16. It provides great racing with drivers counter attacking in this area. Turn one and turn two, also, with several entry and exit points. It’s a fine circuit. PRI: Is everything stable with Pirelli, the F1 tire manufacturer? I know there were a few rear tire failure concerns last year. Whiting: Yes, it is stable and we’re dealing with Pirelli through the year 2019. Pirelli offers stability. There will also be a big change to the wheels and tires in 2017, and a lot of testing scheduled for next year to develop these new tires. As you mention, we’ve had a couple of problems last year, but with Pirelli’s help we were able to make some counter measures in basically running higher pressures and less camber. Now granted, some of the teams don’t like it, because the higher you go with pressures you lose performance, and they might think we are being a little overcautious. PRI: We notice that when the drivers are interviewed on the television productions, they are speaking in English. How important is this to the overall marketing of the series worldwide? Whiting: First, I have to say it is not a Requirement that every driver speaks English. But the rules are written in English, and French as well, but from a regulatory perspective English prevails. So English really is the language of Formula 1. Now, not surprisingly, when Fernando Alonso used to talk to his mechanic at Ferrari, he sometimes spoke Italian… probably to confuse as many people as he can, because everyone always tries to eavesdrop (laughter). PRI: Let’s start winding down now with a question specifically about Ferrari. From day one in F1, Ferrari has always been the standard of excellence in Formula 1, and many teams compete with the creed of beating Ferrari. Are your feelings similar? Whiting: There is no doubt about your statement. From the very beginning, Enzo Ferrari cared most about winning in Formula 1. Ferrari existed to race, and the sale of cars on the side just happened to come about through evolution. Today, when you look at a Ferrari Formula 1 car close up, or actually any of the cars on the grid, it is amazing just how complicated they are. It’s unbelievable. Even I, who live and breathe this every single day, still can’t comprehend just how complex they are. PRI: The safety aspect of Formula 1 is also just as amazing as the cars. I’ve seen accidents where I feared the worst, but the drivers were OK. Whiting: Safety is a continually developing situation, and you have to be pleased at its progress. Now, with that said, there will never be a Formula 1 race with no risk attached, because that’s what motor racing is and you can’t eliminate it completely. And risk is a part of what the fans want to see. Our job here on the safety side is to make it look dangerous without it being as dangerous as it once was. PRI: And what are you most proud of in your career from both sides of the fence? Whiting: When I came into Formula 1 as a mechanic with the Hesketh team in 1977, my ambition in life was to be a chief mechanic for an F1 World Champion. I was in awe of chaps like Max Rutherford, Jackie’s (Stewart) chief mechanic. And in time I did achieve World Champion chief mechanic status—twice—in 1981 and 1983 with Nelson Piquet. As for the business of FIA and today, it’s hard to single out any one thing, but I feel the way in which I am able to work with the teams from a technical side is quite an achievement in itself. Not wishing for you to think I am big headed about this, I’ve chaired meetings for 25 years now and you establish relationships with the teams. As I said yesterday at the luncheon, there is a huge willingness on the part of the teams to embrace new safety measures, as we very seldom ever get any flack back at us. We need to always push safety forward. PRI: And finally, after a race, what do you consider a satisfying race? Whiting: If no one comes to talk to me about anything, be it controversial or safety or whatever, well then I’ve done my job. PRI: Thanks much, Charlie, and I look forward to seeing you again, hopefully at an F1 race here in the States or next year’s PRI Show. Whiting: Thank you very much, Greg, as I hope this “backstage tour” of Formula 1 racing is as much fun to read as it was to speak with you about. Continued success to you and PRI.
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