Professor Sid Watkins, who served for nearly three decades as Grand Prix racing’s doctor and medical chief, has died at the age of 84.
Known to everyone as ‘The Prof,’ Watkins made an incalculable contribution to the sport both with his active involvement on the scene of accidents and with the work he did behind the scenes to help improve all aspects of motor racing safety.
Much loved by everyone who knew him in the paddock, and famed for his wicked sense of humour, he remained modest about his own achievements.
The son of a Liverpool garage owner, Watkins always had an interest in cars. After training as a doctor at Liverpool University Medical School he served with the British army in Africa before returning to the UK. He then trained as a neurosurgeon at Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, a hospital noted for its expertise in head injuries and trauma. It was while working in Oxford that he first became regularly involved in motor racing at nearby Silverstone.
In 1962 he moved to Syracuse University in New York State, and he was able to continue his involvement with motor sport at Watkins Glen. He then returned to Europe in 1970 to become head of neurosurgery at the London Hospital – and institution he would remain connected with for decades to come. He also resumed his involvement with British motor sport via the RAC Medical Panel.
It was after getting to know Bernie Ecclestone that Watkins was invited to become the first full time F1 doctor, starting at the 1978 Swedish GP. He faced one of his darkest days just a few months later when Ronnie Peterson died in hospital the day after the Italian GP. The tragedy provided further proof of the need for higher standards and a guarantee that drivers would receive suitable treatment both at circuits and nearby hospitals.
Over subsequent decades Watkins would oversee improvements in medical facilities around the world while personally dealing with many major accidents. He became an integral part of the F1 scene, forming close relationships with many key figures and drivers, most famously of course Ayrton Senna.
The 1994 San Marino GP weekend at Imola, which saw the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, was without doubt the biggest challenge he ever faced. However, positives came out of it, for it led to a safety campaign instigated by Max Mosley and led by Sid under the banner of the FIA Expert Advisory Safety Committee. F1’s safety record since 1994 owes much to what Sid achieved in conjunction with the engineers and specialists he called upon.
Although he retired from his frontline on-circuit doctor role before the 2005 season, he remained involved with safety matters as President of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, a role held until stepping down last year.
Sid wrote two fascinating books about his experiences, Life at the Limit and Beyond the Limit, in which he detailed his experiences and recalled some of the major incidents with which he was involved.
Martin Donnelly, Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello are just three of the F1 drivers who would readily concede that they owe their lives to Sid and the medical teams that supported him at various tracks.
However, there have been many more in all kinds of categories spared injury or worse by the improvements that Watkins helped to force through in medical facilities, circuit design, and technology – both in terms of cars and equipment such as composite helmets and the HANS device.
And of course he had a parallel life in the ‘real world’ of his day job at the London Hospital, where the impact he had on so many people’s lives was no less important.
Always remembered with a smile on his face, and very often a cigar or glass of whisky in his hand, Sid will be much missed by all who knew him.