Revisited: When Charlie Whiting helped force ‘extremely upset’ Max Verstappen into ‘public service’

Henry Valantine
Charlie Whiting and Max Verstappen.

Charlie Whiting, who passed away on March 14 2019, was F1's well-respected 'referee', but was also unafraid to lay the law down when needed.

Former F1 race director Charlie Whiting was well-known as being the sport’s ‘referee’, hard but fair, respected by all who knew him, but get on the wrong side of the rules and he was known to clamp down hard.

Five years to the day since Whiting sadly passed away on the eve of the 2019 Australian Grand Prix aged 66 [March 14], we take a look back at one such moment when Whiting’s intervention went one step further than the standard on-track penalties that are usually dished out.

When Charlie Whiting and FIA stewards dished out ‘public service’ penalty to Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen had been in a handy lead at the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix when he was approached from behind by the lapped Force India of Esteban Ocon, who was trying to unlap himself.

Lapped cars are entitled to get back on the lead lap as part of the rules of racing, but Whiting admitted after the race that Ocon had gone about it in such a way that was “wholly unacceptable”, with the pair colliding at the Senna S.

“It’s happened many times in the past, but of course you expect it to be done safely,” Whiting explained to reporters afterwards.

“More to the point, it should be done cleanly and absolutely without fighting. You shouldn’t be fighting to get past.

“If he’s got the pace then normally one would expect Red Bull to say: ‘Ocon has got the pace, let him through’ or that sort of thing, but it seemed he just went for it.

“It was just a bit unfortunate that he decided to fight for it, which was wholly unacceptable.”

This cost a furious Verstappen victory on the day, which was handed to Lewis Hamilton as a result, while the Red Bull driver dropped to second place.

Ocon was handed a 10-second stop/go penalty, three penalty points on his Super Licence for causing a collision, but it was Verstappen’s confrontation afterwards that landed him in hot water.

He found the Frenchman in the pit lane, shoved him in the chest several times as they had a heated exchange, including pushing him off the side of the FIA’s raised weighbridge where the drivers were being weighed at the time, and stormed off again.

While Ocon received his own punishment for the incident on the track, a report was given by race director Whiting to the FIA stewards and they went further in their condemnation of Verstappen.

Rather than an on-track penalty, the stewards found Verstappen had breached Article 12.1.1 (c) of the FIA’s International Sporting Code – being that he was also punishable for an offence, as instigator or accomplice.

Put another way, while ‘making deliberate physical contact’ with Ocon was not itself covered in the rules for a penalty, Whiting and the stewards felt the Dutchman deserved to be handed two days of “public service” due to his status as a role model within the sport.

The official verdict read: “The Stewards understood from Max Verstappen that he was extremely upset by the incident on track during the race and accepted his explanation that it was not his original intent to strike Ocon, but that he was “triggered” and caused him to lose his temper.

“While sympathetic to Verstappen’s passion, the Stewards determined that it is the obligation of sportsmen at this level to act appropriately and as role models to other drivers at all levels and found that Verstappen failed in this respect.” recommends

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It was an unusual punishment, but just one show of how Whiting and his FIA stewards were able to command and keep the respect of the drivers around them.

In the hours after his death, Verstappen was among the first to pay tribute, saying: “Of course it was a big shock, especially because I spent the day with him in Geneva a few weeks ago and we had a good chat, just about a lot of things.

“When I left I said: ‘See you in Australia for another season of racing’ and of course, when you hear this news, it’s unbelievable.

“Just 66 years old, so I guess we just have to appreciate every day and every morning you wake up, and that you enjoy life and that it’s not only about Formula 1 but about a lot of other things in life – this is just one part of it.”

What made Charlie Whiting so revered among the Formula 1 paddock?

Latterly as race director but first as technical delegate and safety delegate, Whiting became a trusted figure throughout the world of Formula 1 not just for how approachable he was for the drivers, but how key a figure he was in the continuing fight to improve safety in the sport.

He was widely credited for the introduction of innovations such as the HANS [head and neck safety] device seen on the back of F1 drivers’ helmets since the mid-2000s, which massively reduces the chance of head or neck injuries during crashes.

Alongside that, Whiting and his team are credited with the introduction of the Halo, the cockpit protection device which has been seen to be responsible for protecting drivers in huge accidents since they were put on Formula 1 cars, not least Romain Grosjean in his fireball crash in Bahrain in 2020, the Halo also providing protection to Lewis Hamilton when Verstappen’s Red Bull jumped on top of his Mercedes as the title challengers collided at Monza in 2021, and many more examples besides.

The outpouring of tributes from the drivers after news of his death say a lot for his lasting legacy, with those on the grid united in saying they had a supporter as well as a referee in Whiting.

Daniel Ricciardo said: “He was there for us. We gave him a hard time, we would really press him and push him and make him work but he was always really receptive and you always felt like he was on our side.”

Hamilton added: “What 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.”

But as Grand Prix Drivers’ Association director at the time, it was perhaps Sebastian Vettel who summed up the emotions most neatly: “I’ve known him for a long time and he was sort of our man, our drivers’ man.

“Obviously there’s regulations and all that and then there’s us and he was the middle man. He was someone you could ask anything, at any time. He was open to everyone, any time his door was always open.

“He was a racer, he was just a very nice guy… The whole paddock, the whole circus, the whole family of Formula 1, all our thoughts are with him and especially his family in these difficult circumstances.”

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