Modern Times

One way or another, every Formula One driver over the past 23 years has cause to be grateful to Professor Sid Watkins. More than a handful owe their very lives to his inspired skill at the trackside, within moments of a major accident And all of them have benefited from his work as President of the FIA Medical Commission, relentlessly forcing circuits to comply with higher medical standards, and putting into place rescue systems to ensure that, when an accident does happen, an injured driver will get the most appropriate aid within the shortest possible time.

Not all his work happens during the races, of course. As Chairman of the FINs Expert Advisory Committee, he has been centrally involved in farreaching improvements to car safety, like cockpit side-impact protection and the removable seat Drivers tend to consult him about anything that bothers them, and he probably knows more about their personal affairs than anyone on earth. All of them have enjoyed his unselfish friendship and down-to-earth humour. To everyone, from world champions to autograph hunters, he is simply known as Prof. Throughout the paddock, he is probably held in higher regard and greater affection than anyone else in F1. Atop neurosurgeon who has operated for almost 40 years in Britain and America, Profs daily responsibilities outside Fl have always been more than enough to consume an ordinary man. But he’s anything but that. When anyone in the F1 circus, at any time, anywhere has a serious medical problem he gets involved at once. As soon as he heard of Frank Williams’ dreadful hire-car accident in France, Prof borrowed a private jet from Bernie Ecclestone and was at the Marseilles hospital within hours. After several operations in France, Frank was flown to the London Hospital where Watkins, as the incumbent Professor of Neurosurgery, was able to manage his treatment

Mika Hakkinen, Martin Donnelly, Rubens Bamichello, Karl Wendlinger, Gerhard Bergerjacques Laffite, Didier Pironi and Clay Regazzoni are among those whose lives have probably or certainly been saved by the rapid intervention procedures of Prof and his colleagues. And there have been the ones whom even Prof could not save: Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve, Riccardo Paletti, Roland Ratzenberger and of course Ayrton Senna. Prof and Senna had an extraordinary relationship. Ayrton, not one to suffer fools and with his own very trenchant view of the rights and wrongs of life, recognised a kindred spirit in Prof. They spent time between races at Ayrton’s backwoods ranch in Brazil, and Ayrton found time to fish with Prof at his place in Scotland. Sometimes he’d call at the London Hospital and they would go for a meal at the local Chinese restaurant. There was tremendous affection between them, and Profs feelings at Imola in 1994, as he went to the aid of his dying friend against the Tamburello bathers, can only be guessed at.

For me, one of the most remarkable things about Professor Sid Watkins is that he really does treat all human beings the same. His usual patients are the likes of Michael Schumacher, and he is probably the one person to whom Bernie Ecclestone will defer. Yet if a mechanic has a burn, a fire marshal has a twisted anlde or a journalist has food poisoning, Prof gets involved, at once caring, decisive and effective. I know whereof I speak. Long ago, in a touring car race at Brands Hatch, my car went end over end at Paddock Bend, leaving me with a spinal complaint that came back to plague me 28 years later. Chatting to Prof at the end of a qualifying day at Spa — Prof out of his fireproof overalls at last, and relaxing with his favourite whisky and a cigar — he took one look at my posture and told me my back must be killing me.

Immediately solicitous, he asked to see my MRI scans, and I found myself benefiting from the same level of expertise just enjoyed by Jacques Villeneuve (who had that afternoon gone upside down at 150mph). When, more than a year lam; it became clear I needed an operation on my spine, I had no intention of bothering Prof with it. But having seen me at last December’s Autosport Awards, bent like an old man, he called me next morning and insisted on organising everything without delay. Prof was present throughout while the top neurosurgeon that he’d recommended performed a 31/4-hour operation. Next morning, as I surfaced from the anaesthetic, he was sitting on the bed regaling me with unexpurgated stories about Nigel Mansell that made me laugh so much my stitches were in danger.

The more publishable of those have already appeared in Profs book Life at the Limitpublished in 1996. One of the most revealing books I’ve ever read about F1, it’s full of hilarious anecdotes, just like sharing a dinner table with Prof. (So it’s excellent news that he’s just finished another one, which will be published this year.) But it also shows in horrifying detail just how inadequate were the medical provisions at some grands prix back in 1978. That’s when Bernie Ecclestone first called in Prof, knowing him to be an enthusiast who’d already been medically involved at Silverstone, Watkins Glen and elsewhere. Medical facilities are now excellent in top-level motorsport because Bernie wanted it, and made it happen. Formula One is effectively an autocracy, and because Bernie’s word was law, he was able to insist that what Prof wanted, Prof got. The temporary medical bus at Hockenheim, the flapping tents at damp Zolder and dusty Imola, the tin hut at Dijon, all were rapidly replaced by first-class medical centres. After initial resistance at one or two circuits, Prof got his wish for a fully equipped medical car, driven by an experienced racer, to follow the field around the opening lap, when so many accidents happen. Soon Prof had steered the FIA’s Medical Commission into a tightly-worded network of regulations which now ensures that at every grand prix medical provisions are of an equally high standard.

All this was uppermost in my dozy mind the day after my operation because, as I lay in my hospital bed watching TV, the news bulletins were full of boxer Michael Watson’s negligence action against the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC). Watson, you will remember, suffered a severe injury in a fight nine years ago against Chris Eubank, which left him in a wheelchair with irreversible brain damage. The claim was that, due to inadequate medical provisions, vital time was lost before he was able to get the comet surgery. Now his appeal had been successful, there was talk of the BBBC being bankrupted by the seven-figure damages.

On TV the neurosurgeon who had operated on Watson expressed the hope that better provisions would now be made for rapid access to injured boxers at a time when each minute between injury and appropriate medical procedure could make a dramatic difference to the future health, and even life, of the patient. He got my attention because he was the very surgeon who had operated on me the previous night, and also because I felt that if there were an Ecclestone at the top of boxing, no time would be wasted getting the best possible facilities in place.

I talked this over with Prof next day.

In his view, motorsport has shown the way, particularly in rapidity of treatment, that other dangerous sports — boxing, rugby, equine eventing — should be obliged to follow. Any organising body has a responsibility to offer the best possible medical facilities, and future legal suits could cripple such bodies, like the BBBC. Having watched, and worried, as his own daughters rode in eventing, which has suffered six fatalities in the past two years, Prof was asked to suggest improvements. He had a fund of ideas and submitted a detailed paper, which proposed having proper medical aid beside every inaccessible jump. He received a polite acknowledgement, but has heard nothing more. If you willingly take part in a dangerous sport, you must be prepared to take the consequences, of course.

But if things do go wrong, is it not reasonable to benefit from all that modem medicine can do, as quickly as it can be made to do it? In sports run by committees, anxious about budgets, it may be hard to make the dramatic and rapid changes that have happened in Formula One. It takes someone with the uncompromising power and will of Bernie Ecclestone to ensure that it happens, without delay, without argument. In Melbourne, at llam local time on Friday 9 March, as the first practice session of the first grand prix of the season gets under way, Prof will be strapped into the passenger seat of the Medical Car as usual, engine ticking over, in contact with race control, ready to be at an accident scene within seconds to dispense his special brand of emergency procedure or good-humoured reassurance. As Gerhard Berger once said, “Whatever has happened to you, you just have to see Prof and you feel better at once.”