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Obituary: Sid Watkins – F1 safety pioneer
Eric Sydney ‘Sid’ Watkins OBE, the driving force behind improving safety levels in Formula 1, has passed away aged 84.
Watkins – known as Professor Sid on the F1 circuit due to his status as a world-renowned neurosurgeon – served as the FIA’s chief Formula 1 medical and safety delegate for over 30 years and was head of the Formula 1 on-track medical team.
His long affiliation with F1 began in 1978 after Bernie Ecclestone – chief executive of the Formula One Constructors Association at the time – checked in for a medical problem. He offered Watkins the job, which he duly accepted, attending his first race in the role at the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix.
Watkins pioneering spirit for safety levels in F1 is responsible for the excellent standard of crash protection and medical facilities we see in world motorsport today.
Following Ronnie Peterson’s death after the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Watkins – who was prohibited from treating Peterson at the scene for around 18 minutes – demanded better provisions for preventative and reactive measures, including an anaesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter at each race.
It was at the behest of Watkins that the medical car should complete the first lap of the race behind the field. The motorsport doctor correctly argued that in the event of an opening lap shunt – such as in Monza ’78 – immediate assistance would be able to be administered.
Watkins wasn’t just a doctor, however. He was also a much respected and revered friend of numerous Formula 1 drivers – many of whom received life-saving treatment from the man after serious on-track incidents.
He was particularly close to F1 legend Ayrton Senna. At the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix he said to Senna the two should “leave the track, go fishing and forget about the race” following concerns for his mental state, after the Brazilian driver was badly affected by the crash of Rubens Barichello and death of Roland Ratzenberger.
Watkins was the first on the scene of the accident that eventually claimed Senna’s life the next day. There was no chance of resuscitating the Brazilian; Watkins stated he “felt Senna’s spirit depart at the moment he drew his last breath.”
A year later in Australia, Watkins was tasked with twice restarting McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen after a heavy crash in qualifying stopped his heart, something he latter described as his most satisfying experience during his time in the sport.
Watkins was a selfless individual who was focused on caring for other people and founded the Brain and Spine Foundation – an organisation set up to prevent, treat and care for people affected by disorders of the brain and spine.
Tributes have flooded in from past and current drivers, as well as influential figures from the sport.
An official statement from former McLaren Team Principal Ron Dennis highlighted that “not only the sport, but the world had lost one of its true greats.”
Dennis continued: “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. “
Former F1 driver and current commentator Martin Brundle left a tribute to Watkins via Twitter:
“Motorsport has lost a true visionary and character with the death of Prof Sid Watkins, 84. Great man, funny too. Saved my left foot from being amputated.”
Rubens Barichello also paid his respects to Watkins on the social media website:
“It was Sid Watkins that saved my life in Imola 94. Great guy to be with, always happy… thanks for everything u have done for us drivers. RIP.”
“The Prof”, as he was affectionately known by his friends, was an amazing man, a superbly skilled medical professional and a visionary in terms of safety in world motorsport.
The fact that there has not been a death in Formula 1 since that of Ayrton Senna over 18 years ago is in no uncertain terms due to Watkins relentless contributions to improving safety.
Watkins was born in Liverpool on the 6 September 1928 and died on the 12 September 2012, aged 84. He retired from his FIA medical positions in 2005 but continued in an honorary role with the FIA until he relinquished his position last year.
Image credit: PA
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