Sid Watkins: the F1 doctor

Back in the days when Jackie Stewart was King of Formula One attempts were made to rationalise the medical scene at Grand Prix races. With the aid of his Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) and money from all manner of sources, including enthusiasts and spectators, a Grand Prix Medical Unit was created in the form of an articulated lorry fitted out as a super ambulance and temporary hospital. For numerous reasons the thing was a failure, one of the main reasons being that the only regular staff members with it were the driver and a medical orderly. The whole plot was delivered to race organisers in Europe for them to use for the benefit of Formula One drivers, but few of the organisers really welcomed it. The Belgians had a military field hospital capable of dealing with war casualties, the Spaniards had a helicopter emergency system that flew direct to Madrid’s best hospital, where they were accustomed to sewing back together gored bullfighters, while races in America, Argentina and South Africa had to do without the unit, as its movements were limited to Europe.

However, much ground work was achieved by Stewart, the GPDA and the Medical Unit and much thought was given to rationalising the medical scene as far as Formula One was concerned. It was hoped that improvements at the pinnacle of racing would find their way down to lesser activities. Bernard Ecclestone, as head of FOCA when it embraced all the special-builders (or garagistes as Monsieur Balestre quaintly calls them) and the manufacturers, was instrumental in setting in motion a system whereby FOCA supplied an influential medical man for all the races to liaise between the teams and the race organiser’s medical services. The idea originated from drivers like Stewart and Fittipaldi who paid their own money to have their own personal doctor with them at all the races.

In 1978 Ecclestone was looking for a suitable doctor for his proposed system when he came across Professor E. S. (Sid) Watkins. He saw at once that here was a medical man made for the job. Once agreement was reached with all concerned Prof. Watkins accompanied the FOCA teams to all their races. In his typical manner Ecclestone gave Professor Watkins an entirely free band, saying “there is the problem. I think you can do the job, get on with it and if you need any help ask me”. Ecclestone has a shrewd ability for picking people for a job and once he has confidence in his choice he never interferes, but naturally he must have the results he wants. People who work for Ecclestone all appreciate this attitude and consequently do a good job, and if you ask Ecclestone about it he will say “if I didn’t think they could do the job I would not have picked them”. There is nothing worse than a boss who is always interfering, especially on a job about which he knows very little. Thus it was with the medical services at Grand Prix races, Professor Watkins knew what was desirable and what could be done.

From the archive

Sid Watkins left the army medical services in 1956, already a qualified doctor, and as he had an interest in motorsport and club activities like rallies and things, he joined the RAC medical list and was soon helping at race meetings in his role of doctor. After several years in the United States as a specialist in Neurosurgery he eventually got the top job as Professor of Neurosurgery at The London Hospital and in 1978 when Ecclestone approached him to take over the post of FOCA doctor he was well prepared for the job. Not only was he well versed in motor racing both in England and America but he had many years of acting as race-doctor behind him and was neurosurgical adviser to the RAC Motorsport Panel. He had what amounted to a medical passport to most countries and knew his way about the world of medicine on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. No matter where a race was being held, Professor Watkins would have some personal contact with the local medical world. All he required Ecclestone to do was to ratify his position with the FISA and with the race organisers, which was done.

What it means now is that all the Formula One teams know “the Prof.” and he knows all the race organisers and their medical services, so he is the perfect “go between”. He arrives at a Grand Prix well before the first practice and together with the local medical organisation reviews the facilities and cross-checks that everything required by FISA rules for a World Championship event are in order. At some races the first practice session has been late in starting because “Prof.” will not give his sanction until everything is in order. There have been times when the organisers have said the mandatory medical helicopter would be at the circuit by 9.30 a.m. and it has been late in arriving. Not until it is in place and deemed suitable by Sid Watkins will he let practice commence, as far as his side of things are concerned. At one race the medical helicopter was units way when it had to divert to a serious road accident, so practice was delayed until a back-up helicopter was dispatched. When it arrived Professor Watkins was not satisfied with its suitability and made it clear to all the teams that if they wanted to start practice they should know that the helicopter was not really suitable for the job and was only temporary. The right one arrived soon after practice got under way and it was the “Prof.” who looked after all this side of activity. Facilities around the circuit are looked at the day before practice and checked on the morning of each day and a Doctor’s course car and driver are supplied for the purpose. At the start of each race he follows the first lap to be with the action.

Sid Watkins is a great believer in moderation at all times in all things, and enjoys a cigar and a dram of whisky

If all is in order and nothing goes wrong Professor Watkins hopes he has no more to do, but nonetheless he is always on duty and is situated by the race control with his course-car close by and “at the ready”. Only if an accident is a bad one or there is an emergency does the Doctor’s car go out on the track. If the circuit doctors and first-aid posts around the circuit are able to cope with a situation he stays put, so that the severity of an accident can be gauged from whether Prof. Watkins goes off in the Medical course car or not. His drivers vary from solid professionals like Herbert Linge, mentioned in an earlier article in this series, to local “hot-shoes” who happen to be a friend of the Club President or something. There have been occasions when Sid has requested a more responsible driver, not wishing to end up in hospital himself! He does not need a driver who is out to break the lap record every time he goes out. Quite often it will be an ex-Formula One driver or a Formula Two driver on holiday and it is a good thing if the driver knows the circuit well. The medical car varies from the superbly equipped Porsche 928 of the German ONS, to the latest “trick” car loaned to the race organisers, such as the Lamborghini Countach at Monaco, or the BMW M1 coupé in Austria. For preference Sid Watkins is more than satisfied with the ONS Porsche 928 and makes no secret of the fact that of all the drivers he has to work with he rates Herbert Linge and Phil Hill the best.

Professor Watkins is a mild and pleasant man in his fifties, married with a family, and is a realist about motor racing. Like me, he accepts the “law of averages” and knows that you cannot make such an unnatural activity as Grand Prix racing 100% safe, but you can be prepared to the utmost for the time when it proves to be unsafe. We agree that you cannot possibly get through a series of seventeen races at the tempo of today’s racing without some accidents and that, generally, each year there has got to be a big one. You must always be ready for the bad accident being today and anyone who thinks accidents are not going to happen is being unrealistic. At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last year Professor Watkins mentioned to me that he was worried for we had got to September in the 1981 season without a really serious accident. The “law of averages” said we were overdue for one. When he saw John Watson’s accident after the race on the closed-circuit television at race-control, he said he was sure “this had been it”. Mercifully, “Wattle escaped uninjured but it was an anxious moment and the course car did not have to go.

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The great Sid Watkins

The great Sid Watkins

The best-loved character in all of Formula 1: Sid Watkins was responsible for introducing F1 medical care that has saved the lives of many drivers, writes Nigel Roebuck

By Nigel Roebuck

Professor Watkins is fortunate in having an excellent staff at The London Hospital that can look after things for him while he is away at the races, but even so he is always in contact with them. At one race he was staying a long way from the circuit, at an airport hotel, and I queried why. He explained that he sometimes needed to be in continual touch with his staff about various problems and the airport hotel had the best telephone service. Also, had there been any need that he would have to fly back to London between practise days, he was living as close to the planes as possible.

In the last six months a FISA Medical Commission has been formed to set and monitor medical standards world-wide and across the board, Jean-Marie Balestre was responsible for this. “The Prof.” is the British delegate on this Commission and in October last was elected as the first President. There were twelve delegates from the principal motorsport countries, France, Italy, Germany, Monaco, Belgium, Holland, Spain, N. America, Argentina, Austria, Ivory Coast and Great Britain. n m. The Commission has already met twice and more meetings are planned for the future.

Sid Watkins is a great believer in moderation at all times in all things, and enjoys a cigar and a dram of whisky, “a spot of scotch livens up the brain tissues”. He thinks that “a scotch before bedtime would do some of the Formula One drivers no harm”. Most drivers in Formula One are very content to know that in the event of a major shunt they have on hand one of the best brain-surgeons available and if anyone is going to sew the delicate parts of their body together again Professor E. S. Watkins will do it.