s I was doing one of my periodic office clear-outs recently, for some reason I began to think about phone conversations
— sitting in that chair, at that desk — down the years. My office sits at the far end of the garden, and there have been times when circumstances have dictated that I’ve been in there round the clock. One such was May 2, 1994, the day after Ayrton Senna’s death at Imola, when I’d got to bed in the early hours on race night, flown home on Monday morning, then worked through the afternoon and night. The racing world had been turned upside down, and there was much to be done, and that was the end of it. Sometimes, though, I’ve found myself in the office at an unlikely hour for more parochial reasons, one of them that I’ve spent so much time on the phone during the day that the light is already failing as I start work on a story that needs to be in the following morning. Not very smart, I grant you, but then there are calls you can’t turn away. Common sense tells you not to pick up, but then you note the caller’s ID and
you can’t resist. Anyway, as I paused from tidying up, and sat down with a coffee, I started idly reminiscing about conversations from times gone by, with people no longer around. I thought back, for example, to those countless occasions when the phone would ring just as I was on the point of leaving for the day. It was invariably
Jenks: “I’ve just been thinking about that lap of Senna’s on Sunday…” An hour and a half later I’d go in for supper.
Usually James Hunt — “Whatever has Mansell been getting up to now?” — rang during the day, and so, too, did Rob Walker, invariably the very soul of laconic courtesy, save on those occasions when he was so worked up about something that he would forget even to say hello, instead drawling straight to the topic — “Nigel, has that “”””””” German been cheating again?” — on his mind.
Professor E S Watkins was similar in that respect. Usually, when you picked up the phone, the quiet voice at the other end would say, “Hello — it’s Sid”, but occasionally there would just be a chuckle, then an opening remark: “Max is trying to get rid of me again — but I don’t think Bernie’ll let him do it…”
Why is Max trying to get rid of you? “Oh, you know me — I don’t snap to attention when I’m being spoken to by my betters! And he’s seen me at the races on TV, and apparently doesn’t think I’m smart enough — he doesn’t like my tatty old cap…” Anyone familiar with my writings may have taken on board by now my distaste for political correctness, which I hold responsible for the bulk of society’s ills in the 21st century. It is not by chance that the
folk in motor racing of whom I have been fondest tend to be of similar opinion, and ‘The Prof’ was a prime example. As far as I’m concerned, that was why he was the man he was — and why he was able to achieve as much as he did, both as one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and, for 30 years, as Formula l’s doctor. He didn’t care for bureaucracy and cant, the Prof, as illustrated by a story he once told me about his life away from racing. “I remember getting a note from the Dean at The London Hospital. I was a member of the academic board, but hardly ever went to its meetings, because they were on Monday, which was my operating day. This note said there was an item on the agenda about ‘the absence from meetings 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 until you’re awakened for afternoon tea, then dash off— to avoid rush hour — 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 discuss absence…” Some clue to Watkins’s personality may be gleaned from the identity of the drivers
— Lauda, Scheckter, Villeneuve, Berger — with whom he became close friends. And Senna, of course, revered him. “Ayrton would get off a plane at Heathrow, come straight to ‘The London’, and we’d go off and have a curry somewhere in the East End. It was quite funny, actually — you’d see people looking at him, thinking, ‘That guy looks just like Ayrton Senna, but it can’t be — what would he be doing in a place like this?” ED
For years the Prof would suggest to Senna that, once in the lead, he should back off a touch, but it was always to no avail. “Ayrton couldn’t help himself — and that, in my opinion, was his main fault as a racing driver. I used to tell him that the clever driver is the one — like Alain [Prost] — who wins while taking the least out of himself and the car. And he’d say, ‘Yes, I know you’re right — every time I go past your medical car, I remember what you said, and I feel guilty about it. But by the time I get to the next corner, I’ve forgotten…”
It was a certainty, too, that Sid would hit it off with Innes Ireland, by then working in Fl as a journalist. “Ah, Innes, now there was a man. Very brave — immensely courageous, I think, throughout his whole life, not least in his final illness. He had prostate cancer, and he just called it, ‘The dreaded lurgy…’
“Innes was such a great chap. Completely nuts in many ways. My favourite photograph of him is in his book, All Arms and Elbows, showing him undergoing rehabilitation in St Thomas Hospital after one of his shunts. He’s in an orthopaedic bed, a hoist above him, and he’s leaning on the edge of the bed, with a cigarette going, and a bottle of scotch on the nightstand. Lovely man…”
Over time Watkins, as we know, literally transformed medical practices in motor racing, but, as he said, there was plenty of scope for doing so. Fifty years ago, working at a hospital in Syracuse, New York, he was based near Watkins Glen, and in 1962 was invited to join the medical team at the US Grand Prix.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going there, and I’ve got some sort of responsibility, I’m not going to do it unprotected, so I took an anaesthetist with me, and an orthopaedic surgeon, and we went as a team. We took all our own equipment, and until 1969 that was the way I functioned at the Glen. We had a very primitive hut — we used to have to sweep the flies out, and spray disinfectant around to make it smell a bit clinical! “In ’69 Graham Hill had a bad accident at the Glen, and broke his legs. They took
him to the hospital in nearby Montour Falls — and it was shut! He had to be taken to another one, 40 or 50 miles away. Nowadays, of course, at every circuit the nearby hospitals have been inspected, and we have a full list of the people on call, so we know who we’re dealing with. And of course we had to insist on helicopters everywhere, because of the traffic problems — I remember that, at Anderstorp in 1978, there was no helicopter, except on race day. They said practice wasn’t dangerous…
“The medical centre was a caravan — and it would only accommodate one injured person at a time. They had a tent alongside, to act as overflow. Brands Hatch wasn’t much better — the medical centre was under the grandstand, and you had to go through the tunnel, through the public area, and carry the stretcher down the steps. Not what you’d want, really.”
Watkins had returned to England in 1970, taking up the position of Professor of Neurosurgery at The London Hospital. Dean Delamont was a friend, and he asked Sid to become a
member of the RAC Medical Committee, and to work at the British Grand Prix. It was in the summer of 1978 that Watkins was asked to become Medical Consultant to FOCA — in effect, to take charge of the medical aspects of Fl. The offer,
of course, came from Bernie Ecclestone, and in a typically roundabout way. “Bernie rang me, and said he wanted an appointment. I said, ‘What about tonight? Seven thirtyin my office’. He seemed a bit surprised, but he turned up in
his best gear, looking very dapper. I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ Can’t see out of my right eye’. I had a look, and said, `Mr Ecclestone, this is not a recent problem — you’ve had this since you were very young’, and he said yes, that was right. I said I was a brain surgeon, rather than an expert on eyeballs, but if he’d like a proper opinion, I’d organise it. He said, ‘Yeah, OK, you do that…’
“It was all an excuse to come and see me. Then he said, ‘We’ve got a lot of problems in Fl. How about coming to every race, and sorting out the medical side?’ I said, ‘Yes, OK’.
“He said, ‘You want to be paid, I suppose?’ I said, ‘Well, it seems reasonable’. He said, ‘Well, how much d’you want?’ I said I hadn’t the slightest idea. He said, ‘Well, what about $35,000 for the season?’ I said ‘OK’ — and then he said, ‘Of course you pay your own expenses — air fares, hotel bills, hire cars…’
“At the end of the first year my accountant rang me: ‘What’s this Formula 1 business?’ I said, ‘Well, they pay me 35 grand’, and he said, ‘Yes — and it’s cost you more than that in travel!’
“After a few years Bernie said to me, ‘I don’t think we’re paying you enough’.
I said, ‘I’m aware of that’. ‘OK’, he said, ‘I’ll pay you 50…’ He’d been very clever in the first place, though, hadn’t he? Got me to agree — and then told me how much it was going to cost me!” For 26 years Watkins was present at every Grand Prix, and I always found it difficult to comprehend how he managed to combine that with his work at ‘The London’. Sid found a way: “I was chairman of the department, so I wrote the rota. There was me 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 race 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 Grand Prix weekends — I used all my annual leave for the races, so I basically had no holidays at all…”
Whether or not he paid Watkins what he was worth, Ecclestone well knew the value of the man he had hired, and indeed it was a fact that down the years Sid was the only man in the paddock — perhaps the world — to whom Bernie always deferred. Very
different people they may have been, but crucially they shared a profound distaste for red tape, and an ability to get things done. “Only once did Bernie try it on with me — at Imola in 1987, when Nelson Piquet went off at Tamburello in Friday practice. There was no way I was going to let him near a car again that
weekend — two hours after the accident, he didn’t even know he was a racing driver!
“Next morning Bernie’s suggesting I should let Nelson do a few laps, and if he felt all right, he could go into qualifying. I said, ‘Bernie, if Nelson gets into a car, I’m leaving the circuit — and I won’t be back’.
All the Italian doctors agreed with me, and he said, ‘Yeah, all right then…’
“Then he said, ‘He’s going to fly his own plane 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, that’s his responsibility, but if I clear him to drive, and he kills himself — or someone else — on the track, it’s mine. For-get it!’ And he did…”
Nine years earlier, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, only Watkins’s seventh race in his new capacity, had sparked what was effectively a revolution in Fl medical procedures. In a multiple accident at the start, Ronnie Peterson suffered severe leg injuries, and 12 hours later an embolism would end his life. Sid was outraged by the events of the day.
“I couldn’t even get to the accident — first because I didn’t have a car, second because, when I tried to get there on foot, the police wouldn’t let me through. So I went straight to the medical centre, and received him there. He was quite conscious and rational. We put a splint in his legs, and we put a drip up. That was all done correctly, but there was no crowd control at all — while I was working on Ronnie, a photographer pointed a camera between my legs, to get a picture of him. I kicked him…
“When I started to write descriptions of how the medical centres needed to be, security was one of the requirements, and proximity to the helicopter was another — we had to carry Ronnie through the crowd to put him in the helicopter…”
Ecclestone’s response was immediate. Appalled that Watkins had not even been able to go to the accident scene, he decided that, between them, they had to take responsibility for circuit rescue, that in future a medical car had to be available, enabling Sid to follow the opening lap of the race, and to get to any accident.
“That was a huge step — from me being there to give medical advice to being actively involved in the rescue. Of course in many places it wasn’t appreciated at first. At Monaco they tried to stop us driving out of the pit exit, so Jacky Ickx — who was driving me — just aimed the car at Michel Boeri, and made him jump out of the way!” Sid was always a wonderful raconteur, and some of his very best stories ID
concerned the medical car and those who drove him in it. They were not of uniform quality.
“When I started, the car was driven by Tom, Dick or Harry. At Watkins Glen, I remember, they produced a rather fat chap. We had a car without a back seat, so the anaesthetist had to lie, spread-eagled, on the floor. Wasn’t ideal…
“After a few laps with this chap, I knew there wasn’t a chance we could complete the opening lap without being caught by the pack, so I picked a point where we could come off the circuit, then get back to the pits through the infield.
“Just before the start, my driver began to pant a bit, and sweat, and when we got going he hit the chicane — very hard. He said, ‘We got up in the air’, and I said, ‘Yes, I realise that…’
“After that we had various experiences, and it was obvious we needed to sort it out. At Long Beach Paul Newman offered to drive, but Bernie — typically — said, ‘No way you’re being driven by film stars!’ Instead we got Phil Hill, who was magnificent and became a great friend.”
At Kyalami one year the recently retired Carlos Reutemann was asked to drive the medical car. “He said yes, but he’d have to test it first. We went out in one of the two Fords supplied, and through the esses he had it flat — and let go of the steering wheel, put his finger in the spokes, and wound the wheel all the way in one direction, and then
all the way in the other. The attitude of the car didn’t really change at all! He said to me, ‘Why doesn’t Bernie get you a decent car?’ “Anyway, when we got back the engine was kaput, so we tested the other car, and that seemed OK. Then, just before the parade lap, we got in — and it wouldn’t start! I said, ‘We need
another car’, and they said, ‘We haven’t got one’, so we ran into the car park behind the pit straight, and looked for a car with its ignition key left in. When we found one Carlos jumped in, brought it near to the podium area, and there we transferred all the medical equipment into it. “They were almost ready to start, so he drove onto the track and reversed through the Fl cars so we could join the back of them — it was the only time I ever saw
Carlos Reutemann smile! After the race we put the car back where we’d found it, and I’m sure the driver must’ve wondered what had happened to it. He never knew…” Then there was the time Niki Lauda chauffeured Watkins at Barcelona. “He said, ‘I’ll come just before the start’, and it turned out that he’d never driven round the
circuit before — nor had he driven this car, a special Mercedes estate.
“He got one lap in, and then we went to the start of the parade lap, and he hadn’t got a seat belt on — or a helmet. I said that he ought to put them on, and he said he wouldn’t. Why not? ‘Because I don’t want to feel over-confident…’ Amazing.
“Anyway, Niki drove — superbly — and then we sat at the pit exit. Soon he got bored, and said, Tees do another lap’ — I had to reach across, and switch the ignition off!”
Another Watkins favourite was Frank Gardner. “Frank was marvellous — so quick, so controlled. I never had the slightest fear with him, and of course he had this tremendous sense of humour. After Mika Hakkinen’s accident in Adelaide, he was asked to describe what had happened, and he said, ‘Well, we arrived, and they punched a hole in the guy’s throat, connected up some electrical cables, gave him a jump-start, and he looked as right as rain!”
That accident of Flakk nen’s, which occurred in qualifying, was the result of a sudden rear tyre deflation, and when the medical team got to him Mika was effectively dead. What happened next illustrated, perhaps more than at any other time, just how far medical procedures in Fl had advanced in recent years. Long afterwards I asked Hakkinen if ever he had had a hero in motor racing. “Only one,” he said. “Sid…” “When I got there,” Watkins said, “it was very dramatic — Mika was blue in the face, because his respiration was restricted. You wouldn’t imagine that the belts in an Fl car could stretch — but in fact they’d stretched so much under impact that Mika’s head had hit the steering wheel and the side of the cockpit. I said, ‘Well, get him out’, and they did that, and laid him down. I opened his mouth, and he was bleeding heavily into his throat. It was clear we couldn’t get a tube down, so it was a matter of doing a tracheotomy right there. The anaesthetist with me immediately produced a mini-tracheotomy set — one of the things, fortunately, that I’d insisted should be available. When Mika began to pick up, I had a look at his pupils and thought, ‘Well, he’s going to survive’ — but he wouldn’t have done if
we hadn’t had that set-up.
“After Senna’s accident, Max Mosley formed the FIA Expert Advisory Group. McLaren lent us a chassis, and we put a dummy in it, and crashed it in various directions at the MIRA test facility to get data about what was happening to the head and chest. In a lateral accident, the head and neck would go right over the side of the chassis, so for ’96 we introduced the high cockpit sides — and every team except Ferrari complained to me about it! I’m always singularly unimpressed when people say a safety measure is expensive. One team principal indignantly said to me, ‘You’ve just cost me a million pounds, to change the chassis’, so I said, ‘Well, knock it off your driver’s salary — it’s for him, not me…” These days all circuit
medical centres must have an intensive care unit equipped to modern university hospital or major trauma centre standard. They must have emergency equipment too, to deal with such as bleeding from a major artery. Indeed, many now have full operating theatre capability to be used in extremis, and there are also X-ray departments, ultrasound, and so on, together with at least two intensive care beds.
These centres are inspected on the Thursday afternoon, and each morning thereafter; and on Thursday, too, there is an extrication exercise, so that the local spinal rescue teams are conversant with the modern Fl car, and the way the ‘extrication seat’ is removed. Before any practice session or race, the facilities around the track are inspected, including intervention cars and ambulances, to make sure everything, and everybody, is prepared.
I remember thinking, after Sid had related the details of Hakkinen’s rescue, of a tale told to me by an F3 star of the 1960s, about a race at a street circuit in Italy in which a driver broke his leg and was taken to the local hospital. Next morning his fellow drivers were stunned to learn that he was dead. “They screwed up with the anaesthetic,” I was told. “Gave him too much — literally put him to sleep. In some places back then, quite seriously, we regarded the hospital as more dangerous than the bloody race track…”
It has been many times said — and rightly so — that every racing driver is in the debt of Jackie Stewart, who pioneered the safety crusade in the 1960s, but Sid Watkins’s contribution has been immeasurable. I will always think him the greatest man I have known in motor racing.