Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash are Formula 1’s top poachers-turned-gamekeepers, both roles which they have occupied under the leadership of Bernie Ecclestone.
Today, Whiting and Blash – the FIA’s Race Director and Deputy Race Director – will be working together for the last time at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, after Blash announced his retirement after more than 50 years in the sport.
The dynamic duo have ensured that every Grand Prix weekend runs like clockwork, while also ensuring that any missteps by teams and drivers are appropriately investigated.
Many years before, the shoe was very much on the other foot. Working for Ecclestone when he owned the Brabham team, their roles were to identify any advantage that could be gained through creative interpretations of the sport’s rules and regulations. How times have changed.
Blash served as the mechanic to Jochen Rindt at Lotus when Ecclestone was the Austrian driver’s manager. When Ecclestone acquired the Brabham team in 1972, Herbie joined the team’s ranks and became its team manager six years later.
One of Blash’s signings was a mechanic from the former Hesketh team, a man named Charlie Whiting. He too quickly moved up through Brabham’s ranks, becoming the team’s chief engineer.
With acclaimed designer Gordon Murray at the top of the outfit’s technical arm, Brabham was a team known for innovation and ingenuity. The team won the 1981 and 1983 World Championships with Nelson Piquet at the wheel, but the alliance began to break up in the mid-1980s as Ecclestone became increasingly involved in the broader running of the sport.
After the disastrous ‘low-line’ BT55 of 1986, Murray left the team and Ecclestone decided to sell up the team a year later. Whiting was seconded to FISA (the precursor of the FIA), while Blash stayed on under the team’s new ownership but could do little to stop its eventual slide into shutdown.
A few week’s before the pair’s final stint in Race Control, Wojtek Paprota sat down to recount their career highlights and thoughts on the evolution of Formula 1 in an exclusive interview.
Charlie, you started your adventure in motorsport in the British Formula 5000 scene, when you were working with Divina Galica. What was your plan for your career at that time, in the 1970s?
Charlie: My ambition at that time was to be chief mechanic to the world champion. That was what I wanted to do. That was my ambition for life, my goal. I set that goal to myself probably in the early 70’s. I wanted to be in Formula 1 and I wanted to be a chief mechanic and I wanted to work for a world champion. That was my ambition.
Herbie, you started with Rob Walker’s privateer Lotus team as a teenager, also as a mechanic. What was your plan?
Herbie: My goal was actually to become a father. Literally I just fell in Walker’s office and took a summer job; it turned out to be a full-time job. Then I went to work with Lotus, rebuilding the Rob Walker car and it was a fantastic opportunity to work with Lotus when I was 20 years old. I just fell into it and motor racing became my whole life.
What are your recollections of meeting each other for the first time?
Charlie: It was in 1978, when I was out of a job. I didn’t have the job because Hesketh went out of business. David Sims, who was the team manager of Hesketh, was going to the US to do something when the team shut down. He called Herbie, as they were friends from Lotus days, and suggested me to have a quick chat with him, so I did. The rest is history.
Herbie: Charlie was a young, enthusiastic lad, but you could see immediately that he had some very special talents and he went all the way up throughout the Brabham and the FIA later on. I could see the potential in Charlie very early on.
Charlie: It was an instant baptism when I joined the team. I started my work on the Monday and I think by Wednesday Herbie said: “You have to go to Austria to test and you have to drive the van with he trailer?” Me and another guy set out alone with the van, a Mercedes van, and we took the Brabham BT46 to Zelwteg and tested it. I hadn’t expected that in my first days on the job.
Dealing with Mr E…
In 1988 you became the FIA’s technical delegate to Formula 1, which was already being partly run by Bernie Ecclestone, as he sold Brabham by the end of 1987. How do you see how he has changed his leadership style over the last thirty years?
Charlie: He’s made things far more professional. Although we thought that everything was very professionally run back in the 1980s, but today everything is so much more precise, as there is also much more money involved. I think the precision with which everything is done these days is quite an amazing thing. It is from the F1 teams all the way down; everybody is much much more professional, far more organized and far more precise with everything they do these days.
Herbie: Bernie is a lot calmer than he used to be [at Brabham]. He really was a guy who was shouting and screaming all day, everyday. He has always had an eye for details and if things were not 100% correct, he would give you a very hard rebuke. Now, as he got older, he’s mellowed a lot, but he is still a very good businessman.
Charlie: He was famous in the Brabham factory as his office was a part of the Brabham factory and if he couldn’t find Herbie, you could hear it, even in the workshop. All you hear is: “HEEEEEEERBIEEEEE!!!”
Herbie: Yes, I always asked if we could have a tunnel instead of him coming in and screaming “HEEEEEEERBIIEEEEEE!!!”
Charlie: And the corridors in the factory were getting narrower [which exacerbated the screaming] because Bernie used to paint them every weekend. He didn’t clean them so they needed to be painted again!
In the Race Directors’ seats
Looking at your roles in the FIA Race Directorship team, what is the most difficult part of your job right now?
Charlie: Trying to keep all the teams and drivers happy.
Herbie: There is not anything that is ultra-difficult. What I can say is maybe the highest pressure comes during the start of the race, for the first couple of laps, when Charlie in the starting box and I am in Race Control. Obviously we are in contact by radio and I am the eyes of Charlie in race control. So if we have to make a decision, it is my decision on my own. Of course we communicate together and make decisions together when Charlie is not in race control. That is maybe the hardest part.
What was the hardest the decision that you have ever made in Formula 1 as an FIA delegate?
Herbie: The hardest would have to be, when we unfortunately have fatal accidents, which obviously we had two marshals die [at the 2000 Italian and 2001 Australian Grands Prix] and knowing the situation and making sure that race continues, that is the hardest one. Then, obviously, again in discussion with Charlie, is how to manage bad weather conditions. Is it too wet? Should we suspend the race? Should we continue? Situations like Canada in 2011, where the race was running for 4 hours. Those are the hard decisions.
Charlie: I agree entirely. The most difficult decisions to make are normally concerned with weather. The rest is relatively straightforward: when you have a big accident you need to use the Safety Car and you always need to stop the practice sessions. That is relatively easy. Once the decision is made, there are systems in place that make sure that right people are dispatched to the accident and everything works. When weather intervenes, it becomes a real matter of judgement and you have to listen to drivers. Then you have different drivers’ opinions: some say it is too wet to go racing, some say we should be going now. We hear all these conversations and it is very difficult, because, as I say, it is back to keeping everybody happy. But you can’t. That is one of the most difficult things to do, because you will always have some drivers who are prepared to risk a little more that the others and so on. It is very very hard, especially when weather plays a part.
Wojtek: Do you regret any of your decisions?
Charlie: No. I think with the benefit of hindsight there a couple of times you may have started the race traditionally when we did it with the Safety Car a little bit earlier, but again, it is largely a matter of opinion [such as the preceding Brazilian Grand Prix]. Some people think that what we did was right and some people think we could have done it earlier, so it is never perfect for everyone.
Herbie: Yes. Basically the same as Charlie. We are working on the safety side. That is the priority. As Charlie said: maybe we kept the safety car out one or two laps too long, but safety is obviously the priority.
Charlie: It is always batter to go for the side of safety, cause if you don’t and then if there is an accident, you could be more easily criticized for being risky. This is what some people forget and we are here to assure that everyone operates in the safest possible environment.
Dealing with Death
Sadly the sport has lost three drivers in addition to the two marshals you mentioned earlier. How was the atmosphere in the paddock after the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix [where Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed] and after the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix [where Jules Bianchi suffered fatal crash injuries]? Were they similar to each other?
Charlie: I think the atmosphere in the paddock in Imola was dreadful and grave. Everybody had a bad weekend. As you know it was a terrible weekend, with Rubens’ Barrichello’s accident, then Roland’s fatal accident, then start-line accident… It was a terrible weekend. I don’t really want to say what I remember, but it was pretty awful. In Suzuka we knew of course that Jules has been seriously injured. I don’t think that many people knew how serious it was at the time. Generally the atmosphere in the paddock wasn’t good because it had been a difficult weekend with this threatening weather, we had to suspend the race, ran many laps behind the Safety Car and those sort of things. It is never nice to have this sort of weekend happening. However, the atmosphere at Imola was much worse, that is what I felt.
Herbie: Yes. Again, basically I agree with Charlie on everything. The Imola weekend with Ratzenberger, Barrichello, the accident at the start line, because there was spectators who have been injured as well after JJ Letho’s accident, two mechanics who we injured during the pit stop when Michele Alboreto’s wheel came off.
Charlie: The two weekends can’t really be compared. Suzuka was dreadful, it was a bad, bad day. But when you look at the whole weekend at Imola, it was awful. It just couldn’t be any worse, you can’t imagine a weekend even worse than that.
How often do you feel pressure during doing your work?
Charlie: Very rarely. It depends entirely upon what is going on at the track. If you divide it to the part of what happens during the races and what happens outside the races – because there’s an awful lot of stuff that goes on outside races – that often requires a lot of pressure to get things done… Outside of that, there are a lot of meetings, some things where you have strict deadlines to get things done – that’s quite a lot of pressure. Circuit inspections, fitting everything into the time you have available – that’s pressure. But when it comes to the event, it depends entirely on what is going on at the track. We are always under pressure to start everything on time, obviously, but things that people often take for granted take a lot of time to organize and set up. For example, coordinating infrastructure to make sure that the pit exit lights go green exactly at 10 o’clock on Friday is not simple. A lot has to be done, a lot has to be organized and a lot of people need to work in the right direction just to make something simple like that happen.
Herbie: Every race. Whenever I am at the circuit I feel pressure. As Charlie pointed it out: making sure that everything is run on time and you can have all sorts of issues what you don’t see, we see, to make sure that practice sessions and race starts on time. I remember Frank Williams saying to me: ‘Ever since Charlie and you are in Race Control I have never had to look at my watch’. Every time when the lights go green, he knows to the second what time it is. I must say that over all of these years, I can count on my hand the times when things haven’t started on time.
Charlie: I think that we are under continuous pressure to make sure that everything does happen correctly. If there are no incidents at the track, it is relatively straightforward. We need to constantly be top of things and keep on top of hundreds of marshals during each race, very few of whom we know. We need to trust the local senior officials to make sure that everything they are telling us is what is happening at the track. You build up the relationship with them over many years, and that is what gives you the confidence that everything will be fine when it comes to the race. A new venue is much harder of course, because you have new marshals, new officials and it becomes a huge process then. There is quite a big pressure during a new race.
The State of Formula 1
What is Formula 1’s biggest weakness nowadays?
Charlie: In my opinion, it is too expensive, unreachable for new competitors. The chances for a new team being competitive from the outset have become increasingly harder in recent years. It is because the bar is very very high and it is almost impossible to enter. I think that is a danger for Formula 1.
Herbie: Costs. Again – what Charlie said – are the worst area for Formula 1. It is way way too expensive.
How can we change it?
Charlie: You first, Herbie!
Herbie: Obviously if you look at the cars, they are too complicated. The number of personnel that come to a race, each team has 50 people at every Grand Prix! Everything is so high-tech. For me the reliance on technology raises the expenses. If there was a way to reduce the costs or putting in boundaries for the costs, to bring the whole thing down, which would mean simplifying the cars, which means smaller teams. For example: when you look at the hospitality and the money that is just spent there, I just feel that it has to be reduced.
Charlie: Probably I am going to be a little bit controversial here, but I think the only way to do it is to have a cost cap, because I don’t believe that anything else will work. We have tried many times, even very recently with the global power unit agreement [which capped the amount a customer team would pay for power units], but in the grand scheme of things it is not a lot. If you are talking about a team with a $300-million budget, saving $3 million is not that bigger deal, it’s 1%. If you are talking about the 1%, it costs 1% of a top Formula 1 team’s budget to run a two-car GP2 Series team. So should Formula 1 be 100 times more expensive than GP2? I don’t see the value in it. It is a very difficult question. If it was possible, but it is not an easy matter, to do something along those budget lines, Formula 1 will hugely benefit from that. I don’t wish to be too controversial, but as I see it, I have seen many attempts to save money and none of them worked.
Herbie: Around three years ago Charlie and I were on track on Thursday in Barcelona, we came from Race Control and we saw the Red Bull car. I said: “Oh, look, Red Bull Racing has got some new sponsors”. But it wasn’t even a Formula 1 car, it was a GP2 Series car. So I think in some way, as Charlie said, you got a Formula 1 front wing with 20 elements. Does it make any difference? How much does it cost? It is just hundreds of hours of development and thousands of pounds.
Charlie: The evidence is here, now, in front of us. Herbie was talking about the complication of F1 cars – is having the complication of the power units really adding value to the sport? Of course it’s really interesting but it is relatively small comparing with the amounts of efforts that go around. Let’s look at the front wing. Does anybody care whether it has 50 elements or 3 elements? I don’t think that you can even see it at the track, can you? Is it really advancing Formula 1 as a whole? I don’t think so. If there was a limited amount of money that could be spent, then the teams could decide on where they can spend it and what gives them the best value.
And what about the fan engagement? Do you think that it is going well in terms of social media and keeping the audience connected to the sport?
Charlie: I have to be perfectly honest, I know very little about social media. It is not my area of expertise but I think more probably could be done to engage younger fans. Although the races are seen mostly by the TV viewers, it always looks better when there is a big crowd out there. I think that more should be done to improve it. It sounds easy but it is not easy and I am aware of the complexity around it. When you see Silverstone, Montréal or any other places that are always full, I think that television viewers pick up on that. I think if you look at the podium at Monza for example, it is spectacular. Why? Because there are thousands and thousands of people beneath it! If there was just a few hundreds of people it wouldn’t be even nearly spectacular. I think full grandstands look great and create much better image and if there was anything to improve that, I think it would be excellent.
Herbie: I think that fan engagement is not enough. I really believe that the new generation has to be better welcomed in terms of communication than what we are doing at the moment. I am not an expert, unfortunately I am too old for the young generation and ultra-modern media, but something has to be done to pull fans back in. Unfortunately from a broadcasting perspective we don’t have all the races free-to-air. If you want to follow the whole season, you can’t do it unless you have satellite TV. Is that helping Formula 1? I don’t think so. We have a free television network but there is also a big commercial world that we are living in unfortunately so, hence, we have the pay-TV set-up. As for social media? Yes! We need more!
Images via XPB Images. This interview was first published on SwiatWyscigow.pl and has been reproduced with permission.