Anyone who thinks Twitter is a waste of time has never met Mark McArdle, who has literally tweeted his way into the Formula One paddock in Montreal.
Known as Fake Charlie Whiting to his more than 16,000 Twitter followers, McArdle will be an F1 paddock guest of the real Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile race director Charlie Whiting, who extended the invite a few weeks ago.
As the F1 circus prepares for the June 10 Canadian Grand Prix, McArdle has been left a bit bewildered by his acquisition of a first-class ticket to a racing fan's dream experience.
“I am still pinching myself – I am floored that this is really happening,” he said.
“My friends are sort of shaking their heads and keep saying they can't believe how I have pulled this off, but it really wasn't intentional; it has all just sort of taken on a life of its own.”
One the most powerful people in the F1, the real Whiting tends to stay out of the spotlight. He was appointed FIA Race Director and Safety Delegate in 1997 after a successful career working with a wrench for the Brabham team. Whiting was chief mechanic for Nelson Piquet when the Brazilian won world championships in 1981 and 1983 and later became chief engineer for the team.
The race director is responsible for ensuring all the rules are respected during a grand prix weekend. He oversees all technical inspections, turns out the lights to start the race, investigates on-track incidents and hands out penalties.
While the Fake Charlie Twitter account is often irreverent and light, McArdle has nothing but respect for Whiting and the job he does.
“I think he's a genuinely interesting person who has the most fascinating job in the sport,” McArdle said.
“I guess it's a cliché to say that it's a dream come true, but it's been a goal of mine to have a conversation with Charlie because the perspective he has on the sport is unique. He isn't beholden to a team or driver, and he really is the one guy in the sport who is looking out for its best interests, and the insights that he has are pretty important.”
The Waterloo-area hi tech entrepreneur has been an F1 fan since he began watching races with his dad as a six-year-old. While work in California kept him away from F1 in Montreal for several years, he has attended the race every year since 2002. He has also been to F1 races in Belgium, Turkey and England.
One of the main reasons for his love of F1 is the fact that the sport celebrates not only the skills of the athlete, but also the talents of the engineers.
“I can't name another sport where the engineers who design their amazing machines like [Red Bull chief technical officer]Adrian Newey, [Ferrari chief designer]Rory Byrne, [Mercedes team boss]Ross Brawn and [Caterham F1 chief technical officer]Mike Gascoyne are recognized for their technical brilliance,” he said.
“As a dad, I also think it helps kids realize the importance of education and what you can do with it.”
McArdle, 43, also understands the role of happenstance, since he owes his good fortune to Whiting's wife's cousin, Carlton Jefferis, who saw the Twitter feed and was amused by the Canadian's clever wit. After Jefferis pointed it out to Whiting, the FIA race boss decided to get in touch. A few e-mails led to an invite to F1's inner sanctum, where common grand prix fans rarely roam.
“We are going to meet up in Montreal for a chat – I thought it would be quite fun,” Whiting said.
“I will be fairly busy on Thursday, but I will be quite happy to show him around race control. I can show him the places that he normally wouldn't be able to see. It's nice to be able to do something occasionally. It's quite hard, really, sometimes to find time and be selective about these things, but it's always nice to try and do something for someone who is obviously a real fan and a genuine enthusiast.”
There's no doubt that without Jefferis, McArdle would never have been given the opportunity to meet Whiting or get access to the paddock.
You see, although Fake Charlie is a prolific Twitter user with more than 8,400 tweets in the past three years, the real Whiting isn't exactly tuned in to the social media site.
“I don't do Twitter and I barely know what it is, to be frank,” Whiting said. “But people have come up to me on occasion and said 'I love your tweets,' and I always say that I don't do any – people don't realize that it's not me.”
The Fake Charlie Whiting account makes it pretty clear that it's not the real race director and McArdle is quick to correct anyone who thinks he might be the real deal. The biography for Fake Charlie on his Twitter homepage reads: “I press the button. Yes, that button,” with his location being “Race Control. Or at the Pub.”
McArdle's sharp wit and sense of irony create a remarkably fun read, 140 characters at a time.
For example, during last weekend's Indianapolis 500, he tweeted: “I'm watching IndyCar Race Control. Are they actually looking out the window? Wow. That's old school.”
During the Monaco Grand Prix earlier in the day, he offered this zinger after a driver hit an Armco barrier and lost a part from his car on the tight and twisty street circuit: “The marshals are playing rock, paper, scissors to determine who gets to go out to retrieve that endplate.”
He began the account three years ago, mostly because being an F1 fan in North America meant he had to suffer through some really late nights all alone in his office, watching practice sessions. After Twitter became a fun way to interact with other fans all over the world, the Fake Charlie Whiting idea percolated to the surface.
“There are some absurd situations in F1 at times, and I imagined if I were actually the race director and I was able to say the things that I wished I could say – that I am sure the real Charlie would not want to say or could never say – it might be an amusing way to pass some time,” he said.
“As time went on, some people found it entertaining and funny and I enjoyed the interaction, so I just kind of kept going and it just snowballed since then.”
He's also makes a concerted effort to keep things civil, and never resorts to childish name calling or insults when he's typing as his alter ego.
While several fake celebrity accounts have been suspended by Twitter, McArdle's approach means Whiting isn't worried about having him tweet on his behalf.
“He's not really attempting to actually impersonate me in so far as he admits he is not me, which I think is absolutely fine,” he said.
“Now, if he was doing and writing silly things, I might have something to say about it, but it's quite fun and he's not casting me in a bad light, so I'm pretty happy really.”
Whiting has put aside about 30 minutes in his hectic pre-race schedule to chat with the Canadian tweeter and show him around. F1 teams Caterham, Force India, HRT, Mercedes, McLaren and Red Bull also extended invites to their hospitality areas on Thursday. The Caterham Team also offered up a paddock pass for McArdle's wife, Helen, so she can join in on the fun. Lotus sponsor TW Steel also offered him one of its F1 team watches to take home.
“I am hoping that if I am on my best behaviour and I sit up straight and I am polite that maybe we can prolong the visit, but even if it's just Thursday, I am beyond thrilled. It's a great opportunity,” he said.
“Paddock life is certainly something I am interested in and I am sure Fake Charlie will find it a fertile ground to comment on.”
For those wondering if the real Whiting will get on Twitter, it's not likely to happen any time soon. Finding time to tweet during races while also keeping up with the action and the 12 F1 teams that have direct contact with him during a grand prix is simply out of the question.
“I am extremely busy during races, especially if there are any incidents,” said Whiting, who will turn 60 in August.
“It's not something that I would contemplate. It's just way, way off the radar as far as I am concerned. I still can't quite get it. I know what it does, but I'm not quite sure what people reading these tweets get out of it. That's just me – I think I am probably just too old to embrace it.”
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