Prof Sid Watkins 1928-2012

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.


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15 responses to “Prof Sid Watkins 1928-2012

  1. Simon B

    RIP Prof Watkins. One of the good guys, the sport owes you so much.

  2. Sad news; one of the old guard, people who helped shape F1 as we know it today.

  3. Stone the crows

    A truly great man. I read recently that Bernie came to see him on the pretense of being sick and then offered him a job with pay far above what he was being paid only to discover a year later that after paying for all of his travel expenses he made no money–that’s Bernie for you. He was also the man who had the precience to ask Aryton Senna to quit the day before he died. A true gentleman and a delightful wit, as well as a pioneer in motorsports who saved more lives than we can imagine.

  4. Loti

    I am so sad to hear of the death of ‘the Prof’. I only met him a couple of times, he gave us a funny piece for ‘Racey Receipes’ and came to the book launch at Silverstone. Someone saw him sitting in the medical car, smoking a cigar and reading the book….. I wish I had a photograph.
    Since Chris’s racing career was ended by head trauma, Sid had several questions and you could see that he was constantly thinking of ways to make racing safer while still keeping the thrills he so loved..
    One of the people who have made a huge difference to the lives of so many people. He will be missed

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard a bad word said about him

  6. Alan

    A great loss rip
    Please get senna to go fishing

  7. Dave Goodhand

    Great comment, Alan!! If only he had last time 😦 But now they are together with all the other greats

  8. Marc

    The prof operated in my mum 19 times over the course of 11 years, without him she would have been paralysed at a young age, he was always a true gent, often walking through the royal londons top floor with his cigar hanging out of his mouth whilst whistling !!!!!!NHL always had time for us kids and often gave us sweets whilst he attended to mums appointment.
    A sad sad loss to all who knew him, a truly great neurosurgeon and an ace F1 doctor and safety advisor, a very sad time,
    Rip “The Prof”


  9. Rupert Manwaring

    When the news of Sid’s passing broke last night for some reason I refused at first to belive it, but of course it was true. Sid was around for most of my 25 yrs in F1, i remember he sorted out an ear infection i had in Brazil with some anti-biotics and the advice to drink a few Caipirinha’s in the hotel bar!

    He also helped more than i can say with the terrible Martin Donnelly accident in Jerez.

    A great loss rip
    Please get senna to go fishing!

  10. Mark

    Rest In Peace, Sid. My condolences to the Watkins family.

  11. Had the pleasure of knowing and working with Sid and several US GP’s in the 80’s.. Funny and serious at the same time, always had something to say!! God Speed Sid!!

  12. jerry

    Drove Sid in the medical car at 8 British GPs in the 90s. A great guy to spend a day with, clever, funny, astute and so much more. I fondly remember sitting with him at Woodcote during practice – Sid with cigar in one hand, mobile in the other doing his ward rounds but as ever ready at an instant for the next call on the radio. Sadly missed. RIP Sid.

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