The man who did more for modern motor racing than any other has left us. Professor Sid Watkins died at the King Edward VII Hospital in London on September 12, at the age of 84.
It is relatively rare in Formula 1 to come across anyone who might be described as selfless, but Sid – ‘The Prof’ – was one such. Here was one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons, but also a man who served as F1’s doctor for more than a quarter of a century, in the course of which he pioneered all manner of safety innovation, and literally transformed the sport’s approach to medical care at the circuits of the world. Many drivers – not least double World Champion Mika Häkkinen – owe him their lives; every driver is in his debt. “If there’s a hero in this paddock,” Mika once said, “it’s Sid…”
First of all, Watkins loved the sport as a purist, and always did. Born in Liverpool, the son of a motor trader, his ambition from the beginning lay with the medical profession, but as he trained for a career in neurosurgery he never neglected his passion for racing. While working in Oxford in the late 1950s, he acted as a medical officer at Silverstone club meetings, and after moving in 1962 to Syracuse, New York, became involved with Watkins Glen, in those days the home of the US Grand Prix.
It was here that the Prof came to know the F1 fraternity, and after he moved back to England, having been appointed Professor of Neurosurgery at the London Hospital, he was invited by Dean Delamont of the RAC to work at the British Grand Prix.
“This was 1970, and I was asked to become a member of the RAC Medical Committee, and there I presented the idea that we should have the facilities to take an intensive care unit to the driver, if he were trapped in the car, so that if necessary we could start doing emergency work there, on the spot. The chief medical officer at the Grand Prix, when it was at Brands Hatch, said, ‘I don’t believe racing drivers should have anything more, in the way of medical care, than the average person on the road’. It was clear there was a bit of work to be done…”
Later Bernie Ecclestone invited Watkins to take charge of the medical aspects of the entire Grand Prix world. Bernie never had a better idea. In his new capacity, Sid went to the Swedish Grand Prix in 1978, and never missed a race thereafter for more than 25 years.
Elected as president of the newly-formed FIA Medical Commission in 1981, Watkins was known in the business as the only man to whom Ecclestone deferred, always accepting the Prof’s opinion on any safety matter without question. In many ways the two men could hardly have been more disparate, but they always got along well, sharing a contempt for cant and political correctness, a wish to get things done.
During Grand Prix practice and qualifying sessions, Sid was always to be found, kitted out in fireproof overalls, lounging in the back of the medical car, as often as not with a Havana in his mouth. His natural manner was easy and languid, but on one occasion, as I chatted to him, word of an accident came through. The cigar was jettisoned as the car’s engine fired up, and Watkins instantly prepared himself for what might be an emergency.
More than once his considerable physical courage was put to the test, not least at Montréal in 1982, when Riccardo Paletti had a dreadful accident at the start, his Osella hitting the back of Didier Pironi’s stalled Ferrari.
Watkins was swiftly on hand, within seconds of the impact. The Osella’s fuel tank had split, spewing its contents on to the road, but the Prof went straight to the cockpit, and quickly established that Paletti, while very badly injured, had a pulse. A few seconds later the car was ablaze, but if it was quickly extinguished, releasing the driver from his cockpit took a further 25 minutes; that done, Paletti was removed to hospital, where efforts to save him sadly failed.
The loss of Ayrton Senna, a dozen years later, had a profound effect on Watkins, for the two men were close friends, and there is no doubt that Ayrton had come to look upon the Prof almost as a father figure.
He never knew quite why he and Senna became so close. “It was just one of those things. I hit it off with some of the other drivers, too, of course… Niki, Jody, Gilles, Gerhard… There was no bullshit about any of them, and that’s a quality I’ve always appreciated.”
They say that many a physical problem has psychological roots, and the Prof had the most reassuring presence imaginable. For all his elevated status in the medical world, there was nothing remotely elitist about him: he may have been at a circuit primarily to look after the drivers, but was always available to anyone in the paddock. And his manner was such that when he said nothing was seriously awry, you immediately began to feel better.
The Prof was also blessed with a mischievous sense of humour, always sharpened by a loathing of pomposity. At Aida one year, lacking the necessary pass, he dared to venture into the Paddock Club, intending to pop into the loo before a practice session began, but – lacking the requisite pass – was asked to remove himself. Had he said anything to them in response? “Yes,” he replied, deadpan. “Don’t get ill…”
Never less than wonderful company, Sid sparkled especially when armed with a glass of red wine and a Romeo y Julieta, and some of his remedies were indeed unorthodox: “Forget sleeping pills – it’s far better to have a stiff Scotch, last thing…” And he accepted, unlike doctors of the ‘give up smoking, and then come and see me again’ school, that real people rarely lead sensible, blameless lives. “I’ve often joked,” he said, “that if you drive Formula 1 cars for a living, the last thing you need is a brain surgeon…”
Sid Watkins was justly venerated throughout motor racing, held not only in profound regard for his myriad achievements on the sport’s behalf, but also in simple affection for the wonderful man he was. I was proud to count him as a friend, one who never let me down.
When Sid came to Silverstone in July, he was greeted by one and all; now, two months on, he is mourned by everyone who knew him. To his beloved wife Susan, his family and countless friends, we extend our deepest sympathies. Their grief for the loss of a great man is shared across the world. Nigel Roebuck