Race Weekend Central

Formula 1 Friday: The Prof

_“There’s only one real hero in the F1 paddock. Sid Watkins”_ – Mika Hakkinen

As we touched on briefly a fortnight ago, motor sport on both sides of the ocean lost one of it’s true legends recently. A man to whom our sport will forever be in debt – Professor Eric Sidney Watkins. His huge personality and irreverent sense of humour will be missed around the world, but his legacy will live on, not only within motor sport, but within the medical world as a whole.

“The Prof” as he was known around the paddock had worked within F1 for four decades working tirelessly to improve safety standards within the sport, but whereas that would have been more than enough for the majority, he also led neurosurgical units in New York and London, conducting pioneering research into Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy alongside other brain and spine disorders. Quite the man indeed.

Sid Watkins will be missed not just by the drivers and teams in F1, but by the whole motor sports world.

Sid Watkins was born in Liverpool in 1928, the son of a motor trader. With his heart always set on pursuing a career in medicine, Sid juggled his studies in Oxford with working club meetings as a medical officer at the Silverstone Circuit (this career juggling continued throughout his life – Sid actually took his time on motor racing work as holiday from his surgery career at the Royal London Hospital). His first taste of F1 came as he was working in New York in 1962 and offered to help out in the very basic medical facilities at Watkins Glen for the US Grand Prix. There he got to know the F1 fraternity and having moved back to the UK, having been appointed Professor of Neurosurgery at the London Hospital, he was invited by the RAC to work at the British Grand Prix. Over to Sid –

“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 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…”

One day in 1978, a certain Bernie Ecclestone (who Sid had yet to meet), came to Sid’s consulting practice with a minor medical complaint. As it happens, Bernie was in fact “checking him out” and was impressed by his no-nonsense manner and clear expertise. Four days later, Sid was on his way to the Swedish Grand Prix as F1’s new Medical Officer. By 1981, he had become President of the FIA Medical Commission. It was the best decision Bernie ever made.

Sid was one of the few people who could, and did, stand up to Bernie. In fact, some in the paddock go so far as to say that Sid was the only man to whom Bernie deferred. As a result they developed a close friendship and whatever Sid needed to improve safety practices at the circuits, Sid got, with the full support of Bernie. On many occasions Bernie would have to tell the circuit that they had to provide what was asked for, or the race wouldn’t take place.

Sid would usually be found lounging in the medical car before a race, a Havana cigar in his mouth, his naturally languid manner at the fore. However, come an accident, the cigar would be gone and the ultra-professional manner at the fore. More than once his physical bravery would be tested too – remember up until latterly perhaps the greatest risk at a racing accident was that of fire. Never was that more clear than when Sid attended to Riccardo Paletti who had crashed into the back of a stationary Didier Pironi at the start of the 1982 Montreal Grand Prix.

The car’s fuel tank had split and was pouring liquid over the circuit – regardless and selfless as always, Sid went immediately to the cockpit to tend to Paletti, quickly establishing he still had a pulse. Within seconds the car was ablaze, Sid still present, but was quickly extinguished. It took some further 25 minutes to stabilize Paletti and remove him from the cockpit, from where he was taken to the nearby hospital. Sadly he was lost later that evening.

Despite the irreverent, happy-go-lucky exterior, Sid was deeply affected by the loss of drivers, none more so than his close friend Ayrton Senna, who he was unable to save after his crash at Imola in 1994. Senna spent time with Watkins at his home in Berwickshire where they shared their love of fishing on the river Tweed, and Watkins would visit Ayrton off-season on his farm in Brazil. Prior to that race, seeing how moved Senna had been by the loss of Roland Ratzenberger the previous day, Watkins, with a strange sense of premonition, implored Ayrton to “give it up, let’s go fishing”.

Moreover though, a great many drivers owe the ultimate debt to the skills of Sid – not least Didier Pironi, Martin Donnelly, Rubens Barrichello, Gerhard Berger and Karl Wendlinger. Perhaps most famously though, Sid was on hand after Mika Hakkinen’s horror crash at Adelaide in 1995. The Finn had crashed when the left rear tyre of his car suddenly deflated as he turned into a right-hander – the car careered across the track into the barrier, Hakkinen’s head smacking the sides of the car, breaking his skull.

The initial signs were bad and the trackside doctors, assisted by Watkins, had to perform an emergency tracheotomy trackside. After half an hour of treatment, Hakkinen was flown to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and placed into a medical coma. The disciplined procedures that Watkins had insisted upon and introduced at every circuit, along with his consummate skill, had saved Hakkinen’s life. He then went on to win two Formula One World Championships.

The Prof was not only respected hugely for his medical prowess, but also held in great affection throughout the paddock, not least for his ability to cut through the pomposity he so disliked. At the Japanese Grand Prix one year, lacking the necessary pass, he went into the Paddock Club hoping to pop to the loo prior to a practice session but (due to having the wrong pass) was asked to leave. Had he said something back to them?? “Yes”, he replied, straight faced, “don’t get ill….”

Our thoughts are with his beloved wife Susan, his family and many friends. There is a commonly used cliché that people “leave the world a better place than when they found it” – in Sid’s case, never a truer word has been said.

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