In memory of Sid Watkins
In memory of Sid Watkins
Today the Formula One fraternity will mark the passing of Professor Eric Sidney Watkins with a minute of applause before the Singapore Grand Prix. Sid Watkins, a highly accomplished neurosurgeon, was the sport’s first permanent Medical Delegate and made an impact on the culture of safety in motorsport beyond that of any other individual.
The much loved doctor, known affectionately as ‘Prof’, passed away last week after a long battle with cancer at the age of 84. He leaves behind a remarkable legacy that will never be matched.
In 1978 Sid Watkins was formally asked by Bernie Ecclestone to coordinate the medical procedures with local doctors at every Formula One Grand Prix. Sid was a keen racing fan and gladly accepted the newly created position. At just his seventh race in the role at Monza he witnessed the horrible crash responsible for Ronnie Peterson’s tragic death. Shockingly, Sid was prevented from reaching the scene of the accident by Italian police. Upon hearing this, Bernie Ecclestone gave Professor Watkins total control over all medical aspects of a Grand Prix weekend.
Since then, Sid Watkins became President of the FIA Medical Commission and also became chairman of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety.
As a result of the work supported by Watkins, Grand Prix circuits now have Armco fencing, mandated width requirements, lower kerbs, pitlane speed limits, scientifically designed gravel traps, tarmac run off, tyre walls, and Tecpro barriers. Drivers have fireproof overalls, kevlar helmets with bulletproof visors, six point safety harnesses, Head and Neck Support Devices, and FIA Superlicences. Cars have defined roll bars, survival cells, fuel bladders, standard cockpit openings, in car extinguishers, crumple zones, flat bottoms, padded head protection, black box data recorders, wheel tethers, extractable seats, side impact protection, and now lowered noses to prevent aerial accidents.
Not only was Sid Watkins responsible for initiating so many tangible safety improvements, but his 33 year tenure in the sport oversaw a major cultural change towards risk management. Motorsport will always be dangerous, but today the hazards are managed instead of simply being accepted for what they are.
The scope of Watkins’ influence on modern safety standards is not to be underestimated. He took charge of large high-level jobs such as changing the organisational structure of race control and introducing consistent medical facilities around the world, but he also paid attention to minor details such as the leather seams in Nomex gloves that would melt onto driver’s hands in the case of fire.
The Professor was able to push through so many improvements thanks to his determined 'no bullshit' attitude that won him the respect of many. With the support of Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA, he forcefully made sure that all Grand Prix organisers met his demands and did not tolerate any compromise. Watkins cancelled a British Grand Prix practice session one year because the medical helicopter was not ready. When Ecclestone volunteered the use of his own private chopper in the event of an accident, Watkins told him that would be fine once they ripped out the leather upholstery and made room for a stretcher. Not surprisingly, Ecclestone soon agreed that cancelling the session was the best option.
Sid Watkins was not just a fine administrator. He was a hands-on doctor who rode in the medical car at the start of every Grand Prix. As such, he was often first on the scene of a major accident and was directly responsible for saving the lives of several drivers. Even more owe him their legs, or their hands and feet, as a result of his prompt and skilled medical attention.
Watkins saw the drivers in their most frightened and vulnerable states and was a father figure to many. Although Sid is best remembered for his very close friendship with Ayrton Senna, he maintained close relationships with drivers as far back as the seventies. James Hunt would sarcastically salute ‘Prof’ as he drove past the medical car in the pitlane. Sid Watkins’ compassion, professionalism, and selfless devotion to others ensured he was always immensely respected.
Sid Watkins authored two books, the first of which titled 'Life At The Limit' detailed his time in the sport up until 1996. It is a fascinating read full of hilarious anecdotes but is also very touching. It is hard to read the first chapter about Ayrton Senna without feeling utterly heartbroken. Watkins was a brilliant story teller and if you ever have a chance to read his book, you certainly won’t regret it.
Formula One fans and personnel will commemorate Sid Watkins tonight with a minute of applause, but many have already paid tribute to a much loved man. Ron Dennis led the tributes last week with a touching statement.
“No, he wasn’t a driver. No, he wasn’t an engineer. No, he wasn’t a designer. He was a doctor, and it’s probably fair to say that he did more than anyone, over many years, to make Formula One as safe as it is today. As such, many drivers and ex-drivers owe their lives to his careful and expert work which resulted in the massive advances in safety levels that today’s drivers possibly take for granted. But, more than that, Sid was a dear friend of mine, and I’ll miss him bitterly ... He was a truly great man and the world of motor racing simply won’t be the same without him”.
When Sid Watkins started working in Formula One in 1978, one in ten accidents resulted in death or serious injury. Today the rate is one in 300.
Sid Watkins is survived by his wife, Susan, and their six children.
Professor Eric Sidney Watkins OBE FRCS
1928 – 2012
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