Charlie Whiting talks to the Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel during preparations for Sunday’s Melbourne Grand Prix.
  • Briton dies from pulmonary embolism in Melbourne
  • Tributes flow for ‘guardian of F1’s best interests’

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have led the tributes to Charlie Whiting, the Formula One race director who died suddenly on Thursday, three days before the first grand prix of the season in Australia. Whiting, who had been at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne on Wednesday, died as a result of a pulmonary embolism. He was 66.

Whiting had been the FIA race director since 1997 and was responsible for all activity on track over a race weekend including safety, starting the race and enforcing rules and regulations. He had been a driving force in promoting safety in F1, including the introduction of the halo cockpit protection device last year, which subsequently proved invaluable in preventing Charles Leclerc from being hit by an airborne car at the Belgian Grand Prix.

Well-liked and hugely respected, the paddock was left shocked at the news of his death. “I have known Charlie since I started in 2007,” said Hamilton. “Incredibly shocked to hear the sad news and my thoughts and prayers are with his family. All he did for the sport, his commitment, he really was a pillar, such an iconic figure within the sporting world and he contributed so much to us. May he rest in peace.”

Hamilton also recognised Whiting’s commitment to making F1 safer. “Charlie did so much for this sport and helped push on so many areas for the drivers and their safety,” he posted on Instagram.

Vettel, who has also known Whiting since he began in Formula One in 2007, was with the race director the day before his death. “I spoke to him yesterday and walked the first corners of the track with him,” the Ferrari driver said. “It is difficult to grasp when somebody is just not there any more. I have known him for a long time. He has been our man, the drivers’ man – there’s the regulations and there’s us, and he was the middle man.

“You could ask anything at any time, he was open to anyone; his door was always open. He was a racer, just a very nice guy. I am shocked. All out thoughts, the whole paddock, the whole family of F1, our thoughts are with him and his family.”

Whiting had a long career in motor sport. He started out by preparing rally cars before running a Surtees car with his brother for Divina Galica in the 1976 British F5000 series.

He joined the Hesketh F1 team in 1977 before linking up with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham, where he remained for a decade. He was chief mechanic and later chief engineer when Nelson Piquet won his titles with the team in 1981 and 1983. In 1988 he joined the FIA as technical delegate to Formula One and became director in 1997.

Ross Brawn, F1’s managing director of motorsports, said he was “devastated” at the news of Whiting’s sudden death. “I was filled with immense sadness when I heard the tragic news,” he said. “It is a great loss not only for me personally but also the entire Formula 1 family.”

The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, described Whiting as a “guardian of the sport’s best interests” while the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, said he was “a great man” and “a man of great integrity”. Ferrari’s team principal, Mattia Binotto, said: “He was a tireless and enlightened motorsport expert, he helped make F1 safer and better. He was a pillar of Formula 1”.

The FIA president, Jean Todt, also issued a statement on Thursday: “Charlie Whiting was a great race director, a central and inimitable figure in Formula One who embodied the ethics and spirit of this fantastic sport.”

Michael Masi has been appointed race director, permanent starter and safety delegate for Sunday’s grand prix. The Australian was already a deputy race director to Whiting and had worked with him at several grands prix last season. He had accepted the position of race director for Formula 2 and Formula 3 for this season and is the former race director for the Supercars series, which will hold its 1,000th race at Albert Park this weekend.

It is a major step up for Masi and a huge responsibility. He will be in charge of all track sessions, including deciding if they should be suspended, the use of the safety car and whether racing incidents should be referred to the stewards. He will control the start of the race and all aspects of ensuring that safety standards are met across the meeting.

The Haas team principal, Gunther Steiner, believes the teams will do everything they can to support Masi. “We are here to make it happen for the people that need to step in, because these are big shoes that need to be filled,” he said. “In the end we’ll find a solution, there will be meetings to make sure nothing goes through the cracks. What we will be doing is supporting whatever the FIA puts in place for this weekend. Whatever solution they come up with we will support it and try to make the best out of it. For this weekend our aim is: ‘If they need our help, we’re here to help.’”