Having cut his teeth as an engineer on Hawk and Harrier jets, he arrived in Formula One at McLaren in 1989 to find Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost locked in a fierce season-long duel that ended with the team winning the title despite the two crashing into each other in the final race.
In his 24 years with the team, he also witnessed first hand the talents of the likes of Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton – “pretty decent peddlers,” as he describes them.
So when Sir Ben Ainslie called Whitmarsh in 2014, soon after he had been ousted in a coup by his predecessor as chief executive Ron Dennis, it wasn’t just the thrill of being at the forefront of another engineering battleground that attracted him. It was the racer he quickly recognised in the man asking for his help to bring the America’s Cup back to Britain for the first time in 166 years – but with one key difference.
“Racing drivers are alone in the car, and most winners are incredibly selfish. They talk about a team game but they’re not built for that; they’re killing machines,” said Whitmarsh. “A Formula One driver just wants to kill his team-mate.
“Ben has all that intensity, but he can’t win this on his own. He relies on five other guys delivering power, information and control, so you have to be slightly different.
Martin Whitmarsh said a Formula One driver just wants to kill his team-mate
Martin Whitmarsh said Sir Ben Ainslie is incredibly humble
Ben has all that intensity, but he can’t win this on his own
“There is an incredible desire to win in him which is similar to any racing driver, but there is considerable humility about him too.”
Whitmarsh and Ainslie set about building in three years what many have failed to do in a decade – a credible America’s Cup campaign. They raised £90million, created a headquarters in Portsmouth, overlooking the Solent where the first race was run in 1851, and triumphed in the World Series that served as the build-up to the main event.
And while things have gone far from smoothly for Land Rover BAR in Bermuda – their lack of speed in practice was both a surprise and deeply concerning, and a crash at the start of their second World Series Qualifying race damaged both the boat and their chances.
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But that combination of ruthlessness and comradeship has proved priceless. Repairs were completed so quickly their rivals applauded in admiration.
The speed issues have largely been sorted, and completing the double over the dangerously quick Swedish outfit Artemis was followed by wins over France and Japan, with Ainslie particularly ruthless in the pre-start.
America's Cup in pictures Tue, July 12, 2016
America’s Cup flying boat race is the Fomula One of the seas
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America's Cup in pictures
The jostling for position is a key area – 80 per cent of races are won by whoever crosses the startline first – and Ainslie has done so in seven out of 10 races. Now his boat is approaching the speed of his mind, Land Rover BAR’s prospects have improved beyond measure.
Emirates Team New Zealand, who finished second behind Oracle Team USA – as holders, the Americans now drop out to wait for the Challenger to emerge – picked Land Rover BAR as their semi-final opponents having beaten them twice in the qualifiers.
But Ainslie has been under-estimated before, and his belief is unwavering.
“We are not happy where we are, not everything has gone to plan, but we’re still in this,” said Whitmarsh. “We have come through it, not as unruffled as we would like to be, and we will continue to develop the boat.
Great Britain are still in with a fighting chance to win the America's Cup
“It’s been an extraordinary contest, wth moments of pain for us. But we are there or thereabouts on speed, and the depth of the team and its spirit is what gives us the belief.
“We respond to pressure. We were down and out in the World Series and we ended up winning it, so we just have to use that pressure now to inspire us. No team can go into this with complacency.
“Ben is extraordinary in this. We’re on a journey. We’re a new team. The expectation on us was massively high but so was ours. We can still win this bloody thing. It is the conviction of this team.”
After a week which Ainslie has described as the toughest of his career, perhaps he will now be able to race with the shackles off. Expectation has always run faster than reality – largely because of the name on the side of the boat – and getting this far is an achievement in itself. But a team still in metaphorical nappies in America’s Cup terms has twice bloodied the nose of the seasoned Swedes, so if Ainslie’s ruthlessness has infected his entire team, they cannot be written off.