MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Formula One race director Charlie Whiting, a popular and key figure in the sport, has died three days before the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) said in a statement on Thursday (March 14). He was 66.
The Briton, who started his career working for the Hesketh team in 1977, died in Melbourne of a pulmonary embolism, it said.
"It is with immense sadness that I learnt of Charlie's sudden passing," said Jean Todt, president of the FIA. "He has been a great race director, a central and inimitable figure in Formula One who embodied the ethics and spirit of this fantastic sport. Formula One has lost a faithful friend and a charismatic ambassador in Charlie."
It is not immediately clear who will replace him.
Whiting, who worked for Brabham with the sport's former commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone in the 1980s, joined the FIA in 1988. He had been race director since 1997.
As FIA director, he was a driving force in pushing improved safety and played a key role in the introduction of the halo, the ring-like barrier fitted over the drivers' heads to protect them from heavy impacts and missiles. The halo was credited with saving driver Charles Leclerc, now at Ferrari, from a potentially serious injury at last year's Belgian Grand Prix, when Fernando Alonso's McLaren bashed against his Sauber's bodywork as it flew over the Monegasque's head.
The news of Whiting's death was met with shock in the Formula One paddock, where the Briton was close to drivers, with whom he conducted pre-race briefings, and teams who sought technical guidance and clarifications.
Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said on Twitter: "Very sad and surreal news ahead (of) the Australian GP. Can't believe it... He's done so much for the sport we love."
Ross Brawn, F1's managing director, said he was "devastated" to lose a friend and colleague.
"I have known Charlie for all of my racing life. We worked as mechanics together, became friends and spent so much time together at race tracks across the world," the former championship-winning boss of Brawn GP said in a statement. "I was filled with immense sadness when I heard the tragic news."
Former champions McLaren said they were "shocked and deeply saddened". "Charlie will be remembered as one of the giants of our sport, as well as a great colleague. Our deepest sympathies and thoughts are with all of his loved ones," the team said on Twitter.
In a statement, Red Bull Racing said that "Formula One has lost one of its most loyal and hard-working ambassadors, and the paddock will be a poorer place without him. Charlie's contributions to F1 go beyond measure and his loss leaves a huge void in our sport".
Their team principal Christian Horner 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. He was a man with great integrity who performed a difficult role in a balanced way."
Colin Syn, deputy chairman of Singapore GP, organiser of the Singapore Grand Prix, also paid tribute to the late Briton, telling The Straits Times in a statement: "Charlie was instrumental in the success of the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix from the very beginning.
"He truly understood the importance and challenges of night racing and was incredibly supportive in getting the event off the ground.
"Charlie's immense knowledge of the sport, integrity and dedication to his work is irreplaceable and he will be dearly missed.
"Our thoughts are with Charlie's family and friends during this difficult time."