Podcast F1 Unlocked
FULL TRANSCRIPT: Read every word from FIA-stalwart Herbie Blash's Beyond The Grid interview
Herbie Blash is something of an F1 paddock legend. After cutting his teeth as a young mechanic with Colin Chapman's Lotus team, he spent many years working for Bernie Ecclestone at Brabham, before switching sides and becoming the FIA's Deputy Race Director, helping the late, great Charlie Whiting run the Grands Prix.
Herbie is this week's guest on our Beyond The Grid podcast, and you can read every word from his interview with pod host Tom Clarkson in the transcript below, listen to the episode in the audio player, or head here to catch it on your preferred platform.
Tom Clarkson: Herbie, what a career. You've spent more than 50 years in and around Formula 1. Do you love it as much today as you did back in 1968 when you joined Lotus for the first time?
Herbie Blash: Yes, I do. Although I'm not going to all of the races, I follow every practice session, every qualifying, read about it every day. But the old days were a lot more fun. The politics never existed as such. The teams were very small. Everybody knew everybody and it really was a family.
Going back to the ‘70’s, for example, the whole team, the whole of Formula 1, including the drivers, we'd all be on the same aeroplane. So it was very small. When you look today, maybe two teams is the equivalent to what the whole of the Formula 1 paddock used to be back in its day.
TC: It has grown exponentially. What is it about F1, though, that has kept you intrigued all of that time?
HB: It's just pure passion. When I look back and think ‘why did I have an interest in racing?’ I remember when I was in my primary school at the age of eight, and we used to have these films once a term and they were the old Shell films, which showed Tazio Nuvolari etc. I used to get so excited and then I started to read about it, and that's where my passion started.
TC: What excited you? Was it that you wanted to be a driver? Was it the technical side of it?
HB: No, obviously I wanted to be a driver. I also remember there was a little go-kart manufacturing company that was based in Leatherhead. I used to go there and stand looking over the fence with my mouth wide open, just hoping that one day I could actually sit in a kart and I had that opportunity, I think when I was about ten years old. I wanted to be a driver, but unfortunately never had the finances. To be honest, I know I would not have been good enough. I did try, but not successfully.
TC: Can you remember the first F1 race you saw?
HB: Yeah, it was the first race that I went to and that was down at Goodwood. That was with Rob Walker. We had Jo Bonnier and Jo Siffert. We had a Brabham Climax and a Brabham BRM. Of course, I was just a boy, I was just the gofer carrying the fuel, washing the wheels, etc. That would have been ‘64 or ‘65. I remember Jim Clark had just won Indianapolis. That was it. After that, there was no stopping me. Obviously, I wasn't at Lotus at the time that Jimmy was driving, but I do remember going with Rob Walker to some races, especially the British ones, and seeing Jim Clark and the Lotus Cortina, for example, and for me, he's still my hero.
The fact that he drove so many different Formulas, which meant using different tyres, different set-ups. You look at Formula 1, Formula 2, saloon cars, sports cars, NASCAR, the guy was a winner in everything. For me, as a youth, going to Lotus and when I first went to Lotus, people were still talking about Jim Clark. Everything was still Jim Clark. Lotus was like a dream come true for me.
TC: What state was Lotus in, though? You joined in ‘68 after Jimmy's death. When a driver died in those days, how much did it shake a team to its core?
HB: To be honest, I can't really give you a true feeling about that. I can talk about my own episodes later on, where I've been involved in a fatal accident. Obviously, there were a couple of people that were actually very close to Jimmy, and that affected them very badly. Obviously, the mechanic Dave Sims, it took him a good year to start getting over that, but for everybody else, it was just carry on working.
TC: It was just different times, wasn't it, really? And what about Colin Chapman? He was the man that almost repositioned the UK at the forefront of motor racing at the time. Before the start of the World Championship in 1950, Grand Prix racing was all about Italy versus Germany and England wasn't really anywhere then. Then suddenly Lotus come in with Chapman and we start winning everything. What was so impressive about him?
HB: First of all, he was a genius. Secondly, he always had good people around him. At the time when I was at Lotus, Maurice Philippe was there and between Maurice Philippe and Colin, that was one of these dream teams. But Colin, obviously he's well known for the fact that he wanted everything to be as light as possible. He would work late into the night; always thinking ‘how can we make it go faster? What can we do here? What can we do there?’
While I was at Lotus, in the course of two years, Chapman was heavily involved with the Lotus 49B, we had the four-wheel drive, we had the turbine and we had the Lotus 72, and all of that was within two years. Colin was on all those projects. Everything was done within this one workshop. I remember when I left Rob Walker's, Tony Cleverley, the chief mechanic there, said to me ‘you're going to enjoy the all-nighters.’ I started on Monday morning and I didn't get back to the flat that I was in until Wednesday morning. Welcome to Lotus!
TC: And that's back at the factory. What was life like at a racetrack?
HB: Well, first of all, with Colin, you were always modifying the car. We would be normally be the last to arrive at the racetrack because we'd just been working all night back in the factory. Our transporter had two bunks and three seats. The whole team, which was five of us, you would drive through the night literally sleeping, get out of the bunk, and swap over the driving positions. You arrive at the track and in those days, this was pre Bernie, you would sometimes have practice at nine o’clock in the morning and then it could be six in the evening.
You never worked at the circuit. You used to load the cars up, take them off to a garage, and then work on them away from the track. There was no such things as canopies or pits that you could work in. I never forget in Monte Carlo, after the wings were banned, we were working very close to Nice and unloaded the cars. We were going to see if we could get something to eat. Colin Chapman came straight in and said ‘right, okay, first of all, we're going to have to do some manufacturing of some engine covers.’ And he started drawing them. We never got anywhere near a restaurant and we worked all night.
Then literally it was straight to the circuit the next morning and Colin and Graham Hill, they would both sit down, they would list 1 to 20 and they would come up with 20 jobs, both of them. That was one of the early days when I met Bernie and he saw us working in this garage. He took Colin Chapman away for dinner. What a relief. Bernie knew what he was doing, he was helping the mechanics have a slightly better life, but it was just non-stop work.
TC: That is extraordinary when you think of today, particularly with the curfew that we have just to help the mechanics, it's different times…
HB: Well, I was partially responsible for bringing that in, along with Charlie. The only mistake that Charlie and myself made was that we ended up being first at the circuit while all the teams were still waiting outside, not allowed in. Then by the time we would leave Race Control, the paddock would be completely empty. So the curfew worked, but not for Charlie and myself.
TC: Now you mentioned Graham Hill. You have the extraordinary record of having worked with both Graham and his son Damon, both World Champions, of course. Who was the more naturally talented driver, Graham or Damon?
HB: Two drivers in two different eras. Obviously, when Graham was driving, the cars were very, very simple. You would obviously be adjusting the suspension, etc etc. Whereas, by the time Damon was driving the car, there wasn't as much basic adjustments that you would do on a car.
I would say maybe Graham was a more natural driver. He was driving in different disciplines. He was driving Formula 2, he was driving in IndyCar, for example. But saying that, Damon did have tremendous ability. You don't become a World Champion without it. Different drivers, different times. Both of them, I take my hat off to.
TC: When Patrick Head came on this show, he said that perhaps Damon's greatest achievement when he was at Williams wasn't the ‘96 Championship. It was the way he picked up the team after Ayrton was killed in 1994 and just carried them through the rest of that season.
HB: Yeah Damon was obviously very, very strong mentally. I know in his World Championship time, though, the pressure was getting to him. I remember George Harrison helping him learn how to meditate and how to calm things down. Then he came back and won the Championship. The very sad thing was, of course, that he left Williams.
TC: But left Williams and came to work with you, Herbie, because you had so many shirts on in those days. You were working for the FIA and also running Yamaha's Formula 1 programme and in 1997, Damon drove the Arrows Yamaha. He came so close to winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in ’97. He was leading until a technical problem slowed him and he finished second. Can you describe your disappointment as he crossed the line in second place?
HB: First of all, in those days, that year and the year before, I used to turn up originally with my Yamaha clothing on and I'd go through with my Yamaha team. We would go through what we were going to go through and that year, of course, it was the Arrows Yamaha team with Tom Walkinshaw. I would then change into my FIA clothing and go to Race Control. I'd be in Race Control for first track inspections, first practice session, and then I would whip down very quickly to see my Yamaha people to see how the first session went. Then I would whip back into Race Control.
All of the teams knew that I was with a team and with the FIA, and not one complained. I never gave anybody the opportunity to say that ‘he's doing this or doing that.’ Bernie and Max [Mosley], at one time, wanted me to be the starter as well. I would have been the starter and had my own team running. So Charlie then took that role of starter.
Going back to Hungary, I was in Race Control and I was obviously getting quite excited, but I couldn't show my emotions because I was wearing FIA and I was in Race Control, obviously running the race. About three laps from the end, one of my guys came on the radio: ‘Oh, congratulations. Oh, fantastic.’ And then bang! It was so sad because the Yamaha programme, it wasn't a hugely successful programme. Unfortunately, it was a very underfinanced programme.
But when you look at the might of Toyota and you see the effort that they put in, they never won a race. We came within one lap of winning, which would have been an incredible story, and that unfortunately was also the last season for Yamaha in Formula 1.
TC: Let's just briefly go back to the Lotus days, because it was there that you were working with Jochen Rindt, a brilliant driver. What are your memories of Jochen?
HB: Well, the first time that Jochen came into my view was in Formula 2, where he was just a star, and then meeting him when he first arrived at Lotus, he was a very laid-back guy, a very funny guy. For some reason, I got on extremely well with him. Maybe because I used to have to light a cigarette for him after the practice sessions and the race. He was an incredible driver. If you're talking about natural ability, he had it. Technically, he wasn't anything special. Jochen was a very nice guy, I got on very well with him. He gave it 100%.
TC: I guess this was the period where you first came into proper contact with Bernie Ecclestone, because he was managing Jochen, wasn't he?
HB: Correct. The first meeting with Bernie was when he took Colin Chapman and Graham Hill away from Monte Carlo. But I think it was 1969, it was Brands Hatch for the British Grand Prix, and we won that Grand Prix. There was a little bit of an issue with the height of the rear wing. I remember Bernie getting heavily involved there. ‘Well, you're measuring on this stone. You're not measuring on that stone.’ It was the first time that I started to kind of understand bending the regulations, because my job was actually to kneel on the wing endstays to reduce the height of the rear wing.
Later on in my motor racing career, I think you know that with Brabham, we used to take things to the limit and over. We would sit down in the early days and we'd look at the regulations and looking what we can do here to take the regulations to the limit, maybe a little bit over, and just hope that you don't get caught.
TC: When you got to know Bernie in the Jochen Rindt era, did you have any inkling that he wanted to be a team owner at that point?
HB: Well, first of all, you've got to remember that he was a team owner because he owned the Jochen Rindt Formula 2 team. Bernie had his own team with the Vanwall team. Bernie actually did try to qualify a Formula 1 car in Monte Carlo. So he was a team owner. After Jochen was killed, the communication between myself and Bernie was very limited. Then out of the blue, he informed me that he was going to buy a team. Let's put it this way, it didn't surprise me. It didn't surprise me at all.
TC: It seems that when Jochen was killed, Bernie just wanted some space from Formula 1. When Jochen was killed, did you want space from Formula 1? Did you think of quitting Formula 1 because of that?
HB: I did, because I had seen other fatal accidents in Formula 1, with people that I knew. I never forget at Hockenheim having breakfast and then the next day they weren’t there for breakfast. But when it came to Jochen, that did hit me very hard because unfortunately, I was the boy of the team. I was just 21 and I had to help Bernie clear everything up. Then I had to take Jochen's car back to his home in Switzerland, loaded with his bits and pieces in from the hotel room. I was on my own because Colin got the team to move out of Italy immediately, because obviously he had been through that situation with Jim Clark and [Wolfgang] Von Trips.
And as we know from Senna, they impound the car and basically you might never get that car back. You're not even allowed to go and inspect it to see what might have actually caused the accident. So Colin moved the team out and left myself and the one guy that I was working with, Bernie. That was really the start of a close relationship.
TC: So you drive Jochen's road car back to his home in Switzerland, and is that the time that you were questioning your future?
HB: No, because obviously I was still in shock. I just remember arriving at the gates and driving down. There was Nina standing on the balcony waving. I'll never forget going through my mind, she must be thinking this is Jochen arriving back home, because of the way she was waving. Then when she opened the door, Piers Courage’s wife was there. Of course, Piers had been killed four or five weeks earlier. I'm now sitting down having a cup of tea. Both ladies are crying. Then from the top of the stairs, Jochen's daughter, Natasha, is at the top of the stairs shouting ‘Papa, Papa, Papa.’
I'm 21 years old, I've been working with a driver that's just been killed, and now I'm with his wife and another lady whose husband had lost his life. When I got back home, that’s when I thought I just don't want to be involved in this anymore. It was a very tough time and when I look back on it, there was nobody at Lotus that really put an arm around you and helped you. You were very much on your own.
TC: In your experience, how do racing drivers justify the risks associated with the job?
HB: Just changing the subject now, I'm going to go on to motorcycles because I know quite a few motorcyclists and I follow the Isle of Man. Last year, there were six fatal accidents and there's a current rider, Michael Dunlop, whose uncle, father and brother have unfortunately all lost their lives, and he's still racing.
You listen to him and there is no fear. If it happens, it happens. ‘I'm going to die doing something that I love’. Now in Formula 1, fortunately it is a very, very, very safe sport and hopefully we never see another fatal accident.
TC: Now, you worked with Valentino Rossi when he was at Yamaha in MotoGP. He also tested for Ferrari in the 2006 era. I felt it got quite close to him making the switch between bike racing and car racing. Do you think Rossi would have made a good Formula 1 driver?
HB: Yeah, I think he would have. I didn't work that closely with Rossi. I was more on the racing committee for Yamaha in MotoGP, so I was only going to a few races when Rossi was actually riding. But what I saw of Rossi and his technical feedback, his dedication, I think he actually would have succeeded as a Formula 1 driver. As you know, he's now driving a BMW. He just had his first podium.
But it will be very interesting to see when he eventually gets into one of the Le Mans cars, which I believe will be happening in the future, then we’ll see. But yeah I believe that he would have been a welcome addition and I think he would have made himself proud.
TC: So what about Brabham? You get the call from the big man Bernie and you become Team Manager in 1972. What sort of racing team did Bernie run?
HB: Well, first of all, Bernie obviously took on a team that was already there and established. It took a couple of years to move away from the from the Ron Tauranac team to the Gordon Murray team. As soon as the Gordon Murray team arrived, that's when Bernie really had an input. Bernie didn't really have so much of an input before because the cars were already there, the team was already there, and then he started to have a clear out, and basically Gordon was on his own or thrown in the deep end. But as soon as Bernie put his heart into it, that's when you saw Bernie meant business.
TC: You mentioned Gordon Murray, who was the technical director I guess. Were there similarities between Gordon Murray and Colin Chapman?
HB: Yeah, very much so. Gordon is all about lightness, but the advantage with Gordon was that he liked to make things as simple as possible, whereas Colin, I never forget with that four-wheel drive Lotus, that was one of the most complicated cars, mechanically, that I've seen. Gordon would really make it as light as possible.
Obviously we didn't know much about aero in those days. Nobody knew anything really about aero, but Gordon did have a clue about aero. There was some strips underneath the car that nobody really saw and he was starting to understand that. Again, you look at the things that we did at Brabham as a team, and obviously Gordon was the technical director, but a lot of us also had the fortunate time of being able to put in ideas.
When we went over to pit stops, for example, it wasn't just a matter of introducing a pit stop. First of all, it was the type of refuelling apparatus that we needed, what needed to be done in the fuel tank. We were putting in fuel at the most dangerous pressure you can imagine. We could actually more or less break a car in half if the breather wasn't fitted correctly. The next thing is we’re going to change tyres at the same time, which was obviously part of the equation. Then we went over to air jacks. Then we had wheel guns. Nobody had wheel guns. Then we needed a tyre heater. So we built an old telephone box and just had a gas heater pumping in.
There was all sorts of dramas because we’d end up heating just one part of the tyre and maybe melting the tyres. But Gordon was into everything as well, so we could come up with ideas and Gordon would always be able to kind of finalise them. We were the only team to have a motorised pit vehicle to transport the tyres around. Everyone else was pushing barrows around, struggling with fuel. There we were just driving past, and the funny thing is that actually was a centre-seat vehicle, a little bit like McLaren's F1 road car. In fact, I've only just thought about that.
We were the first team to have an articulated vehicle and we were the first team that looked after our own little catering. We were the first with carbon fibre brakes. As I say, Gordon was right behind all of this. We were the first team to actually have a complete rear-end, so we could actually build it back in the factory. We could have the engine, the gearbox, the uprights, etc all ready for the race, and that would be our race engine. So on a Saturday night, within 45 minutes, we would have a completely new race rear-end on and the car was ready to go, which used to really wind the other teams up because we would be the first to leave the paddock. We were the first to have music, similar to Red Bull at the moment.
We would come up with all sorts of ideas and I remember, I think it was in South Africa, we had Renault next door to us and we were fighting for the World Championship. We had various parts that would disappear overnight. So we used to set a few things up. We left a setup sheet within the view of Renault and we left it so that they could actually put their hands through the fence and take it. We just marked where it was and of course the next morning, it was in a different position and we had put down ridiculous cambers and casters etc. and of course we were quicker than Renault. I love these games.
TC: You said that Brabham sailed pretty close to the wind. Can you just give me some examples of where you perhaps pushed the limits a bit far?
HB: Well, I can't give those secrets away. I think I think it's well known that we used to sometimes have heavy bodywork and that bodywork would go on at the end of practice or the end of the race. I think the real classic maybe had to be the water-cooled brakes. In those days you could top up your fluids at the end of the race before you were weighed again. We had these lovely tanks. They must have held about five gallons and going round to the start of the race, you push the button and the little electric motor would just dump all of that water out and then at the end of the race, you’ve got to top up the water tanks.
TC: Do you think everyone was playing these games?
HB: I think the majority of the top teams were playing. Tyrrell unfortunately went a step too far when they were pumping lead into their tyres during the pit stop. I know of a team that was pumping water into their tyres. We used to have a rather heavy seat that took two people, our two strongest mechanics, to lift into the car in preparation for weighing at the end of the race. There were lots of little tricks.
But the tricks today are basically all computerised and obviously the cars are scrutineered from top to bottom. It’s so restricted, whereas back in those Brabham days it was very relaxed and it was so easy to do things that you shouldn't do. We had a very special lightweight Monte Carlo qualifying car. Of course, in those days you didn't have to race with the car that you qualified in. I think that must have had the smallest fuel tank, a little motorcycle battery. It wouldn't have been able to do more than six laps.
TC: You worked with Niki Lauda as well. Clearly a brilliant driver, but one moment in Niki's career I wanted to ask you about was Montreal, 1979. He was on a big contract with Brabham. He was the number one driver. I think quite a lot was made at the time of him earning two million dollars a year, which was far and away the biggest salary on the grid. Yet he comes in after a practice session and says ‘Bernie, I've had enough’. What do you remember of that?
HB: I think it was after the first practice session. Charlie was actually his chief mechanic and he gave Charlie a list of jobs to do. Then he got me to walk down with him because back in those days we used to be based about 400 yards away where the boat sheds were in Montreal at the bottom of the lake. We had a small motorhome there and he was asking me where Bernie was. As we were walking down, he said ‘I'm not getting back in the car, you know that don’t you?’ I said ‘what?!’ He said ‘no I've had enough. I'm going to go and buy that aeroplane.’
Now, just before we get back to the motorhome with Bernie, I knew the chief training captain for British Caledonian and he arranged, when we were racing at Long Beach, to go to the McDonnell Douglas factory. I went with Niki and we managed to get him into a simulator. We met someone who had been to the moon and driving back, Niki said to me ‘I'm going to buy one of those.’ And it was a laugh and a joke.
Then when we were walking down, that's when he said to me, ‘I'm going to buy that aeroplane,’ which, needless to say, that's exactly what he did. That was the start of Lauda Air. But anyway, we arrived down into the caravan, walked in and he told Bernie that's it.
TC: Do you think Bernie was expecting it?
HB: No, I don't think so. But Bernie is also such a cool customer that you would never tell. It wasn't a very long conversation but I remember Bernie saying ‘well leave your overalls and helmet here because I've got to find someone to drive the car.’ And there was Ricardo Zunino outside. Low and behold, he was a Formula 1 driver and Niki literally just walked out. Nobody knew what was going on. Niki changed and just disappeared.
TC: So were you surprised when Niki came back a few years later with McLaren?
HB: I was disappointed because I would have liked him to have come back with us, and especially that it was our other driver, his ex-team mate John Watson, with him. I was very close to John and very, very close to Niki. Especially when they were winning races, that really hurt because we were going through a bit of a hard time ourselves.
TC: Was Niki the best driver you ever worked with?
HB: He was maybe the most intelligent. John Watson was a quick driver and when he was driving alongside Niki, he was often quicker. Very difficult to say but, as an all-rounder, maybe Niki was number one out of the drivers that I've actually worked with.
TC: One more driver I wanted to ask you about was Carlos Reutemann.
HB: Carlos was a lovely guy, but unfortunately he wasn't consistent. He was very up and down and as soon as there was a problem or a hiccup, then he was down. He gave away the World Championship unfortunately, when he was with Williams, at Las Vegas in 1981, which he gave to us. He should have won that.
We all liked him very much. I’m still in contact with him. I think the last time we saw him was four or five years ago in Brazil. He didn't like the limelight and kept himself to himself, but a very nice guy. I wouldn't put Carlos with Nelson Piquet, or John Watson, or Niki Lauda. I wouldn't put him in that group.
TC: We've talked about some of the innovations and the games that were played, but what about the Brabham fan car?
HB: It was very good wasn’t it? And it was completely legal. The FIA came along and checked the car at the Chessington factory. They were trying to measure the downforce of the car while the engine was running. I don't know, but somehow one of the skirts was held up and the car didn't move.
TC: So for people who don't know, this was a hugely innovative car, where a fan literally sucked it onto the ground. Could you actually see it being physically sucked to the ground, even if it if it was stationary?
HB: Yes, you could.
TC: Of course, it goes to the Swedish Grand Prix in ‘78 and cleans up.
HB: Yeah, unfortunately Bernie withdrew the car after that because he was, at that particular time, more looking after the future of Formula 1 rather than the future of Brabham. Looking back on it, I can fully understand. But if you were Brabham, after all the hours and the effort that went into that, it was very, very, disappointing.
TC: How did Bernie justify that decision to you guys?
HB: Basically all the other teams, I think they possibly would have just boycotted the next race. He had to protect the business of Formula 1.
TC: Can we just end this by talking about the FIA? We need to go back to Brabham, don't we? Because you hired Charlie Whiting as a mechanic in 1978. You'd go on to work with Charlie for the next 40 odd years. Did you hit it off immediately with him?
HB: Yes, I did. That's funny, just prior to Charlie's passing, we were talking about that. One of the first tests that he went to, I was sharing a room with Charlie. We got on very well because our backgrounds were very, very similar in some ways. He went through the ranks and ended up obviously as chief engineer. Then when he went to the FIA, that was more or less as a scrutineer and that was for WEC. I'm not sure what it was called in those days, but it was SportsCar racing.
Then he moved to Formula 1 as scrutineer, really. When I became involved, which I think was a year later, I had a phone call from Bernie saying ‘you're going to be helping the FIA next year.’ I'm with Yamaha at this point. ‘No, no, no. Don't worry. We've got this new chap. He doesn't know too much about the racing, he’s a submarine captain'.
TC: Roger Lane-Nott…
HB: Correct. The idea was that I would assist him. I think on my pass I was listed as FIA Race Director advisor and Roger obviously didn't know anything about the actual circuits, or the actual running of it, because he was a very keen enthusiast and he was telling me how he used to, slightly illegally, bring the bring the submarine up as high as possible so they could hear the radio to hear the Grands Prix.
When he left the Navy in Portsmouth, he was dressed in his whites and he was in the McLaren F1 road car, with a trailer, leaving Portsmouth. The photo appeared on the front page of The Times and The Telegraph. It was big news. I met with Roger beforehand. We kept in contact and for one year I was doing that. That's when I was also asked to be the starter, so we made Charlie the starter.
Unfortunately, things never really worked out with Roger. I couldn't be the Race Director because I was still working with Yamaha and I was very committed with Yamaha. I recommended Charlie and that was it. Then Charlie was the Race Director. I was only going to do one more year with Charlie, advising and helping him because he'd never worked in Race Control before. Then 23 years later, we were still at it!
TC: Why did you keep going?
HB: Because I enjoyed it. The only thing that I will say is, I'm involved with motorcycle racing and I'm involved with a team. With a team, you have your highs and lows and at the end of the race meeting, you walk out on a low and discuss what went wrong. Then you'll work out where you've won the race and that's a great high.
In Race Control, the only thing at the end of the race was Charlie and myself would shake each other's hands and say ‘we survived’. When you're in Race Control, you can't show those emotions. You can't sit in Race Control and bang the desk. You have to just remain calm. We couldn't allow ourselves to become passionate about a particular car or a particular driver. The only thing about working in Race Control is it's not emotional. When you're with a team, it is emotional.
TC: Talking of emotions, obviously Charlie passed away a few years ago now. When you think of him now, what comes to mind?
HB: I think of Charlie every day actually. There's always something. Going to circuits now, they've put up plaques for Charlie. I was down in Barcelona for my World Superbikes three weeks ago and one little plaque is the ‘Charlie and Herbie office’ and the complete Race Control in Barcelona is known as the Charlie Whiting Race Control. Everyone had so much respect for Charlie. There's only one Bernie and there was only one Charlie.
To replace Charlie, which is what I’ve always said, you need four people to replace Charlie. That's how dedicated, smart, clever and hard-working in particular that Charlie was. Charlie would never switch off, apart from a few glasses of wine. But even with the few glasses of wine, we were always talking about where we could make things better. The whole time that I was with Charlie, he never once was in Race Control for the start.
TC: I always thought that was a mad thing because most incidents happen at the start or just afterwards. And Charlie, the Race Director, would be walking up the pit lane going from the start gantry back to Race Control. He could rely on you, couldn't he?
HB: Oh yeah. I’ll never forget, we had a few classics and one was Spa 1998, where we had the big accident after Turn 1 on Lap 1. I just said ‘red flag, red flag!’ Charlie was in the position to do the red flag on the start podium and he said ‘why was it a red flag?’. I said ‘RED FLAG! Don't ask why!’
But could Charlie ever make a mistake? Yes. If you remember, if a car was starting from the pit lane, you would wait until the cars have come past the pit exit and then you would press the green button to allow the car that was starting from the pits. At Silverstone 1999, the old start podium was right over the track and you had circuit advertising on both sides. So there was only a small hole that Charlie could look through to see when the car had actually exited the pits. He could control the pit exit light from there. Charlie pressed the button to let the car go and all of a sudden it was red flag. He'd pressed the wrong button and Michael Schumacher had his major accident. So everyone thought the red flag was for Michael, but the red flag actually came out before Michael's accident. So we had a little bit of luck on our side.
TC: Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard that he passed away in Melbourne in 2019?
HB: Yeah, unfortunately I was in Thailand for World Superbikes and I didn't have my phone switched on. I woke up in the morning. First thing I did was just open up my iPad and saw this news. I remember I closed the iPad and thinking ‘yeah, I'm dreaming.’ Then I really woke up with a startle. The first person that I could get hold was Tim Shenkin. I didn't realise that they'd been trying to get hold of me during the night but my phones were switched off, because they didn't have the phone number for his wife, Juliette.
I phoned Tim Shenkin and Tim said ‘I dreaded your call,’ and that's when I knew I was just in utter shock. Two weeks before, we were in Geneva together. He was my best mate and when you think about it, however many years we were together, every night we'd have dinner together, we’d drink together. So many rules and regulations were made after a glass of wine. As I say, total utter shock.
TC: Now, if you two were one of motor racing's great pairings, Herbie Blash and Charlie Whiting. What about Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley? Why do you think those two were so devastatingly effective when Bernie was running Formula 1 and Max Mosley was president of the FIA?
HB: Well, again, you've got to remember that Bernie was very, very close to Charlie, and Max exactly the same. Max relied on Charlie for running Formula 1 and Bernie relied on Charlie to run Formula 1.
TC: Do you think Max and Bernie wouldn't have been as effective together had Charlie not been there?
HB: I hate to think if Charlie hadn't have been there, I really can't see where Formula 1 would be today. There's nobody I could think of that could have done Charlie's job, or that both Max and Bernie together would have supported.
TC: And Herbie, in this post-Bernie era of Formula 1 with Liberty Media and the Americans running the sport now, how different do you think it is?
HB: You've got to remember that in Bernie's time, we didn't have the social media, which has obviously changed so much. I have to say dear Stefano, who I've got a lot of time for, and I've known from when I believe Stefano was 14 or 15, when he was my car park attendant at Imola. That just shows what a racer Stefano is, that he's been involved from the very early teenage years up to the position he’s in at the moment, doing a great job, and Liberty is the future.
TC: Herbie, so many great stories. Thank you so much for your time, I've really enjoyed talking to you. My final question to you is this: fundamentally, are you a car man or a bike man?
HB: I'm a six-wheeler!