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

Professor Sid Watkins in FIA cap

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Known to one and all in the paddock as either ‘The Prof’ or simply ‘Sid’, Professor E.S. Watkins was a man who did more – by far – than any other to transform medical practices in motor racing: many a driver, alive and well today, is in his debt.

Born in Liverpool, Watkins was always headed for the medical profession, and he was to become one of the most highly-regarded neurosurgeons in the world. From childhood, too, he had a passion for motor racing, and as a young man acted as a medical officer at Silverstone. In the early 60s, after moving to upstate New York, he took charge of the medical team at Watkins Glen, which in those days hosted the US Grand Prix.

“Things were a bit primitive then,” Sid remembered. “In ’69 Graham Hill had a bad accident, 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, and by road, too: no helicopters back then. These days, 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…”

Over time Watkins came to know the Formula 1 fraternity well, earning its affection as well as respect. In 1970, when he moved back to England, to take up the position of Professor of Neurosurgery at The London Hospital, he was invited by Dean Delamont to become a member of the RAC Medical Committee, and to work at the British Grand Prix.

Dan Gurney leads Francois Cevert at Brands Hatch in 1970 British GP

Gurney leads Cevert at Brands Hatch in 1970

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

“There was,” Sid said, “some scope for improvement, let’s say. I presented this idea that we should have the facilities to take the intensive care unit to the driver, if he were trapped in the car, so that we could start doing all you need to do there. The chief medical officer – who shall be nameless – at the British 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…’”

In 1978 Watkins accepted an inspired suggestion from Bernie Ecclestone that he become Medical Consultant to the Formula One Constructors Association – in effect, to take charge of the medical aspects of F1 – and later he was appointed President of the FIA Medical Commission.

In his new capacity, Sid went to the Swedish Grand Prix in ‘78, and for 26 years thereafter never missed a race. “As I said, there was plenty of scope. At Anderstorp there was no helicopter – except on race day. They said practice wasn’t dangerous…

Mario Andretti at the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix

Mario Andretti leads Niki Lauda in the 1978 Swedish GP: Watkins was horrified at the scant medical facilities

Grand Prix Photo

“The medical centre was a caravan, with a tent alongside, to act as overflow. And 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.

“In effect, we were starting almost from scratch, and at first there was resentment towards me from the doctors in some countries. I didn’t really blame them, actually, but it took time before some of them appreciated what I was trying to do.”

It was at Monza in ’78, his seventh race as ‘Formula 1’s doctor’, that Watkins truly came to appreciate the challenge he faced. In a multiple accident away from the grid, Ronnie Peterson suffered severe leg injuries. Twelve hours later, after surgery, an embolism ended his life.

From the archive

“I couldn’t get to the accident,” said Watkins, “first because I didn’t have a car, second because, when I tried to go on foot, the police wouldn’t let me through. So I went straight to the medical centre, and received Ronnie 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 absolutely no crowd control – 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 one – we had to carry Ronnie through the crowd to put him in the helicopter…

“At the time my position in the sport wasn’t official, in the sense that I was employed by FOCA – by Bernie – rather than by the FIA. After Monza he decided that he and I had take responsibility for circuit rescue, that in future a medical car had to be available, enabling me to follow the first lap, and to go to any accident. That was a huge step, from being there to give medical advice to being actively involved in the rescue.

Peterson ahead of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza

Peterson at Monza in 1978

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

“We carry a fair amount of stuff in the medical car – it’s not an ambulance, obviously, but a quick road car to get us to the accident scene fast. The primary requirement, of course, is equipment to stabilise an injured driver, to keep his blood pressure good, and his pain controlled as much as possible. So we carry equipment to measure blood pressure, and to keep the airways clear. As well as that, there’s a ventilation machine with oxygen, a special mattress, for back injuries, and equipment for dealing with spinal damage.”

Throughout those years, during which time Watkins literally transformed medical practices in motor racing, I never quite understood how he managed to combine that with his work at ‘The London’. Being Sid, of course he found a way: “I was chairman of the department, so I wrote the rota. There was myself 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 the Prof was the only man in the paddock – who knows, the world – to whom Bernie always deferred. Very different people they may have been, but crucially they shared a profound distaste for red tape, an ability to get things done.

“Only once did Bernie try it on with me,” Sid said, “and that was at Imola in 1987, when Nelson Piquet went off at Tamburello in Friday practice. Two hours after the accident he didn’t even know he was a racing driver, so obviously there was no way I was going to let him near a car again that weekend.

“Next morning Bernie says maybe 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.’ He said, ‘Yeah…all right then…’”

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 F1 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. All of this came to be at the behest of Sid Watkins.

From the archive

As well as that, he worked tirelessly to improve the cars themselves, and always insisted that it was changes to them that made the biggest contribution to safety, pointing out that at one time there was little protection for the legs of the driver, who sat virtually between the front wheels. “They put in a sort of protective tunnel, and then finally – and I’d been on about it the whole time – they moved the driver back.

“The single biggest thing, though, was the move from aluminium to carbon-fibre chassis, together with the introduction of crash testing. The carbon chassis has prevented injury in itself, and also utterly changed the stability into which you can introduce all the cockpit changes, which have prevented head and neck injury within the cockpit.

“After Imola in ‘94 Max (Mosley) formed the 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. We learned that the seat belts stretched so much that normally the head hit the steering-wheel – or, in a lateral accident, the side of the cockpit.

“Because of that, we introduced the high cockpit sides for 1996 – 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 said to me, ‘You’ve cost me a million pounds, to change the chassis’, and I said, ‘Well, knock it off your driver’s salary – it’s for him, not me…’”

Always called a spade a spade, the Prof, and that was a quality I – and anyone else despising political correctness – greatly appreciated. As well as being a peerless medical man, Sid was also the best company you’d ever find, a wonderfully dry raconteur.

There was nothing remotely elitist about him: while he may have been at a circuit primarily to look after the drivers, he was always available to anyone in the paddock, and had the most wonderfully reassuring manner. As Gerhard Berger (above) said, “You only had to chat to Sid, and immediately you felt better for it.”

As the least pretentious of men, he had a deep loathing of pomposity. At Aida one year, lacking the necessary pass, he dared to venture into the Paddock Club for a pee, and was asked to remove himself. “Did you say anything to them?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Don’t get ill…”

Unquestionably the Prof was the best-loved character in all of Formula 1, in part because he was not of the ‘give up smoking, and then come and see me again’ school, and accepted that real people rarely lead sensible, blameless lives. He himself sparkled particularly with a glass of good red wine in one hand, a Romeo y Julieta in the other, and some of his remedies were a touch unorthodox: “Forget sleeping pills – what you need is a stiff Scotch, last thing…”

That being so, it was no surprise that he hit it off with a man like Innes Ireland, who worked as a journalist in F1 after the end of his driving career. “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 the years Sid became close friends with many of the drivers, like Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter, Gilles Villeneuve and Gerhard Berger. “There was no bullshit about any of them, and that’s a quality I’ve always appreciated, you might say…”

His relationship with Senna, though, was closer than any, Ayrton regarding Sid almost as a father figure. “He’d get off a plane at Heathrow, come straight to ‘The London’, and we’d go 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?’”

Not surprisingly, the tragedy at Imola in 1994 affected Watkins more profoundly than any other. “I always knew, I suppose,” he said to me once, “that it was more likely to happen to Senna than most. Just like Gilles, he couldn’t help himself – and that, in my opinion, was their major fault as racing drivers. I used to tell Ayrton that the clever driver is the one 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…”

As he related in his book, Life At The Limit, the night before the race at Imola, Watkins had dinner with John Watson. That afternoon Roland Ratzenberger had been killed in qualifying, the first fatality at a Grand Prix in a dozen years. “I said a few things to John that, in the end, proved prophetic. I expressed the view that perhaps Formula 1 was coming to the end of its life, as we, the elders, knew it. I felt that, with all the sociological changes widely occurring in the world, expectations had so altered that the old panache of Formula 1 was close to being no longer acceptable.”

At the end of 2004 Sid Watkins stood down as the FIA’s medical delegate, but he remained president of the FIA Medical Commission, and also headed the FIA Institute, looking after the research, training and management of safety in motor sport, until his death in the autumn of 2012, aged 84.

I last saw him at Silverstone that summer, and although he knew that time was short, his commitment to Formula 1 – as well as his irreverent sense of humour – remained undimmed. On a snowy morning in January 2013, a memorial service was held in London, and if – to their shame – the current F1 drivers were unrepresented, such as Moss and Brooks and Surtees and Stewart and Brundle and Hill and Herbert were among the huge congregation of racing folk wishing to say goodbye to a well-loved man – and one who had done more selfless good for his sport than any other.