Poacher turned gamekeeper

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Brabham’s one-time chief mechanic Charlie Whiting on Piquet… and tricks of the trade

Charlie Whiting joined Brabham at the end of 1978, just a few months before Bernie Ecclestone signed Nelson Piquet. As the team’s chief mechanic and right-hand man to designer Gordon Murray, he was responsible for the preparation of the cars Piquet drove to his first two world championships in 1981 and 1983. He remained with Brabham almost to its inglorious end before starting a new career in 1988 as the FIA’s technical enforcer. Having learned everything there was to know about subverting the federation’s traditionally vague rules as a competitor, he was ideally placed as an administrator both to define much stricter vehicle regulations and to thwart the sort of roguish stunts of which he himself had once been the master.

In a chat with Whiting at the Belgian GP in August, I found him curiously unwilling to provide details of his old team’s rumoured chicanery. “All I will say is that we always, um, attempted to make the car as light as possible,” he said. Yes, he conceded, similar schemes were common among all the non-turbo British teams, albeit perhaps not as advanced as Brabham’s. “Back in those days, I think we were better at doing quite a few things, actually,” he added, with a smile.

He was more explicit, though, when asked about the persistent rumours, stoked by Renault following its humiliating defeat in the deciding race of the 1983 championship in South Africa, about the conformity of the fuel BMW had introduced with dazzling results at the season’s end. “I was on a different side of the fence in those days, and the first I ever heard of any impending problem was the day before the FIA prize-giving.

“I had been with Nelson, testing at Ricard. We flew up to Paris in his plane for the prize-giving. At Ricard, Gordon [Murray] had been talking about this fuel thing and how we were going to defend ourselves, but I really didn’t know anything about it. I remember waiting at the airport while Nelson went to the prize-giving, and when he came back he told me the story of how [FIA president] Jean-Marie Balestre had demanded to know why he wasn’t wearing a suit for the big occasion. And Nelson had said, ‘Well, I didn’t know I was world champion until three hours ago!’ It had gone on that late.

“Obviously there had been a problem with the fuel. Quite how we got out of it, quite what were the reasons for the doubt, I don’t know. Yes, there were some interesting ingredients in it, and toluene has been mentioned. But it would have had far more exciting things in it, I think, than toluene. I suspect – well, I know – that it was something the BMW engineers had dug out of the cupboard from the Second World War. Almost literally rocket fuel, but quite what the constituents were, I don’t know.”

When I asked Charlie to nominate Nelson’s best races at Brabham, he instantly offered two. “His debut victory at Long Beach ’80, because he was so bloody good there: he was a second quicker than anyone else in practice, and untouchable in the race. It was brilliant. Then I particularly enjoyed Argentina ’81, because we had that completely legal up-and-down suspension there and it worked for
the whole race.”

Recalling these and other races involving Nelson clearly gave Charlie great pleasure. He confirmed the Brazilian’s assertion that Riccardo Patrese tended to be tough on the machinery and revealed that Nelson’s uncanny mechanical intuition had been essential at the contentious Kyalami race in 1983, when easing off and accepting third place had given him just enough points to overtake Prost’s total and secure his second title. “It’s always nice to be dominant like that, but subsequent inspection of the BMW engine revealed that it was on its last legs. If he hadn’t taken things so easy later on, he might not have made it.”

Whiting accepts that Piquet’s glitter faded somewhat during the Lotus years in 1988 and 1989. But he points out that he shone again with Benetton, when he won three more GPs as he approached his 40s. “When you look at his record – three times champion – it’s not to be sneezed at. And he was an amazing driver, always trying. You never got the impression that he had a bad day: whenever he went out, whatever time he set, our feeling was that it was the most the car could do.”