Lunch with... Professor Sid Watkins

His efforts have helped to transform safety in Formula 1, to the benefit of us all. Through almost three decades ‘Prof’ came to be loved by the drivers, and none more so than Senna


James Mitchell

In the relentless theatre of Formula 1, the members of the complex cast – drivers, team chiefs, designers, organisers, circuit owners, officials – may be liked, admired, respected, even feared. But rarely are they loved. However, love is not too strong a word to describe the F1 paddock’s feelings towards a man who, for no fewer than 424 Grands Prix, was an indispensable part of that cast.

Even more remarkably, it didn’t represent his proper job. He was just a motor racing enthusiast who used his days off from a very demanding vocation, saving lives and healing wounds, to deal with lives and wounds in F1.

Professor Eric Sidney Watkins, OBE, BSc, MD, FRCS, has had a brilliant career as one of the world’s foremost neurosurgeons, practising in the UK and USA. For some 30 years he was a pillar of the Royal London Hospital. He performed unnumbered operations, and developed ground-breaking new procedures. He launched the Brain & Spine Foundation, and led vital research into Parkinson’s tremor, movement disorders, intractable pain and cerebral palsy. But he also happens to love motor sport, and during 26 seasons as F1’s doctor he completely revolutionised the principles and procedures of driver safety. Thanks to him, lives were saved and injuries lessened. No Grand Prix, race or practice session, could start without him. To everybody in Formula 1 he was affectionately known as ‘Prof’.

Sid is a lover of other good things in life, too. Since his retirement from the regular F1 grind five years ago he has more time for them: fishing, good whisky, the novels of John Buchan, his children and grandchildren, his house in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York, and his Scottish home on the side of a steep hill overlooking the River Tweed. That’s where I go to meet him. A mere lunch won’t give us enough time to plumb a serious bottle of Glenmorangie (or for some scurrilous off-the-record stories, racing and medical, after the voice recorder is turned off). So he and his wife Susan invite me to spend the day and stay the night.

The house is superb: an early 18th century manse which Susan has flawlessly restored from a wreck, with the same attention to period detail that a Ferrari expert might bring to rebuilding a 375MM. It has tall, gracious rooms, separate studies for Sid and Susan where each can write in peace, an Aga-warmed country kitchen, and a fishing tackle room for Sid. A subterranean tunnel, carved through rock when the house was built, runs from the wine cellar under the terraced garden to a balcony overlooking the river. Susan is a respected historian, with acclaimed books on Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots among her works. Her authorised biography of Bernie Ecclestone, when it is published, should be extremely revealing.

Sid came from humble beginnings. His family were miners, and his father first went down the pit aged eight, as a candle boy. But young Wally Watkins was determined not to spend his life at the coal face, and his means of escape was the bicycle. He became a professional racer, eventually riding for the Raleigh works team, and during the 1920s he scraped together enough money to set up a bicycle shop in Liverpool. The family of six, including Sid, the youngest, lived over the shop. Sid and his brothers went to the local school in Bootle – “ a rough area then,” Sid remembers. “The local copper used to take two Alsatians with him on the beat. One day, when I was about eight years old, our teacher asked the class what we wanted to do when we left school. The other kids had the usual ambitions – fireman, engine driver – but I said I wanted to be a brain surgeon. I don’t know where it came from. All the others laughed at me, of course.”

Young Sid was bright. He got a scholarship to Bootle Grammar School but, when he told his father he wanted to be a doctor, it didn’t go down well. The bicycle shop had become a small garage, and Sid was expected to muck in. Undaunted, he got a scholarship to Liverpool University to read medicine. “The brain was my goal from the outset. In 1952 I qualified as a doctor and went into general practice, but my father still wanted me as a source of cheap labour. So I used to do morning surgery, then house calls, work in the garage during the afternoon – tuning twin carbs with my stethoscope – and then get cleaned up for evening surgery.

“National service got me in 1953, so I became an army doctor. I joined a physiological unit in West Africa with the rank of captain, doing research into heat exhaustion: went out there weighing 14 stone, and came back weighing eight stone. Then I did general surgery in Weston-super-Mare, and in 1958 I joined the Radcliffe in Oxford under the great American brain surgeon Joe Pennybacker. I’d already started to go to races as a spectator, with a colleague who was nuts about motor racing and had a Lotus-Climax. He introduced me to Dean Delamont, the RAC Competitions boss. Dean persuaded me to go to kart races as the medical officer, and then to car meetings.”

In 1962, when Sid was 34, he was appointed professor of neurosurgery at the University of New York in Syracuse. With an introduction from Delamont, he applied to Watkins Glen to be one of the circuit doctors for the US Grand Prix. “They had a small medical centre with no equipment. The first job before practice started was to sweep out the dead flies that had accumulated since the last meeting. If someone got hurt they couldn’t do anything at the track, so the ambulance had to go to the nearest hospital. Sometimes that was closed, and they had to drive another 60 miles to one that was open. I arranged to take a team from my hospital in Syracuse to the race, so we could get an instant consultant’s opinion for any injury. I attended regularly at Watkins Glen for the Grand Prix, and for the Canadian race when it was at Mosport and at St Jovite.”

At the end of 1969 Sid returned to England to become Professor of Neurosurgery at the London. “Soon Dean got me involved in the British Grand Prix. When I’d first worked at Silverstone the medical centre was a primitive hut, staffed by Red Cross people. There’d be some ambulances and doctors, but nothing very sophisticated. When I took a proper team up to the British Grand Prix in 1973 – another neurosurgeon, an anaesthetist, a cardiac doctor, an orthopaedist and a nursing sister – I was told we weren’t necessary for an F1 weekend, and our presence would be more appropriate at a club race where they had more accidents. So to stay out of the way of the locals I staffed the Louis Stanley Medical Unit with my people, and in the saloon race before the Grand Prix there was that huge pile-up, involving Dave Brodie, Dave Matthews and Gavin Booth. We found ourselves dealing with head injuries, a leaking lung, facial injuries, a broken femur. Then the Grand Prix started, and Jody Scheckter spun coming out of Woodcote and there was another pile-up. Fortunately only Andrea de Adamich was injured: he had a dislocated ankle, which we put back in the Stanleywagon.

“I continued to staff the Stanley unit at the British GP each year, and then in 1978 Bernie Ecclestone, whom I’d never met, called me at the London and asked for an appointment. I agreed to see him that evening at 7pm. He consulted me about a minor medical matter, but I realised that was just Bernie seeing what he made of me. Then he came to the point. He’d decided that F1’s medical facilities weren’t good enough. They varied widely from race to race, and he wanted the same levels of competence at each track. He proposed that I should go to every Grand Prix, and he said he’d pay me $35,000 a season for the 16 races. I was impressed by Bernie at once, his decisiveness, his clarity of thinking, and I said I’d do it. Then he said I would, of course, be responsible for my own travel and accommodation expenses. Typical Bernie: he did it very cleverly, and I just walked into it!

“The following Wednesday I flew to Anderstorp for the Swedish GP. It was the race when the Brabham fan-car appeared and caused such a furore. I got a lift from the airport to the circuit with John Watson. In those days I paid my own way, booked my flights, made my own arrangements. Often I’d arrive at a circuit with no hotel to stay in, and had to scrounge a room from one of the teams. But, to be fair to Bernie, after a couple of years he said, ‘I don’t think we’re paying you enough,’ and put my fees up.

“At first there was pressure on me to set up a mobile team and take it to every race. But that would have brought all sorts of problems with professional licensing and insurance from country to country, and we wouldn’t necessarily have had any privileges at the different hospitals. So it became my job to harass the locals at each race to get the nearest decent hospital standing by with surgical staff ready, and improve the level of response. There was a lot of opposition, of course, not so much from the local medical teams as from the circuit people, who didn’t want to spend money on more staff and better facilities at the tracks.

“That first year at Hockenheim the medical centre was an old converted bus with only two doctors to staff it, neither of whom was an anaesthetist. The bus was parked out in the paddock and the crew camped overnight beside it. If a helicopter was required they had to call in the Autobahn traffic team, who might well be busy elsewhere. Then, as the grid was lining up on race day, they wouldn’t let the chief medical officer into Race Control. I told Bernie, who said he’d stand in front of the cars on the grid and, unless he saw me give a thumbs-up from the Race Control window, he would get the drivers out and send them all home.

The organisers, shocked, relented at once.

The following year Hockenheim had a well-equipped new medical centre and helicopter availability all weekend.”

Less than three months after Sid’s first race in his new role came Ronnie Peterson’s accident at Monza. Sid’s procedure in those pre-medical car days was to follow what was going on from Race Control. When Peterson’s accident happened he fought through the crowded paddock to the medical centre at the back of the paddock and got there just as Ronnie arrived in the ambulance.

“He had more than 20 fractures in his legs and feet. We stabilised him and took him on a stretcher to the helicopter and they flew him to the Ospedale Maggiore at Niguarda. I had to stay for the race. I also had to deal with Vittorio Brambilla, who was unconscious after being hit on the head by a wheel in the same accident, and Hans Stuck, who had concussion. For the restart Jody Scheckter went off on the warm-up lap and destroyed a lot of Armco, which had to be replaced. By the time the shortened race finally got done it was almost dark. I went to the Lotus motorhome to see Colin [Chapman] and Mario [Andretti] and they’d heard that Ronnie was being operated on. I would have treated him conservatively, but the blood supply to his legs had started to fail. At Niguarda they decided they had to straighten his legs to get the blood vessels working again. Mario set off for the hospital in his Rolls Royce, with me trying to keep up in my Fiat Panda hire car. We went across some fields and down a farm track because Mario said he knew a short cut to the motorway. We initially joined it going in the wrong direction, but the race traffic was so bad I was able to keep up with him. When we finally got to the hospital they were just finishing the operation. I thought the signs were that he would be OK, and I telephoned Ronnie’s wife Barbro in Monaco and gave her some reassurance. But during the night he developed multiple blockages in the arteries to his brain, lungs and kidneys, emboli from bone marrow in his circulation, which was fatal. It was a terrible tragedy.

“I felt that the initial response to the accident had been a shambles. Reports of how long it took for the ambulance to reach the scene ranged from 11 to 18 minutes. I agreed with Bernie that I was going to have to take a much more active role. I wanted to be in a car, with life-saving equipment on board, to get to an accident in the shortest possible time, and run behind the field on the first lap.

“We had this two weeks later at Watkins Glen, an estate car with no rear seats, me in the front and the anaesthetist, Peter Byles, sprawled on the floor in the back. We borrowed a pair of helmets, Jody Scheckter lent me a set of overalls, and Peter got some overalls from James Hunt. He rather enjoyed giving autographs and kisses to the less knowledgeable female American spectators who saw the name on his overalls. The driver allocated to us was obese and sweating heavily, and obviously nervous. When the race started he set off in vain pursuit, hit the kerbs at the chicane and took off, landing very forcibly. We managed half the lap before peeling off, and just reached the medical centre before the field, led by Andretti, caught us up. After that Bernie made sure we had a proper car and a proper driver – usually one of the F1 chaps who hadn’t qualified for the race, but at least knew his way around.

“Later on I had regular, trusted drivers at each track. Phil Hill was my driver at Long Beach, for example, and I’ve been driven, among others, by Niki Lauda, Carlos Reutemann, Derek Daly and Alex Ribeiro. Vittorio Brambilla used to drive me at Monza. He would greet people with a bone-crunching handshake and a big grin and say, ‘I am the Monza gorilla!’ When he first turned up to drive the medical car I asked him if he had fully recovered from his 1978 head injury. ‘OK, OK, Doc,’ he said, adding proudly, ‘And I have another big head injury since then!’ He enjoyed getting the medical car into sideways slides in the wet, looking across at me with a broad grin.


Watkins and Senna converse

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“My usual driver at the Australian GP was Frank Gardner, phenomenally quick, and wonderful in the wet. So precise: he’d spend time getting himself just right in the car, arms there, legs there, thumbs on the steering wheel rim, never around the spokes. Then he’d take off. The first time he drove me, in Adelaide, our medical car was a new Ferrari, and we had some trouble squeezing all the equipment in. We did a few practice laps to get used to the circuit, and afterwards he said, ‘This old girl hasn’t got any brakes any more.’ They had to rebuild the brakes before the race.

“At the London in those days there were just two neurosurgeons, and we worked alternate weekends. I fitted that in with the Grands Prix, and for the long-haul races I just took more out of my holiday entitlement. I didn’t have any holiday for years. I did 26 weekends at the hospital and 16 weekends at the races, so I was a busy boy.

“Initially the FIA were not fond of my activities, because I was appointed by FOCA. The FIA president, Jean-Marie Balestre, never opposed any medical improvements, but he didn’t like anyone who was not part of the FIA exerting power. Then one year in the hotel in Montréal he swallowed a piece of steak the wrong way and went blue in the face. A chap at an adjoining table jumped up, did the manoeuvre around his chest and expelled the steak, thus saving his life, but in so doing he cracked a rib. In the middle of the night Madame Balestre phoned my room saying her husband was in pain, so I went and gave him a local anaesthetic and some painkillers. My reward came when I got to Zandvoort for the next race and found the FIA were now booking and paying for my hotel room.

“In 1981 Balestre set up the FIA Medical Commission, and I became its president. We began to hammer out standards for medical centres and procedures at every circuit. Balestre was a very smart chap, actually, but he was very short-tempered and would fly into a paroxysm of rage about small things. Nelson Piquet, who was very mischievous, used to tease him unmercifully. Once Piquet said he’d found Balestre’s hotel key in the pitlane, and gave it to him. It had a metal tag attached which said, ‘Admit one prostitute to the room of the president.’ Another time Balestre was making an endless pompous speech at one of the drivers’ briefings, and Piquet was standing beside him with a litre bottle of mineral water, pouring it into the pocket of Balestre’s blazer. Everybody could see what he was doing, but it was a while before Balestre became aware of the wetness seeping through his trousers.

“I quickly got to know all the drivers on a personal level. I became a sort of father figure – although later I suppose it was a grandfather figure. They regarded me as one of them, in the sense that they knew I was at the back on the first lap, and I’d be with them as soon as possible if anything went wrong, in practice or the race. Gilles Villeneuve used to joke about it – he’d say, ‘I hope I never need you, Prof.’ That was the first thing that went through my head when he crashed at Zolder in 1982.

“Gilles was unconscious when we got to him but his pupils were working. He wasn’t breathing, but he had a pulse, so I put a tube in and ventilated him until we got him to the medical centre. We kept him ventilated in the helicopter until we got him to the hospital in Liège. The X-rays confirmed that he had an irreparable neck fracture, and it was obviously going to be fatal. We kept him on a respirator until his wife arrived. We told her what the situation was, and she was very brave and dignified. Then we switched him off.” Sid enunciates the medical details professionally, with apparent lack of passion, but the quietness of his voice confirms his deep sadness and heartfelt regret. Has seeing so many race accidents ever made him dislike the sport, or feel that it is foolish?

“No. I’ve lived my life with head injuries, motorcycle accidents, car crashes. Most of them are equally tragic. I was always very upset when a racing driver got killed. It was particularly upsetting because they were my friends. Luckily we didn’t lose many. And it did get better.”

The tragedies get remembered, of course, but Sid’s successes should be, too: the tracheotomy performed on Mika Häkkinen at the trackside in Adelaide in 1995, which saved his life; Martin Donnelly’s dreadful accident at Jerez in 1990, which so nearly killed him but saw him, under Sid’s care, eventually make a complete recovery; and so many more potentially very unpleasant incidents which received his prompt action, like Gerhard Berger’s fiery crash at Imola in 1989.


Watkins and his successor Gary Hartstein treated Takuma Sato following his crash with Nick Heidfeld at the 2002 Austrian GP

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“Jody Scheckter I was very close to. He could be argumentative and sulk a bit, but he really cared about safety, and was outspoken about it. If anyone was hurt he was always on the phone wanting to know how they were. Nigel Mansell: well, I had a lot of amusement with him. He had this penchant for appearing injured when he wasn’t. In Australia he drove gently into the barrier, got out of his car and limped to a nearby ambulance. James Hunt spotted it at once on television: ‘Look, he’s limping on alternate legs!’. But sometimes I didn’t find it so funny. At Spa in 1990 somebody nudged him at the start and his Ferrari went into the barrier before La Source. As our car passed him I could see him slumped in the cockpit, head down, so I shouted to my driver to stop. There was another accident ahead and they red-flagged the race, but I ran back up the hill to him first. As I ran there was a sound like a pistol shot: I’d snapped a tendon in my leg. I was in some pain but I hobbled to the Ferrari’s cockpit and Nigel was still motionless, his helmet down. So I tapped on the helmet and shouted, ‘Nigel?’ He looked up, opened his visor, and I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ‘Nothing,’ he said. I said a very rude word and limped back to the car and we went to check on the other accident ahead. Then I was driven to the medical centre to get my leg strapped up.

“All the drivers were good chaps in their different ways, and I got on well with all of them. The only one I didn’t like was Didier Pironi. He was a surly fellow. He wasn’t grateful for anything we did for him after his Hockenheim accident. When we got to him he knew his legs were terribly injured, and he implored me to save them. I said to him, ‘There’s no way your legs are coming off. Even if they’re very bad, they’re not coming off today.’ But after we’d flown in the helicopter to Heidlberg and we were getting ready for a very long and complicated operation, I was surprised to hear the consultant surgeon say bluntly to him that an amputation might be needed. I repeated to Pironi that I would not agree to such an action at that point, whatever might be necessary later. Later he complained to Bernie that he’d heard me say, while he was in the car, ‘Let’s take his leg off. It will be quicker for getting him out,’ which of course I hadn’t. I said to Bernie, ‘No, it was his head I wanted to cut off.’ I’m delighted to say that Pironi went on to make a good recovery, although he never returned to Formula 1. Of course he died in that powerboat accident five years later.

“I knew Ayrton [Senna] better than any other driver. We were very close. He came to stay with me up here in Scotland, and we fished together. He gave a talk at my stepson’s school, Loretto, and was so patient and inspiring with the boys, answering all their questions. A bishop who was visiting the school at the same time remarked on how spiritual he was. Among his various projects for the poor of Brazil, he funded a programme for medical support for people in the upper reaches of the Amazon. We’d agreed to go together and see it in action at the end of the 1994 season…

“I was staying with him in Brazil once on his farm, and there was a terrible storm. All the electricity and phone lines were down. I’d promised to phone Susan at a certain hour, so we set out for the nearest village to try to phone from there. We drove through the storm on waterlogged roads for a long time, finally got to the village and found a garage with lights on. Ayrton explained to the man there that we wanted to use his phone to call Europe. The man recognised Ayrton, but at first he refused. Ayrton gently explained that if I used my BT phone card it wouldn’t cost him anything. Magically the word had gone around and every child in the village had gathered at the door. While I made my call, Ayrton stood in the rain signing autographs by the light of a street lamp until every child had one.

“I knew Michael [Schumacher] pretty well, too, and it’s interesting that the two greatest drivers in recent years were both capable of misbehaving on the track. Ayrton seemed to undergo a personality change when he got in the car. I don’t know how he justified to himself something like that incident in Japan with Alain Prost in 1990. He was telling everybody it was an accident, but that night he admitted to me in private that it was deliberate. He said, ‘I backed off a little bit, let my left front go close to his right rear, we touched, and off he went.’ From the medical car I saw him jump out in a flash and run back to the pits in case there was a restart, while poor Prost was still slumped dejectedly in his cockpit. I can’t think of anybody else who was quite so deliberately naughty.

“I said to him once, ‘You don’t have to drive so quickly when you’re in front, you just have to be in the lead. You don’t need to be a lap ahead.’ Later he said, ‘Sid, I always think of your advice when I see your medical car as I go round the circuit. But by the next corner I’ve forgotten it!’

“That weekend at Imola he was dreadfully upset by Roland Ratzenberger’s accident on the Saturday. We’d had such a good run, you see. Some big accidents, some big injuries, but nothing life-threatening apart from airway obstruction, and I was always there quickly enough to deal with that. The last fatality at a Grand Prix had been Ricardo Paletti in Montréal, 12 years before. Rubens Barrichello’s accident on the Friday had been bad – he’d had an airway obstruction, too – but our procedures had all gone well on that occasion. After Ratzenberger’s accident on the Saturday Ayrton got into the medical centre at the back, jumped over the fence, and came in to ask me what was going on. When I told him he broke down, and wept on my shoulder. I suggested he should withdraw from the race. Actually, I said he should give up for good. He’d proved he was the best driver in the world, he’d been World Champion three times. ‘Give it up,’ I said, ‘let’s go fishing.’ Then he composed himself and said, ‘Sid, there are things we can’t control. I cannot stop. I have to go on.’ That was the last thing he said to me.

“Mario Casoni was driving for me that day. When he got me to Tamburello and I saw it was Ayrton it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been, because I was too busy to think about anything except the job in hand. But I did regret that I hadn’t leaned on him more, not to race. We got him out of the car and, even in the heat of the moment, I noticed he felt terribly light as I cradled him in my arms and laid him down on the Tarmac. I cut the strap to his helmet, got that off, got an airway in, and then I could look into his eyes, and that told me it was going to be a fatal accident. He had a terrible head injury. Then he made a funny noise, like a sigh, and that’s when I think brain death occurred.

“We called the helicopter, and Ayrton was flown to the Ospedale Maggiore in Bologna with the intensive care anaesthetist. There was no point in my going, because there was nothing more to be done to influence the situation. I took his helmet back to the medical centre. I hadn’t been able to examine it fully when the police seized it. Later it was returned to Ayrton’s family, and they quite properly had it destroyed. As soon as the race was over, and I’d checked out some mechanics who had been injured in the pits, I went in the helicopter to the hospital. Everything had been properly managed there, but it was clear there was no hope. Ayrton’s brother Leonardo and his manager were there, and I explained the situation to them, and I spoke on the phone to Ayrton’s brother-in-law in Brazil. There was nothing more for me to do, and I got a lift back to my hotel. Of course the TV kept on playing and replaying the whole nightmare.”

Senna’s death sent shock waves around the world. Including testing accidents for Lehto, Lamy, Alesi and Montermini, there had been six big F1 accidents in a matter of weeks. Eleven days later Karl Wendlinger had his practice accident at Monaco. The next day FIA president Max Mosley announced a new Expert Advisory Group, made up of Sid as chairman, race director Charlie Whiting, safety delegate Roland Bruynseraede, technical advisor Peter Wright, an F1 driver and an F1 designer.

“Our brief was initially to look at car and cockpit design, crash barriers, circuit configurations. We’ve always had a pretty clever committee down the years, with drivers like Gerhard Berger, Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber, and technical people like Harvey Postlethwaite, John Barnard and Pat Symonds. We commissioned proper research, and we worked on side penetration, wheel tethers, impact absorption front and rear, collapsible steering, leg protection. The crash testing was very expensive, but McLaren made a chassis available to us and we came up with solutions very quickly. In the early days I’d wanted to put a head protection cushion behind the driver’s head, and the FIA recommended it. But you don’t get anywhere in F1 if you recommend something. If it weighs a few ounces they won’t put it in. So it has to be mandatory. And nobody will accept a change that you just think would be a good thing. You have to prove it.

“Max Mosley, who’d taken over from Balestre as FIA president in 1993, made the funds available to get all this work done. Poor old Max, he’s had to live through a lot of garbage recently, but I have to say he’s been tremendous in supporting our safety work and pushing it through. Things have come a long way. When I started, one in 10 accidents resulted in death or serious injury. Now the ratio is one in 300. Think of Robert Kubica’s accident at Montréal last year. I was watching the race with Lauda on TV in the paddock and Niki said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘He’ll be unconscious. At the very least.’ Well, he was only briefly unconscious. He was cracking Polish jokes as they lifted him out.”

In 2004 Sid retired as F1’s medical chief at the races. “I handed over to Gary Hartstein. In some ways I had a sense of relief, not because I didn’t want to do the job any more, but because of those endless long flights. I calculated I spent up to 140 days a year at the circuits, but I also spent 82 days physically in an aeroplane. Also, F1 has changed completely since the 1970s. There isn’t the same sense of fun. Back then, even though there was tragedy, there was fun. The security is so high now, and the drivers, quite understandably, don’t want to be bothered with all the people in the paddock. So they just do the disappearing trick. I used to have dinner with the drivers, enjoy their company, but in the end they would just go back to their rooms, have room service and go to sleep. Eventually that’s what I did too.”

Sid is still president of the FIA Institute of Motor Sport Safety. “We meet every three months, and we have a couple of scientific gatherings each year. We’ve developed a new type of safety barrier for use where there is little room for run-off, to stop a car from 200kph with acceptable rates of deceleration. After a lot of scientific testing using dummies, it was installed at Monza, at the second chicane and at the Parabolica. And it’s not just about circuit racing. I took a look at a round of the World Rally Championship, and found it was like F1 in the 1960s. So we set up a research group. If a car hits a tree sideways it wraps around the tree, and the energy comes into the cockpit. It kills people. Now we’ve got new side protection in rally cars, which I believe has already saved lives. There’s a karting group too. There were some karting deaths in children, and we’ve established that an adult-style crash helmet doesn’t work properly on a child’s head, even if it’s the right size: there’s a danger of neck injury. A lot of data was gathered by X-raying the heads of children from six to 18, and now we’ve got some new helmets for children of different ages.”

Sid is 80 now, but his energy is still prodigious. When we met he’d just flown in from an Institute meeting at Indianapolis. “We co-operate closely with the Council for Motor Sports Safety in the USA, and we had NASCAR people there too.”


Today there are already many drivers in F1 who do not know Professor Sid Watkins. But each time they line up on the grid they have reason to be grateful for his 30 years of dedicated work, his unruffled common sense, his down-to-earth determination to make things better. Generations of drivers still to come, and in fact every motor sport enthusiast, should also feel grateful. Thank you, Prof.