That was an altogether strange weekend in Formula 1.
As ever, walking back into the paddock on a sunny Melbourne day for the start of another glorious season of F1 gave me a warm and comfortable feeling. I was, and remain, very excited about the year ahead.
Meeting up with people I’ve known for up to a third of a century, we most probably hadn’t spoken to each other since the last race 112 days before in Abu Dhabi, but nonetheless that’s how our professional relationships ebb and flow with the seasons.
Then Ross Brawn asked if he could have a quiet word with me on Thursday morning. His message was that Charlie Whiting had died in his sleep overnight. Boom, what a body blow for all of us who have enjoyed and benefitted from his company, laughter, and professionalism over so many decades. And a most significant moment for F1 itself, although not as much pain as for his family, of course.
Charlie was omnipresent at the track, very little got underway without his official say so. He was master of the track and all sporting and technical procedures. ‘Ask Charlie’ was a common phrase for everyone.
He commanded total respect throughout F1, and in every country’s motorsport jurisdiction we landed at in any given season. Whilst not everyone agreed with every decision he made, far from it sometimes, we all knew that he was the calm, consistent control that benefited us all in the end.
Whether it was power brokers like Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley and Jean Todt, or the team bosses, drivers, and media, he was respected and listened to. The young drivers were as cut up as Bernie was in our Sky F1 obituary. I’ve never seen Bernie cry, and never thought I would.
With Herbie Blash, the man who hired him back in the ’70s at Brabham, he formed a bond and a great double act at the FIA and particularly in race control for 21 years. We had many dinners together and Charlie’s laugh was totally infectious. He was a most rewarding man to tell a funny story to, always ready with that laughter.
He was increasingly busy in covering all the bases in his many roles both at races and his relentless travel between events while checking out existing and new race tracks. I often said to him I’d not want his email inbox because every one of the many correspondences, especially the technical questions from teams, must have needed careful thought and investigation before a meaningful reply.
As the full extent of his responsibilities around every event are actually listed, it’s clear that it’s going to be a huge undertaking tom replace him, and it won’t be by one person.
In recent years it was harder to get Charlie out in the evening, even if he had tentatively agreed to meet up, as he would often prefer room service and to address his work.
As always I wish the many wonderful things said about Charlie over the weekend could have been said to him while he was still alive, but that’s the way it works I guess.
In other news, what a wonderful performance from Valtteri Bottas, turning it into a one-horse race. Lewis Hamilton had to pull out every ounce of considerable talent he has to snatch pole position in the Mercedes front-row lock-out, but he had no answer for Bottas’s fast start and race pace.
Valtteri simply looks more rugged and determined, and when I interviewed him in the parc ferme as he took his skid-lid off he looked initially ferocious and then part-bemused as the adrenaline faded away.
He has nothing to lose this year, every time he walks into his garage he can see Esteban Ocon in team gear and headset, waiting to pounce on his seat. ‘To whom it may concern’ and all that, although the season consists of 21 races of course.
His absolute determination to grab the new-for-2019 extra point for fastest lap was very telling about his new-found confidence. He was not simply satisfied to have thrashed his teammate and scoring 25 points along the way.
In fact the new fastest lap single point for both team and driver, providing they finish in the top ten, turned out to be a great success, adding a good element of interest to the final stages. We have to assume it will mostly go to the race winner who clearly had the best pace, or as a consolation prize somewhere down the top ten for a driver who has space behind him on the closing stages to make a pit stop and on fresh tyres and low fuel deliver the fastest race lap. Or a driver holed up behind his teammate making a point.
That will be great until a driver throws away a result by spinning off trying to go fastest. The top teams are not keen on the new rule, worth 21 points over a season, because they can’t write a software programme for it and their drivers will start making decisions for themselves.
It will be interesting to see what other points could be applied around qualifying and the races to generate reward, jeopardy and excitement.
What on earth happened to Ferrari? Both cars finished close together almost a minute behind the flying Finn. No doubt they could have gone a little faster if there had been any point, but then so could Bottas. And they certainly couldn’t live with the Red Bull of Max Verstappen who drove a fine race to third place to fill Hamilton’s mirrors in the closing stages. That Honda engine really has some grunt now.
Out on track the Ferrari looked planted. Watching the on-board footage it looked equally serene if a little on the understeer side with the front sliding. The car looked comfortable but slow, whereas the Mercedes looked edgy but fast. Speaking with Seb Vettel at the airport he was as confused and surprised as the rest of us.
Albert Park is a curious and quirky track, but after looking so good in winter testing, everyone, including all the teams, expected Ferrari to be the pace setters in the early stages of the season. Hopefully somebody has the answer and that they simply went the wrong way on setup for Melbourne.
The new guys in town performed well. Lando Norris was outstanding for McLaren in qualifying, and had he not been held up, along with others, behind Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo running on worn tyres for several laps, he could well have scored points. Alex Albon went well in the Toro Rosso too.
George Russell is doing all he can for Williams. He’s a smart kid who networks the paddock well. And if he can outperform the car and his teammate Robert Kubica he can survive a year in the slowest car with his reputation intact.
Somehow soon F1 and the teams are going to have to wade in and help Williams out of the mire they appear to have navigated themselves into. If they are not already doing so.
The midfield battles were great and that will possibly be the defining feature of this season. Haas seem to be the midfield pacesetters, but that’s going to be a moving feast of car upgrades, driver performances and misfortunes, with some feisty driving.
Bahrain next up, and that’s an altogether different track and challenge.
This article was taken from Sky Sports with permission.