The Last Ride With Charlie Whiting
The F1 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone held this past weekend brings back fond memories of being at the circuit with a truly special person whose simple act of compassion and kindness made a lasting impression.
Silverstone paddock, Formula One weekend, 2017. Via a gross miscalculation on my behalf, I thought that one could walk to the F1 paddock at Silverstone from the quintessentially British Whittlebury Park Hotel. Wrong. What originally was expected to be a 10-15 minute walk, ended up being a 90 minute, 4 mile walk through fields, brush, mud, unpaved trails, and forest around the periphery of the circuit. My two young and impressionable engineering colleagues with whom I was traveling foolishly followed my lead as we wandered into the abyss. Wearing our standard race uniforms, which were not the ideal apparel for a trek of this magnitude, we eventually arrived in the F1 paddock tired, sunburned, sweaty, and feet aching.
Penske Engineers On the Trail to Silverstone
And worse yet, we were late for our meeting with F1 Race Director, Charlie Whiting. When we finally arrived, Charlie graciously accepted our apologies and we commenced our 30 minute catch-up of all things damper related in his corner office above pitlane. To provide a little history, I had reached out to Charlie in 2006 to make an introduction as Penske was the majority supplier in F1. We connected and set-up a meeting at the Heathrow Sofitel to have coffee during a break of an FIA conference on safety that was occurring there. I remember how professional and kind Charlie was and how he took the time during his break to graciously answer all my questions. Since that meeting, every year and without fail, Charlie organized the extremely difficult-to-secure passes to catch up at various grands prix during each season, namely Montreal, Silverstone, and in recent years, Austin, TX. Our meetings were never extremely long but the time was well spent catching up on the “state of the union of dampers” in F1 and we discussed topics from inerters, FRIC (Front-and-Rear Interconnected Suspension), damper design and sizes, and at which circuits dampers were most important. He asked questions about what damper technology was being deployed in IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula e and other series Penske Shocks supported and where we saw damper technology headed. In every meeting, Charlie gave his full attention and treated us as if we were the most important people he had to talk to that day (which assuredly was not the case).
Back to Silverstone……at the end of the day, as we returned our pit passes, Charlie asked us how we were getting back to the Whittlebury. When he detected that we clearly had no definitive plan worked out, he without hesitation offered us a lift. We piled into his silver Mercedes E63 AMG sedan, which was parked adjacent to pit lane, and headed out onto the circuit. It was a vastly shorter commute to leave from the pitlane and exit through an access opening on the circuit then it was to try to navigate the heavy traffic of shuttle busses and fans through the infield. As we headed toward Abbey corner, we spotted a sea of several hundred race fans blocking our path for some sort of fan walk. Charlie was forced to make a U-turn and go the other way around the circuit and he made the comment that driving Silverstone anticlockwise was something he’d never done before. We exited through an access gate and jumped onto the B side roads back to the Whittlebury like a bat out of hell. I know we were hauling the mail when the active seat bolsters tightened at my sides (to Charlie’s defense, I don’t think it’s possible to drive an AMG Mercedes slow). I also remember thinking to myself that it was funny how everyone I’ve ever met who works in racing drives like a maniac. We got back to the hotel, said our goodbyes, and parted ways.
Then, not quite 2 years later on March 14, 2019, the news hit the world that Charlie had tragically passed away in Australia just as the 2019 season was getting underway.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have known Charlie. His technical insight and breadth of knowledge are things that someone in his position naturally accrues over time but his example of how to treat people with kindness, his humility, and that he made you feel as if your time was just as valuable as his are often uncommon traits found in the high-pressure environment of professional motorsport. These are the things I will personally always remember and try to emulate.
So, as this very strange and unprecedented 2020 Silverstone GP double-header has just passed, I wonder what he would have said about this whole mess. Whatever it would have been, I’m sure it would have been followed by a jovial laugh and smile underneath his mask. Yet, I have absolutely no doubt that it still would have been 100% business as usual to keep the drivers safe and get the GP off exactly on schedule. Thank you for your example and for the memories Charlie, especially that last ride from Silverstone.