FIA race director Charlie Whiting has died at the age of 66 on the eve of the 2019 Formula 1 season in Australia.

A statement confirmed Whiting suffered a pulmonary embolism and passed away on Thursday morning, he’d been the sport’s race director and safety delegate for more than 20 years.

Before joining the FIA in 1988 as technical delegate, Whiting had began his F1 career as a mechanic for Hesketh in 1977, later joining Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team where he stayed for 10 years.

“It is with immense sadness that I learned of Charlie’s sudden passing,” said FIA president Jean Todt.

“I have known Charlie Whiting for many years and he has been a great race director, a central and inimitable figure in Formula 1 who embodied the ethics and spirit of this fantastic sport.

“Formula 1 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 1 lovers.”

Tributes have flooded in from drivers, team bosses and colleagues on the news of Whiting’s passing.

Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton said: “I’ve known Charlie since I started in 2007. Obviously incredibly shocked this morning to hear the sad news, my thoughts and prayers are with his family.

“What he did for the sport, his commitment, he really was a pillar as Toto [Wolff] said, such an iconic figure within the sporting world. He contributed so much to us. May he rest in peace.”

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel revealed he had only chatted to Whiting on Wednesday during a track walk of the Albert Park circuit, expressing his sadness at his sudden loss.

“I was as shocked as we all are, still now. When I heard the news this morning, especially because I spoke to him yesterday and walked the track for the first couple of corners together with him.

“Difficult to grasp when somebody is just not there anymore. I’ve known him for a long time, he’s been sort of our man, the drivers’ man. Obviously there’s regulations and all that, and then there’s us, and he was the middle man.

“He was someone you could ask anything at any time. He was open to everyone. At any time his door was always open. He was a racer, and a very nice guy.”