Sid

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.”

80 thoughts on “Sid

    1. The word “legend” is banded around too much these days, but surely it befits a man who has contributed so much to the sport we all love. Life at the limit remains one of the best motorsport books I have ever read. Much missed.

  1. Before Professor Watkins became the F1 doctor in 1978 driver deaths were very common in Formula One, probably at least one a year for most of the 70’s. In the 34 years since 1978 I think there have only been 6 deaths in a F1 car and only 4 of those at a Grand Prix event.

  2. I saw an impromtu live interview with Sid on Sky during the Brtish Grand Prix weekend this year. The reverence shown to him by Martin Brundle and the rest of the Sky team said everything you need to know about how highly he was thought of.

  3. RIP Prof. I hope he’s finally fishing with Ayrton.

    Thanks Joe for what is one of the best obituaries a man of his calibre could hope for. I guess it shows its not necessarily about being the first, more important to says things best.

  4. Truly inspiring figure, showing how hard work and common sense can save lives. He never seemed a man to court fame, but his decency was clear and his work saves lives. A good life, well spent. God speed, Professor.

  5. I knew something about the man but just now learned more. Thanks for that.

    Do you know of any changes he wanted that were not made eventually?

  6. Sid, you did so much for our sport. Thanks so much. It says so much of the respect that you are held in by the warm and heartfelt tributes that I have so far read.

  7. I had personal experience of Sid’s extraordinary humanity and generosity to complete strangers. Because of our friendship in F1, he agreed to see the mother of a family friend who was suffering the agonizing condition of trigeminal neuralgia, which is cured only by an extremely delicate neurological operation to the face and brain.

    Sid had serious questions about the operation being carried out at her local National Health Service hospital, and offered to operate at the London, waiving his usual, substantial, fee. For various reasons his wonderful offer could not be taken up (and she was operated on successfully locally) but all concerned have never forgotten it.

    On a lighter note, it should be remembered that Sid was a founder member of FOCUP – the Formula One Cigar und Pipesmokers club – with the journalists Jabby Crombac, Freddy af Petersens and Roger Benoist.

  8. Very sad indeed,

    “As a neurosurgeon I shouldn’t be needed at a motor race, the drivers can’t have any brains or they wouldn’t be racing in the first place” Sid Watkins

    R.I.P

  9. It’s been a sad few weeks for the loss of great men. First Neil Amstrong, now Sid Watkins.

    Professor Watkins may not have walked on the moon, but he did a lot of good.

  10. I wonder if it would be possible for there to a be positive side to Sid’s passing with the setting up of a Sid Watkins Memorial Fund. My friends who act as doctors at motor racing events, tell me that their colleagues tend to be on the mature side. In other words, like spectators, there are insufficient young people showing interest and stepping up to act as motor sport medics. My idea would be for the Fund to pay for the specialist training and loss of earnings of younger doctors to encourage them to enter the sport.

    I would think, given the benefits Sid has gifted to the sport, it would not be unreasonable to expect the participants in F1, drivers, entrants, organisers and management, to put their hands in their very deep pockets, to endow such a fund.

    Wilson

    1. Indeed, this would be a very fitting and, most essentially, productive way to remember Sid Watkins. What a wonderful idea, well done!

  11. The Senna film really opened my eyes to how passionate and involved Watkins was in the sport and how he felt it was his duty to protect the lives of the drivers in the sport he loved. I’ve read more about him since watching that film and he is probably one of the most inspirational people in motorsport. Even more so than some of the “legendary” drivers.

  12. I can’t believe there is only one comment!

    I read both of Sid’s books and they are an excellent read. Life at the limit in particular explains in stark detail the fights that Sid had to have with bureaucrats and other circuit and team personnel to get things done. Hard as it is to believe, a lot of the teams and circuit owners were resistant to what Sid and Jackie Stewart tried to start in the 1970s.

    He also struck me as a man with a dry a sense of humour. I recall reading in one of Nigel Roebuck’s books that he was thrown out of the Paddock Club for not having the right pass – being an important rather than self congratulatory person. “Oh well, don’t get ill” was his reply.

    It is obvious that the death of Senna had a profound effect on him. They were very close and it was Sid who comforted Ayrton the day that Ratzenberger died. He suggested that they both retire and go fishing. Ayrton had to continue and poignantly that was the last conversation Sid ever had with him.

    Sid was a real motorsport hero – he got on with all the drivers (save for Pironi who he would seldom get on with). His tireless work to serve others has shown it’s legacy in the fact hat since 1982, we have had less then 10 fatalities at Formula One events – be that drivers, marshals or spectators.

    “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile”. Albert Einstein

    Thanks for a great obituary Joe. I am sure that Sid is in heaven fishing with his friend Ayrton by now.

  13. I had the pleasure of speaking to Sid at the British GP once as I was marshalling at Brooklands, where the FD car was based. Over the 3 days he proved to be a very down to earth guy, as well as extremely knowledgeable about all things motorsport. He was happy to chat and sign copies of his books; we did have to relax the “no smoking on post” rule though!

    RIP Sid – you made the world a better and safer place.

  14. Back in 2010, I watched in horror as Mark Webber tried to go through the slow moving Kovalinen and ended up going over him in a major, major crash. Yet Webber walked away unscathed.

    This is but one example of a crash that, decades earlier, would have ended a life. But because of the Professor, Webber’s major ailment was looking impatient and a bit silly.

    RIP Professor Watkins, and thank you.

  15. The man who made the era of F1 I understood. Who could even be said to have stopped the carnage and death I first saw. Which lead to the possibility to actually televise races, to my view at least, because it could be palatable. His “home” hospital is sadly being wrecked as I write, but this is a good time to look for a copy of DT’s book, The Science of Safety, a tribute to Watkins and the vast input he had into saving lives so we might enjoy.

  16. God’s speed Prof.

    The world will be poorer for his loss. Clever determined and compassionate people such as Sid drive humanity forward.

  17. Inevitable but still very sad, a great man in so many ways.
    Considerably more famous than most drivers of his era. Unique in that he was universally respected and held in the affection of fans drivers and officials alike.

  18. I was lucky enough to meet Sid at a seminar in the NEC – the first year the Autosport International Show went there after it moved from London. He was genuine, funny and passionate about the sport and the care of those who took part in it from Marshall, mechanic, cook, driver, truckie… and he made his point and got it across.

    Many years later, I was working at Silverstone during the Grand Prix weekend, when I had an accident and needed to go to the medical centre. Sid just happened to be in there and after all the time that had passed between meeting him at the NEC and then in Slverstone, he remembered me and we had a good chat about that seminar, as if it was only the day before.

    A genuine guy who did a lot and will be missed.

    Sleep well Sid… every F1 fan, team member and driver past and present owes you a drink!

  19. Sid, who saved lives directly and by proxy, got an OBE. Sportsmen and women, who – let’s face it – play games, are given knighthoods. A clear indication of how wrong some priorities are.

    RIP Prof Watkins.

    (I’m genuinely welling up at this point)

  20. beautiful tributes all (and I’m welling up too) – beautiful article Joe and what a nice quote by Ron. I’m sure he (Sid) and his family are very proud to have made a difference

  21. What a sad day for the sport, and for humanity. Let’s just make sure that no-one in motor racing, at any level, ever forgets what it was like before Sid came on the scene, and just how much he was able to oversee its transformation. Sincerest condolences to all his family and friends.

  22. To me this announcement carries stature equal to that of the passings of Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman and Ken Tyrrell.

  23. I was shocked and saddened when I read the first tweets announcing Profs passing last night. As none of them linked to a news source I started to look on the usual websites, but it was obviously too soon and so I ended up doing a Google search. I was very sad to stumble across a report from 2004 that Sid’s son, also called Sid and who like his father was a doctor, died from a accidental drug overdose. But what I found so poignant about the story was that Sid Jnr was a very overworked doctor and the medication they think he was trying to self administer was to help him keep going, so he could help and treat more people. Tragic.

    Great to read so many wonderful comments about a truly remarkable man.

  24. Crediting Sid with saving lives within F1 and motorsport does him a disservice – compact and lightweight crash structures have been a huge area of development in F1 which has been shared with the road-car industry to great success.

    There are people who have never seen F1 nor heard the name of Prof. Sid Watkins who owe him their lives. The influence of his work rivals and probably outstretches any other person to have ever walked the paddock.

  25. RIP Sid. Long time F1 fan and I remember all too well those dark days when a serious accident was all too often fatal.

    Your contribution to safety has been immense. Thanks for keeping the drivers safer and for the tales and humour along the way

  26. Brilliant post Joe and thanks to all for sharing your experiences with Professor Sid. An enlighted and remarkable man who has lived a trully inspirational life!
    RIP Sid!
    Senna will be very happy to re-encounter his old friend!!

  27. I was sad to read of professor sid watkins passing, joe this was a fantastic obituary and you summed up the man who i respected as a really kind and scincere human being. The work was an uphill struggle with jackie stewart against the track owners, but then that was another era. May 1st 1994 and the day before must have had a profound effect on him, he lost a dear friend, RIP sid…..

  28. As an American we have not been privy to many of Dr. Sid’s comments/observations over the years in regard to F1. I was fascinated by his commentary concerning Senna in the same named documentary.

    Not many can be universally acclaimed and admired, he certainly is deserving.

  29. I’ve never read a bad word about ‘Prof’ Sid Watkins, it’s like u can feel the respect that all of F1 & motorsport world had 4 him #legacy

  30. God Bless Sid Watkins: one of lifes true gentleman, a shining knight above the dark side of the jousting ring and paddock.

  31. Belatedly, it occurs to me that there is a substantial opportunity for F1 to recognise Sid, in just over a week. When John Walton died Minardi ran (from memory) “John Boy” on their rear wing. Wouldn’t it be great, and fitting, to see 24 cars roll out at Singapore with “RIP Sid Watkins”, or similar, on their rear wings? Or for *every* driver to have a picture of Sid on their helmets?

    We can but hope.

    1. I also remember with that issue that Minardi lost a sponsor as a result of non-exposure/breach of contract. Would be great, but I can’t see it happening 😦 *

      *- Unless it’s a HRT.

  32. Never met the man, but anything I ever read(including currently LATT), saw or heard from him just made me want to. Seemed like the sort of chap you would have enjoyed sharing a drink with, and as good an example of altruism you could find. What a bloke.

    Missed, certainly, forgotten, never. Sincere condolences to his Family and Friends.

  33. Really sorry to hear this. An absolute legend and someone I completely respected. Thanks for your caring, I and all everyone else who loves F1 owes you a debt sir.

  34. Can you imagine the stories he takes with him. With the amount of respect the people in Formula One (and Bernie in particular) have of Prof Watkins I’d imagine there will be a great tribute to him in Singapore.

  35. So very sad to learn about this today. Eloquence from both Joe & Ron. Sid Watkins was a giant of a man. The sport has had a few legends but Sid was a lot more than a mere legend. A life spent helping others; that rare ability in today’s world of being able to reach the pinnacle of a chosen profession with a combination of humanity and humility. I value all the interviews I’ve ever listened to or read over the years, given by the Professor, that have given an insight into both his work and some of the drivers he’s helped; a mixture of both good and tragic times. Condolances to his entire family. Rest well Sid – hope the fish are plentiful. Will think of you the next time I visit Dunns.

  36. Of all the people to leave us recently, I had the highest regard for Dr. Sid. I am truly sorry to hear of his passing. My sympathy to all in the paddock whose lives he touched and saved; I know you have all lost a friend.

  37. I remember a few years ago Jacques Villeneuve mouthng off about how F1 was “too safe nowadays”, implying that his fellow drivers were soft. Prof Sid was asked for a response. It would have been understandable if a man who had seen (and clearly felt) tragedy on the track first hand had reacted angrily and slapped JV down from on high. Instead he said words to the effect of “Well Jacques is young and full of balls, he’ll learn in time..” I was struck by the wisdom and humanity. F1 was truly lucky to have a man of such calibre.

  38. RIP SId, a true gent. I met him once at a conference and we spoke briefly about head protection. I was amazed how we went from informal chit chat to deeply inciscive technical details in a split second. Never was so much owed by so many to just one man.

  39. I am not a motorsports fan but more of a motorsport obsessed.
    That got challenged last year with the deaths of Marco Simoncelli, Dan Weldon and what i would call a number of near misses. I personally mused weather I could watch people whom I put on my own pedestal put there life in danger anymore.

    I watched my first F1 race somewhat ironically in 1994, i was 5 years old so i have grown up with the fruits of Sir Watkins’ labour. I thought a lot about what my attitude to motorsport would of been if i was a fan during the 60’s and if I would of been a fan at all.

    One outcome of my reflections was the realization of how grateful I was to Sir Sid Watkins for his work that has helped Formula 1 and other motorsports that has taken there lead safer, a more controlled environment and given drivers/riders a better chance of surviving when something goes horribly wrong.

    I am glad that this era is one i grew up in and that I did not have to experience the loss and devastation that was more accustomed in the past. Something he has had a big hand in.

    And also while I’ve spent years trying to peer through the looking glass into the world of top level motorsport. Ive never heard anyone with a bad word to say. There’s not many whom can say that about.

    Thank You and Rest in Peace Sir Sid.

  40. Were there many more people like Sid Watkins this planet would be a true paradise. Thanks, Joe and Ron, for your well selected words.

  41. At the risk of being snubbed, I’m wondering if Mr. Saywood ever had recourse to call on the the professional services of the Late Village Doctor?

      1. Sincerest apologies for raking hot coals into the wound; you’ve surely lost enough old friends during this last two months.

  42. Only my opinion, but I’d say that there should be something named after Sid Watkins for all the work he’d done for the safety of F1. Maybe a circuit corner [like many of the drivers have] or maybe the medical center at Silverstone or somewhere else.

  43. Not only brilliant and generous, but charismatic as well. One of those few people whom, after listening to them talk for the first time, you instantly trusted and respected within seconds. That energy is what struck me about the guy.

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