The death of “irreplaceable” Charlie Whiting has cast a shadow over the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Whiting, who carried out a wide range of duties as the FIA Formula One race director, died on Thursday from a pulmonary embolism in the southern Australian city where he was due to work this weekend.
News of the Briton’s death filtered through the paddock at Albert Park on the eve of Friday’s first practice session, with seminal figures from motorsport among those paying tribute.
Christian Horner, team principal at Red Bull Racing, said Whiting was a man with “great integrity” and “performed a difficult role in a balanced way”.
He added: “Charlie has played a key role in this sport and has been the referee and voice of reason as race director for many years.
We are shocked and saddened to hear of Charlie Whiting’s passing and our deepest condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues. pic.twitter.com/gRDunCfb72— Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) 14 March 2019
“At heart, he was a racer with his origins stretching back to his time at Hesketh and the early days of Brabham.
“Charlie was a great man who will be sadly missed by the entire Formula 1 paddock and the wider motorsport community.”
Former world champion Mario Andretti said Whiting was “very possibly irreplaceable”.
He tweeted: “Totally shocking news of Charlie Whiting’s passing. Charlie was a true Giant in our sport and very possibly irreplaceable. Sincere condolences to his family and everyone who appreciated this man. RIPmyfriend.”
Several Formula One teams also paid tribute to Whiting after news of his death broke. Renault described him as “one of the pillars and leaders of the sport”.
“His drive to ensure exciting, safe and fair racing was unparalleled and his passion will be sorely missed,” Renault added.
McLaren driver Carlos Sainz added: “I always enjoyed a racing discussion with one of the most outstanding professionals in our sport. He will be very missed.”
Very sad and surreal news ahead the Australian GP. Can’t believe it..— Valtteri Bottas (@ValtteriBottas) 14 March 2019
My thoughts are with the family and friends.
He’s done so much for the sport we love.
Rest in peace Charlie#VB77 https://t.co/7N3GqTz8ec
Valtteri Bottas, teammate of Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes, tweeted: “Very sad and surreal news ahead the Australian GP. Can’t believe it.. My thoughts are with the family and friends. He’s done so much for the sport we love. Rest in peace Charlie.”
British racing driver George Russell, who competes for Williams, said he was “deeply saddened” by the news.
He tweeted: “Such a huge figure in the world of motorsport. All of my thoughts are with his family and his many friends right now. We’ll all miss him very much.”
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc said: “Horrible news from Melbourne. All my thoughts goes to Charlie’s family. The motorsport world will miss you. R.I.P.”
Changes tend to happen slowly in Formula One’s modern era, but one thing for certain is that Lewis Hamilton should clinch a sixth world title this season.
The Briton is operating in a class of his own at the top of the championship in recent years, as proven by his stunning 2018 campaign, when he won 11 times.
It can be argued that Sebastian Vettel’s errors effectively gifted him his the last two crowns, but then another side of it is, pressure was on both drivers, and Hamilton just purred with dominance, whereas Vettel buckled under the intensity of it.
It may not be until he retires that the Formula One public fully appreciate Hamilton as a driver. He’s different. He keeps to himself, rarely mixes with other competitors, has different interests, and enjoys the limelight more than any other person on the grid.
Whether that’s what people like about him or not, it doesn’t take away from his searing abilities on the track.
At 34, he has already cemented his status as one of the all-time greats after landing a fifth world championship in October – becoming just the third driver in history to do so – and should remain at the pinnacle of the sport until he chooses to retire.
He looked like a Gulliver in a field of Lilliputians at races in Germany, Hungary, Italy and Singapore last season – sometimes capitalising on Vettel’s mistakes and generally just driving the maximum out of a sizzling Mercedes car.
In the final drivers standings in 2018, the Stevenage native finished a staggering 161 points ahead of his teammate Valtteri Bottas. Another key point to underline how strong of a campaign he had, especially when his teammate drives the same machine.
The Finn will play second fiddle to Hamilton yet again, but will be expected to improve on his disappointing 2018 season or risk losing his seat at the end of 2019.
A new season beckons this weekend in Melbourne. In 2018, Vettel took advantage of the virtual safety car to beat Hamilton in the opening race.
And with Ferrari backing up its early season promise in pre-season testing, it is set up to be a thrilling season opener.
It is certain we will see signs of that Scuderia pace early on, but whether the Italian marque can carry it through the entire season remains to be seen. With Vettel determined to atone for last season’s errors and Charles Leclerc eager to prove his vast talents, the foundations are built for a fantastic championship battle.
Hamilton is at the peak of his powers and knows he is inching towards further history, but Vettel will be relishing the prospect of a more consistent title challenge in what looks like a pacy and well-balanced SF90 machine.
But the car can only count for so much, and this is where the confidence and composure to deal with pressure situations comes into the mix. It’s a long, gruelling season of 21 races, and like 2017 and 2018, the championship pendulum will swing in different directions for various spells of the year.
The second half of the season tends to suit Hamilton better, so Vettel needs to build up a commanding lead early on or try match him in races where he has previously been unsuccessful. On tracks like Russia, Austria and France, the German is yet to win.
It will be a season that captures our attention and imagination for many months ahead, but Hamilton is that once in a generation driver, and should have enough brilliance to scoop a coveted sixth crown that will see him move within one of the legendary Michael Schumacher’s record.
It all starts in Melbourne this weekend.
Lewis Hamilton is bidding to become the second driver in Formula One history to win six world championships.
The 34-year-old, who last season beat Sebastian Vettel to the title with two rounds to spare, will move to within one of Michael Schumacher’s record if he triumphs again this term.
Here, we look at the key talking points ahead of the new season which gets underway in Australia this weekend.
Contrasting times at Mercedes
Hamilton, who will be partnered by Valtteri Bottas again this year, won 11 times in 2018 and looked a class apart from Vettel for large spells of the season.
Ferrari and Vettel may have enjoyed steady progress in pre-season testing, but Hamilton is still the man to beat, especially with his dominance on circuits like Texas, Suzuka, Montreal, Monza, Silverstone and Hungary.
Bottas, meanwhile, was winless last season and is out of contract at the end of 2019. The Finn could only manage fifth in drivers standings last season – in the fastest car – and if he does not secure some race victories this campaign, then expect him to be replaced by Mercedes development driver Esteban Ocon.
Options will be limited for Bottas if he has to relinquish his seat at the end of the year and could even mean a move back to the slow Williams where he’ll just be another passenger in the championship.
Leclerc versus Vettel
The four-time world champion is fighting for his reputation this season, especially given how he crumbled in the title race last year.
And, in new teammate Charles Leclerc, Ferrari possess the most talented young star on the grid. The Monaco man purred with confidence in his first year in F1 with Sauber and has the chance to really put pressure on Vettel.
The 20-year-old said he wants to challenge for the title, but whether he lives up to that in just his second season in the sport, will be fascinating to watch.
With Mattia Binotto replacing Maurizio Arrivabene as the new Ferrari boss, it will be interesting to see how the Italian manages both drivers. Vettel will inevitably be the number one, but will they let Leclerc challenge for race wins? Will he even be good enough in just his second season? Or will the former Sauber man be forced to play a wingman role so Vettel can challenge Hamilton?
Without a constructors championship win since 2008, the pressure is on both drivers to overturn Mercedes’ dominance.
Can Verstappen finally challenge the big two?
The Dutchman has been touted as a future world championship for three years now.
But talent and ambition can only bring you so far. The 21-year-old needs a quick and reliable car to take him to the next level.
In 2017 and 2018 seasons, he was forced to retire four and two times respectively, due to issues with the Renault engine.
After splitting with the French manufacturer, Red Bull looked to have made significant strides with the new Honda engine during pre-season testing and the overall package appears tasty.
Verstappen wants to race at the front, but if Red Bull cannot provide him with a winning car, then expect him to be angling for a move away when his contract expires in 2020. Surely there will be a vacant Mercedes or Ferrari then with both teams hungry for his signature?
If the Red Bull delivers, he should be in the mix for most races against Hamilton and Vettel.
It won’t be plain sailing for Ricciardo
Daniel Ricciardo emerged as one of the sport’s most likeable figures over the past couple of seasons – but he has looked low on confidence since winning the Monaco Grand Prix in May.
At that point of last season, Mercedes and Ferrari were circling for his signature, but he ended up signing a long-term deal with Renault – a team who have not secured a podium since the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2011.
His move from a championship-contending team like Red Bull to Renault means no guarantee of success, especially with his new teammate Nico Hulkenberg producing some solid performances last season and still unable to threaten a top four finish.
Without a podium since May, it’s highly unlikely Ricciardo will end that drought in the Renault. For all his class, he is stepping into a slower machine, and will definitely be challenged, if not toppled, by Hulkenberg.
The German stormed to 11 top-10s in 2018 and will be licking his lips at the opportunity to tackle a driver with Ricciardo’s reputation. Expect this to be a close battle.
Young guns to shine
Lando Norris (19), George Russell (21) and Alexander Albon (22) will be new names on the grid this season.
Norris will be the youngest British driver in F1 history when the new season kicks off this weekend. The Bristol man, who does not turn 20 until November, joins forces with Carlos Sainz at McLaren in what will be an exciting partnership.
At Williams, Formula 2 champion Russell will link up with Robert Kubica, who returns to the sport after an eight-year absence following his crash at a rally event in Andorra in 2011.
Albon, who was born in London but races under the Thai flag, finished third in the Formula 2 standings last season, behind Norris and Russell, and will partner Daniel Kvyat at Toro Rosso.
Out of the young guns, Norris looks set to make the biggest impact in the McLaren, while Russell, for all his talents, will be hoping to use his opportunity in the Williams to gain experience and put himself in the shop window for an improved switch in the future.