In a sport where every rule and technical regulation is designed to mitigate the risk of sudden death, the news that longtime formula one race director Charlie Whiting had passed away hit drivers hard.
Whiting, 66, was the man responsible for ensuring the drivers’ safety on track. He would walk the track checking for flaws and pulled them into line when their hyper-competitiveness pushed them towards dangerous territory.
It was a sombre team paddock on Thursday as news filtered through that the Englishman had suffered a pulmonary embolism.
At the drivers’ press conference, all were effusive in their praise of Whiting’s calm and professional influence.
“I’ve known him for a long time and he’s been our man – the drivers’ man,” said Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
In 2016 Vettel was involved in an infamous expletive-laden spray directed towards the race director over team radio. The four-time world champion apologised after the race, and Whiting was quick to forgive him saying “things happen in the heat of the moment”.
Vettel had walked the Melbourne track with Whiting on Wednesday and summed up the mood of the drivers who felt like they had lost an ally and friend.
“He was the middle man – someone you could ask anything anytime,” Vettel said.
“At any time, his door was always open. He was a racer. He was just a very nice guy.”
While the loss of Whiting put a dampener on day one at the track, there was also real joy to see Polish driver Robert Kubica back in Melbourne and in formula one after a near-death rallying accident in 2011.
Kubica’s return for Williams is unlikely to result in many Grand Prix podiums, but he garnered plenty of laughs when noting that he had been more focused on work than holidays in the lead-up to the new season.
“I had a bit longer winter break [than the others],” he said to laughs from his peers. “It was quite busy knowing that you will be a race driver, so that makes a big difference.”
Ever the diplomat, Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo took it upon himself to note Kubica’s achievement in returning to formula one after a crash barrier sliced through his right arm.
“I don’t think we all really know the extent of what he went through to get back here, so I just think it is awesome to see him back,” said Ricciardo.
“I’ve known him from when I moved to Europe back in 2007, which feels like a long time, but it is just a testament to his character [to return] and I really think it is awesome.”
Lewis v sharks
As far as near-death experiences go, Lewis Hamilton is apparently convinced he’d rather take his chances on the track than in the surf.
Asked about his activities in the off-season, Hamilton said he’s enjoyed some surfing, but definitely not in Australia.
“I wanted to do it here, but I couldn’t find a netted area to go. I just can’t go where there are sharks,” he said.
“Every Australian I meet, they are like ‘Nah Nah, you’ll be all right … If a shark comes up to you punch it in the face’.”
Hamilton remained unconvinced, however, especially when local boy Ricciardo said: “I’d like to say I’d do the same, but they scare me too”.
Ricciardo v beers
For his part, Ricciardo says he spent his summer riding dirt bikes and drinking beer with mates – although the latter appears to be a distant memory, given the weeks of training he’s put in since returning to work with his new Renault team.
“Snapping the neck off a couple of beers, snapping the neck off [is that right]? Knock the top off, I dunno, it makes more sense when you’re drinking when you say these things,” he laughed.
“But yeah, just literally switching off after last year, that was important for me to wind down.
“What was really nice as well was I didn’t go to an airport for six weeks and I think that’s the longest [time] in 10 years that I haven’t been on a plane. So that was really pleasant.”