|Known affectionately as Prof, Sid Watkins was a world renowned neurosurgeon. He served twenty-six years as the FIA Formula One Safety and Medical Delegate and was the head of the Formula One on-track medical team, and was the first medical responder in case of a crash. He helped to save the lives of many drivers including Gerhard Berger, Martin Donnelly, Erik Comas, Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barrichello and Karl Wendlinger. Watkins was also a great friend of Ayrton Senna until Senna’s death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Sid Watkins had an engineering background of sorts, having worked in his father’s motor vehicle repair business until he was 25. Watkins went on to study medicine at the University of Liverpool where he graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1956. After graduating he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in West Africa for four years. Whilst there he competed in his only motorsport event, the 1955 West African Rally.
When he returned to the UK in 1958 he specialized in neurosurgery and in 1961 he first took up his position in a medical capacity at a kart race at Brands Hatch and also acted as race doctor at Silverstone.
When Watkins became professor of neurosurgery in 1962 at the State University of New York, he continued his interest in motorsport attending racing at the Watkins Glen circuit. Watkins even took his own medical team and medical equipment to the circuit because of the lack of supplies provided by circuit officials. When he returned to England in 1970 he was invited to join the RAC medical panel.
In 1978 Bernie Ecclestone was chief executive of the Formula One Constructors Association, and he offered Watkins the position of official Formula One race doctor. Watkins attended his first race at the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix. When not attending Grands Prix, he remained in his position as a neurosurgeon in London. Watkins’s appointment was initially met with hostility by some of the race circuits, who saw his appointment as a way of monitoring their performance. At the time, medical facilities would sometimes consist of nothing more than a tent. At the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Ronnie Peterson crashed heavily on the first lap, his car catching fire. Fellow drivers Clay Regazzoni, Patrick Depailler and James Hunt pulled him from the wreckage but by the time Sid Watkins arrived at the scene, Italian police had formed a human wall to prevent people from entering the area. Watkins was initially stopped from assisting with the treatment and there was a long delay of approximately 18 minutes before an ambulance arrived to take Peterson to hospital, where he died the following day. Following the race, Watkins demanded that Ecclestone provide better safety equipment – an anaesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter (Medevac). All were provided at the next race in the USA. In addition, it was decided that the medical car containing Watkins would follow the racing cars for the first lap of the race in order to provide immediate help in the event of a first lap incident, a procedure which continues to this day. At Hockenheim that year the organizers had denied Watkins access to race control. Bernie Ecclestone showed his support for Watkins and the new procedures he had pushed through and threatened to stand in front of the grid and order the drivers out of their cars until the organizers caved in.
In 1981 FISA, motorsport’s governing body at the time, appointed a Medical Commission. Watkins was elected President. In 1982, at the Belgian Grand Prix, Watkins attended the scene of Gilles Villeneuve’s serious accident when he had a collision with the March of Jochen Mass during qualifying. On attending Villeneuve, Watkins found that although his heart was still beating, he could not breathe. Watkins had to insert a tube into Villeneuve’s windpipe for ventilation. Villeneuve was airlifted by helicopter to hospital. Watkins spoke to Villeneuve’s wife Joann who was at home in Monaco. She flew to Belgium together with Jody Scheckter’s wife to speak with Watkins who advised her that it was best that they turn off his respirator, and so motor racing lost one of its true heroes.
Later that year at the Canadian Grand Prix, Riccardo Paletti had a fatal accident on the first lap of the race. Watkins got to Paletti’s car 16 seconds after impact and opened the visor of the helmet to see his blown pupils. Before any medical attention could be received, Paletti’s Osella caught fire due to a ruptured fuel tank. Although Watkins had suitable protective clothing to prevent him from suffering serious burns, nevertheless his hands were affected. After extinguishing the fire, Watkins took off his gloves to put an airway into Paletti’s throat but his boots had melted in the inferno. At the British Grand Prix in 1985, during the drivers briefing Watkins was presented with a silver trophy. The trophy reads; “To the Prof, our thanks for your invaluable contribution to Formula 1. Nice to know you’re there”.
In 1987 during practice for the San Marino Grand Prix, Nelson Piquet crashed and Watkins declared him unfit to race. Although it was only the 2nd race of the season Piquet tried to persuade officials to allow him to compete. Watkins threatened to resign if he was overruled. The officials opted to support Watkins, and Piquet had to sit out the race. Piquet later admitted that it was the correct decision.
In 1992 Watkins founded and became a patron of the Brain and Spine Foundation, a charity aimed at improving “the prevention, treatment and care of people affected by disorders of the brain and spine”.
At the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, Watkins had to attend to his close personal friend, three-time World champion Ayrton Senna, following the accident that claimed Senna’s life. Following two crashes earlier in the weekend that had injured Senna’s countryman and protégé Rubens Barrichello and another that killed Austrian Roland Ratzenberger. Watkins had concerns about Senna’s mental state and had suggested to him that they go fishing, and forget about the race. Early in the race, Senna hit a retaining wall at nearly 140 miles per hour. Watkins was the first to attend to him. Watkins reported that Senna had no chance of survival, due to the graveness of the head injury he had suffered. Watkins said that he felt “his spirit depart at that moment” when Senna apparently drew his last breath.
Following that race the FIA set up the Expert Advisory Safety Committee and Watkins was appointed as its chairman. There has not been a driver fatality in Formula 1 since. Watkins was also responsible for setting up a rally research group and karting research group in 2003. The three groups were brought together in 2004 as the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, with Watkins as president.
At the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, Mika Hakkinen crashed during the Friday qualifying session at high-speed due to a puncture. Hakkinen was immediately rendered unconscious although he had not hit his head. Two volunteer doctors arrived at the scene within 15 seconds with Watkins arriving shortly afterwards and he took the action of restarting Hakkinen’s heart twice and performed a cricothyroidotomy (a procedure that is used to obtain an airway) at the side of the track. Watkins later described this as his most satisfying experience during his time in the sport.
In 1996 Watkins was awarded the Mario Andretti Award for Medical Excellence.
In 2002, Watkins was made a member of the Order of the British Empire. In 2004, Watkins became the first president of the FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society, and he also became the first president of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety. Since his retirement, the FIA has recognized Watkins for being largely responsible for the modernization of medical standards in Formula One. In 2005, Watkins retired from his various medical positions in the FIA, but continued as President of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety until 2011. Following his departure, Max Mosley the ex-President of the FIA remarked that “Professor Watkins has made a unique contribution to improving the standards of safety and medical intervention throughout motor sport.” In July 2008, Watkins was honoured with the award of ‘Most Outstanding Contribution to the Motorsport Industry. The day after retiring, he received the FIA Academy Gold Medal for Motor Sport. Following Watkins death on 12 September 2012, a one minute silence was held in his honour at the Singapore Grand Prix.
The Motorsport Safety Fund organizes the annual Watkins Lectures, at the Autosport Show. These lectures usually focus on motorsport safety related matters. Past speakers have included such luminaries as Max Mosley and Ross Brawn.
Watkins wrote Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One.