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The FIA race director, Charlie Whiting, has died as a result of a pulmonary embolism three days before the first race of the new Formula One season. He was 66.
Whiting had been race director since 1997, and was responsible for all activity on track over a race weekend, including safety, starting the race and enforcing rules and regulations.

Ross Brawn, F1’s managing director of motorsports, said he was “devastated” by the news of Whiting’s sudden death in Melbourne on the eve of the Australian Grand Prix weekend.

“I have known Charlie for all of my racing life,” Brawn said. “We worked as mechanics together, became friends and spent so much time together at race tracks across the world.

“I was filled with immense sadness when I heard the tragic news. I’m devastated. It is a great loss not only for me personally but also the entire Formula 1 family, the FIA and motorsport as a whole. All our thoughts go out to his family.”

Whiting had a long career in motor sport. He started out by preparing rally cars before running a Surtees car with his brother for Divina Galicain the 1976 British F5000 series.

He joined the Hesketh F1 team in 1977 before joining Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham, where he remained for a decade and was chief mechanic and later chief engineer when Nelson Piquet won his titles with the team in 1981 and 1983.

In 1988 he joined the FIA as technical delegate to Formula One and became director in 1997.

Across the paddock, F1 paid tribute to Whiting, who was an integral figure in the sport for so long. The Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, described him as a “guardian of the sport’s best interests” while Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said he was “a great man” and “a man of great integrity”.

“I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of Charlie’s passing this morning,” Wolff said. “He was a pillar of our Formula One family – balanced in his approach, subtle in his understanding and always with the interests of Formula One as his main focus.

“He was a fantastic ambassador for our sport and a true guardian of its best interests; all of us who were lucky enough to know him will miss his ready smile and gentle humour. On behalf of the entire Mercedes motorsport family, I send our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.”

Horner said he was “deeply saddened” to hear the news. “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 said. “He was a man with great integrity who performed a difficult role in a balanced way.

“At heart, he was a racer with his origins stretching back to his time at Hesketh and the early days of Brabham. On behalf of everyone at Aston Martin Red Bull Racing we pass on our sincere condolences to his family and friends. Charlie was a great man who will be sadly missed by the entire Formula One paddock and the wider motorsport community.”

The FIA president, Jean Todt, issued a statement on Thursday: “It is with immense sadness that I learned of Charlie’s passing. Charlie Whiting was 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. All my thoughts, those of the FIA and entire motor sport community go out to his family, friends, and all Formula One lovers.”