Sid Watkins has died, at the age of 84. He had been suffering from cancer for some time and died, surrounded by his family, on Wednesday afternoon at the King Edward VII Hospital in London. Sid was the comforter, confessor and friend to many of the top names in the sport – both on and off the track, in addition to becoming what amounted to the beloved “village doctor” in a community that moved from one country to another every fortnight. If you had a medical problem at a Grand Prix, Sid would fix it. He was great company, a mischievous uncle, who recommended a regular glass of whisky and a good cigar. He was a great neurosurgeon and a safety campaigner who strove to make the sport he loved safer for all those involved. His work saved many lives, both in the thick of the action and as a result of changes that were made to cars, circuits and safety equipment.
During his time in F1 the number of deaths in the sport dwindled, thanks largely to his work and the efforts of his sidekick Jean Jacques Issermann, who did the less glamorous parts of the work, such as inspecting local hospitals and medical centres, and of Gary Hartstein, who took over the role when The Prof finally retired.
Originally from Liverpool, Watkins grew up fascinated by cars. His father ran a garage and in the late 1930s, Sid helped out his father in the workshops. His primary ambition was always to be a doctor, but he loved automobiles and was fascinated by motor racing. After studying medicine at the University of Liverpool Medical School, Sid was required to do National Service, being posted to West Africa as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, attached to the Royal West African Frontier Force. It was while he was in Africa in 1955 that he took part in his one and only motorsport event as a competitor, driving a Ford Zephyr Zodiac in a rally. He retired after only one stage and concluded that he was better suited to other activities.
When he completed his National Service he returned to Britain and continued his studies, with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. He learned the ropes as a student of celebrated Joe Pennybacker at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, before moving on to do research work at several university hospitals. It was during this period, in the late 1950s, that Sid first became involved in motor racing as a medical officer at club events in Britain.
In 1962 he was appointed Professor of Neurosurgery at the State University of New York at Syracuse. The facilty was located within easy reach of the Watkins Glen racing circuit, and it was not long before he was involved as a circuit doctor at events at what was then the home of the United States Grand Prix. He would spent eight years in the United States of America before returning to Britain in 1970, having been appointed Professor of Neurosurgery at the London Hospital, one of the oldest and most prestigious neurosurgical units in the world. He would remain in that post for the next 22 years.
Soon after his return to the UK, Sid was invited to became a member of the Motor Racing Medical Panel of the Royal Automobile Club. As a result of this work he became involved with the medical organisation for the British Grand Prix and encountered Bernie Ecclestone for the first time. At the time Formula One was still a very dangerous activity and Ecclestone was looking for ways to improve that situation. In 1978 he asked Watkins if he would like to become Formula One’s doctor at each event, following the death of Ronnie Peterson from injuries that ought to have been survivable. Watkins agreed and, while continuing his work at the London Hospital, he began attending all the Formula One races around the world. It was clear to him that there was much work that needed to be done in order to improve medical care for Formula One drivers. He began to push for the improvement of facilities, both at the racing circuits and at the local hospitals, where injured drivers were taken. He was also behind the introduction of the Medical Chase Car which follows the Formula One field on the first lap of every race, ensuring that there is a doctor on the scene of a major accident within seconds of the crash occurring. Other innovations that he introduced include the requirement for circuits to have a medical helicopter present in order to evacuate any injured drivers.
In 1981 the FIA decided to create a Medical Commission for the first time and Watkins became the first President of the new body.
In the years that followed Sid played a key role in saving the lives of several Grand Prix drivers at the racing circuits, and even suffered burns to his ankles when a fire erupted while he was working to save the life of Italian Riccardo Paletti after a startline accident in Canada in 1982. After that incident there would be no more fatal accidents in a Formula One event until 1994 when Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed on the same weekend at Imola.
After that terrible weekend, FIA President Max Mosley decided to establish a new FIA body called the Advisory Expert Group, which was designed to revolutionise the approach to safety in motorsport, with the goal being to apply science to the problem and research not just the cars, but also the safety of the circuits and the equipment that was used to protect the drivers. Watkins was asked to be the chairman and the work done by this body led to better circuit design, better barriers, stronger cars and a new generation of helmets, in addition to systems such as the head and neck support (HANS) device and energy-absorbing foam around the F1 cockpits. The research that was done led to many other innovations that have saved many lives in accidents since then.
Sid’s commonsense approach and willingness to speak his mind made him a respected figure, and when the various safety groups that had been formed were unified as the FIA Institute in 2004, Watkins was invited to become the first President. He was also the first President of the FIA Foundation and became involved in the FIA’s initial campaigns for road safety.
“Professor Watkins has made a unique contribution to improving the standards of safety and medical intervention throughout motor sport,” said Mosley in tribute to Watkins.
In addition to his work in racing, Watkins was also one of the founders of the Brain and Spine Foundation, a charity in Britain that aims to improve “the prevention, treatment and care of people affected by disorders of the brain and spine”.
He has been the recipient of many international honours and awards for his contributions to safety in motorsport and each year the FIA Motorsport Safety Fund organises a Watkins Lecture, which takes place at the Autosport Show at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.
In 2002 Watkins’s involvement in motorsport was recognized by the British Government with his appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
One of his closest friends was McLaren boss Ron Dennis and his tribute is perhaps the most apt.
“Today the world of motor racing lost one of its true greats: Professor Sid Watkins,” Dennis said. “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 1 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. To his widow Susan, and to his family, I extend my sincerest condolences. He was a truly great man, and the world of motor racing simply won’t be the same without him.”