Obituary - Professor Sid Watkins OBE, 1928-2012 14 Sep 2012
Sid Watkins was the kindest and most caring person one could ever hope to meet in Formula One racing - or anywhere else for that matter. Moreover, anyone who works in or cares for the sport owes a massive debt to a man who made such a towering commitment and contribution to bringing safety levels to what so many take for granted today.
He was totally honest and forthright - and he got things done. As a medical doctor he had presence and automatically commanded respect, and when he spoke there wasnt anyone who didnt stop and listen. Prof, as he was universally known, spoke from both the heart and the head, and always did so with the considered thought of a man who, as a neurosurgeon, had so often literally had the lives of others in his hands. And he was completely independent in that thought. Not for him political correctness or persuasion. If something needed saying, he would say it.
Back in 1991, when Michael Schumacher had just come on the Formula One scene, he had a massive accident at Suzuka during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix at the 130R corner, which was a serious challenge back then. Prof thought he needed to calm himself down a little and told him: Michael, youre a good-looking lad. And if you carry on like this, youre going to be a good-looking corpse
Not long afterwards, Schumacher went out in the spare Benetton B191 and went quicker, for such is the way of race drivers. But many would never have dared to offer such advice in the first place.
In Brazil he once listened to a litany of woes expressed by a world champion well-known for taking a morbid interest in his own medical condition and laying it on thick. After a few minutes, he looked at his subject speculatively and said: Okay, well that sounds pretty nasty. The first thing wed better do is give you an enema Curiously, the drivers ills disappeared instantly.
It was when Prof had ignored Nelson Piquets blandishments in 1987 after a huge accident at Imola, and refused to let him race, that his full authority became established.
Piquet had crashed backwards into the infamous wall at Tamburello following a tyre failure, and been badly knocked about. But hed discharged himself from hospital and turned up ready to race. I said that wasnt possible because hed had a head injury and he might have some brain damage. He said that he hadnt, whereupon I said, Well why have you left your shoe off? He was only wearing one. He said that his foot was painful and swollen so hed let it off.
I said: Brain damage, foot damage, it doesnt make any difference. Youre not fit to drive. He cried on my shoulder, begged and screamed, but I said to Bernie: If Nelson gets into a car, Im leaving this circuit.
Years later, Piquet admitted that he didnt feel right until the end of the season.
That was a watershed for Prof and for medicine in the sport. Up until then, a driver whod been in a big shunt would crawl back into his car and take his chances. Prof had no time for such romantics. If you werent fit, you werent racing. That weekend there was massive pressure from the circuit organisers, not to mention Piquet and Williams, but he stood firm and a precedent was established, and from then on what Prof said went, as far as medical matters were concerned.
He had always been in love with racing, but first became involved while he was working as Professor of Neurosurgery in Syracuse in the early Sixties. Since Watkins Glen was also in upstate New York, he found himself joining the medical team for the US Grand Prix there in 1962. He took an anaesthetist and an orthopaedic surgeon with him and they worked in primitive conditions, using their own equipment. Back then things were crude when it came to safety.
By 1970 he was working at the London Hospital, and there he was contacted by Dean Delamont of the RAC MSA who, knowing of his work at Watkins Glen, asked him to fulfil similar duties at the British Grand Prix. Previous attempts to provide intensive care for injured drivers - in the form of the Grand Prix Medical Unit instigated by BRMs Louis Stanley - had met with a lukewarm response from circuit owners, but now Prof once again suggested that the facilities should be provided to take the intensive care unit to the driver should he be trapped in his car. The chief medical officer rejected the idea vehemently.
It took Bernie Ecclestone to see the situation clearly, and in 1978 he visited Prof, feigning a medical condition, and asked if he would be prepared to attend each race as F1s official medic. Thus began one of the most far-reaching relationships in F1 history.
Over the years Prof was responsible for changing entrenched attitudes. He initiated the availability of full medical care throughout a meeting and in testing, rather than just on race day. Conditions and equipment were upgraded. Training became intensive, and staffing levels increased. At the same time, he worked very closely with the FIA on improving all aspects of safety, from the drivers equipment to the cars and circuits themselves. A movement began which would save countless lives as views changed forever on the subject of the expendability of the stars at the very heart of the F1 show.
He was involved very personally at Imola in 1994, in that fateful weekend when Rubens Barrichello narrowly escaped from an horrendous accident, before Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed. He was particularly close to the Brazilian, with whom he had forged a friendship based on mutual respect.
Thereafter, the quest for safety was redoubled, with Prof in the vanguard of changes which, among other things, included making raised cockpit sides and the HANS head and neck support system mandatory. He kept pushing because he cared deeply, not because he sought reward.
I still think a great deal about Ayrton, he admitted. I dream about him a lot. It's one of the problems of old age: you dream more. There are two or three people in my life who have affected me a lot - my father, the neurosurgeon at Oxford with whom I trained, and Senna - and I dream about them constantly. And I hate it, because they're alive and well, and then you wake up, and have to face once more that they're gone.
Speaking of Imola, he once said: Given a retrospective choice between a Tamburello or a Senna, I do not believe any sane person would now select the wall.
It is a lasting tribute to the passionate and compassionate work of this great man that safety standards in Formula One racing - and across motorsport - have never been higher.