Professor Sid Watkins is not a man with any stomach for political correctness, not one to say ‘issue’ when he means ‘big problem’ or ‘challenging’ when he means ‘bloody difficult’. No one I have ever met more adroitly cuts through cant — which is one of the reasons, of course, for his success in revolutionising medical rescue and treatment in Formula One. No nonsense, that’s ‘The Prof’.
“I once got a note from the Dean at The London Hospital. I was a member of the academic board but hardly ever went to meetings because they were on Mondays, which was my operating day. This note said there was an item on the agenda about the ‘absence of senior clinical personnel from the medical college’. At the meeting the Dean said, ‘Would anybody like to speak about it?’
“I said I would. I said, ‘Now before we talk about absence, let’s talk about presence — let’s define presence. Are you present if you arrive at 10 o’clock, go straight to the coffee room, spend 45 minutes there, then go to the pool and swim for half an hour, then get into the gin and tonics, have lunch, then sleep through the afternoon in the club lounge only to be awakened for afternoon tea, then rush off to avoid the crush on the tube so you can get home early? Now is that presence? Can we have a vote on that, please, because I know a lot of people who do that. And when we’ve finished talking about presence I’ll be very pleased to talk about absence.”
I wondered what the response had been. “Oh,” said the Prof, “the Dean went swiftly on to the next item on the agenda.”
After 27 seasons as F1 ‘s medical supremo, Watkins, his 77th birthday looming, is standing down and will no longer be the resident ‘doctor on the spot’. That said, he will remain president of the FIA Medical Commission and will also head the FIA Institute, which will look after the research, training and management of safety in motorsport. As well as that he will act as an ambassador for the governing body, and in that capacity will attend a variety of events, including a few grands prix.
It cannot have been easy, given that he was one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons, to combine his work at ‘The London’ with attending every grand prix, but Sid — of course — found a way.
“Well, I was chairman of the department so I wrote the rota. There was myself and one other consultant, and we did 24 hours on, 24 hours off and alternate weekends. I did the rota so that I was off for grand prix weekends. I could leave Thursday night and come back Sunday night in time for operating day on Monday. So I’d do 26 weekends on call at the hospital, plus the race weekends. I used all my annual leave for the races, so I basically had no holidays at all.”
For all his eminence in the medical world, Watkins is utterly devoid of pretension. A gregarious man with a marvellously salty sense of humour, he has made countless friends in the sport and loves to talk about them. It was a certainty, for example, that he and Innes Ireland would hit it off.
“Ah, Innes, now there was a man. What a wonderful chap. Very brave — immensely courageous, I think, throughout his whole life, not least with his prostate cancer. He just called it ‘the wicked lurgy’…
“I remember leaving Spa one year. Innes and I were both in the paddock car park and he said, ‘What ferry are you on?’ I said, ‘Seven-thirty’ or whatever. He said, ‘I’ll see you there’. And off he went under the tunnel — and on to the very congested road beyond. Took him ages to get to the motorway.
“I knew a trick. I went round the circuit to the medical centre, where the exit road is clear, then went through some back roads, got on the motorway and arrived at Calais well ahead of him. I was about sixth in the queue and, when I’d been there about 20 minutes, in my mirror I saw him stumping down the line. ‘How the f*** did you get here so fast?’
“I said, ‘Well, Innes, I’m a quick driver. Where’ve you been?’ I’ve been driving flat out!’ he said. ‘I don’t understand how the hell you got here before me.’ “We had dinner on the ferry, got to Dover, from where I was going off to The London Hospital. I had a Porsche 911 at that time. We got off the boat and he was determined to leave me behind, right? There was no way. I just stuck in behind him, and then eventually I flashed my headlights and came off the motorway.
“Next time I saw him he said, ‘You’re a f****** marvel in a fast car!’
“Innes was such a great chap — and a great driver too. Completely nuts in many ways. Had an amazing number of accidents. My favourite photograph of him is in his book, All Arms and Elbows, showing him undergoing rehabilitation in St Thomas’s Hospital. He’s in an orthopedic bed, with a hoist above him. He’s leaning on the edge of the bed, with a cigarette going and a bottle of scotch on the nightstand. Lovely man…”
Down the years Watkins has been unique in F1, the one man to whom Bernie Ecclestone has always deferred. Almost always, anyway.
One confrontation came at Imola in 1987, when Nelson Piquet’s Williams went off at Tamburello in practice. A couple of hours later Piquet did not even know he was a racing driver, and Sid swiftly concluded he should take no further part in the weekend.
“Next morning Bernie was saying I should let Nelson do a few laps, and if he was all right he could go into qualifying. I said, ‘If Nelson gets into a car I’m leaving the circuit’. All the Italian doctors agreed, so he said, ‘Yeah… all right then…’ “Then he said, ‘He’s going to fly his own aeroplane home’. I said, ‘Fine’. He said, ‘Well, why can you let him fly but not drive?’ I said, ‘Flying’s got nothing to do with me. My job’s to look after the drivers. If he wants to fly himself, then that’s his problem…”
Over time Watkins was driven in the medical car by some of the most celebrated names in racing history. It wasn’t difficult, he said, to understand how people of this quality achieved so much.
“At Monaco one year they tried to stop us driving out of the pit exit, so Jacky Ickx — who was driving — just aimed the car at Michel Boeri and made him jump out of the way! He’s definitely on my list of the great drivers of the medical car.
“In 1980 there was a shunt at Ste Devote on the first lap involving both Tyrrells and we stopped to make sure everyone was okay. You know how quick they are at Monaco with the cranes? They had this Tyrrell up there hanging. I saw it and said to Ickx, ‘We’d better get out of here’. So we went — and the thing fell off the crane…
“Because of all that we then got caught by the pack coming out of the swimming pool complex. Jacky just calmly pulled over to the right and stopped. That was when Gilles Villeneuve shaved us as he went by!
“Gilles… another lovely guy. Very like Senna in lots of ways — a charger on the track, but a wonderfully gentle person. After the Monaco thing I started to give him a bollocking and he couldn’t understand what I was on about. ‘But I missed you…’ he said. That’s what distinguished people like him and Ayrton from the others — their precision.
“After that it never worried me when people like Villeneuve and Senna would miss you by a centimetre as they came by. But some of the others… I wouldn’t give them a metre!”