Professor Sid Watkins, whose relentless work to improve safety and medical standards saved lives in Formula One and throughout motor racing, has died at the age of 84.
Watkins, who had been suffering from cancer, passed away at a hospital in London on Wednesday.
Affectionately known as ‘The Prof’, Watkins worked as the medical delegate for Formula One from 1978 to 2004, a period which saw tremendous advances in safety throughout the sport. After stepping down he remained involved in motor racing safety through his work for the FIA Institute until late last year.
Born Eric Sidney Watkins in 1928, Watkins’ father was a miner who set up his own engineering company. But from a young age Watkins’ ambition was to become a brain surgeon.
He gained his doctorate from the University of Liverpool in 1956. Six years later he became the youngest person to hold the post of professor of neurosurgery, at the State University of New York.
While in Britain he had begun attending race meetings as a medical doctor, a role he continued at New York’s Watkins Glen circuit. In 1970 he returned to Britain and became professor of neurosurgery at the London Hospital.
It was while in this position he had his first meeting with Bernie Ecclestone, who gave him the brief of “sorting the medical business out” in F1. Watkins’ work over the subsequent decades undoubtedly saved the lives of many drivers.
If Watkins judged a circuit’s safety facilities to be inadequate, Ecclestone threatened to cancel the race. Very quickly, Grand Prix organisers learned to take their demands seriously.
Together they insisted circuits build medical centres equipped to handle the most serious emergencies. And they instigated the practice of having the medical car following the field around on the first lap, with Watkins in the passenger seat.
Watkins’ F1 work went beyond offering assistance to drivers. When Frank Williams was injured in a road accident in France in 1986, Ecclestone chartered a plane to fly the professor to Marseille to oversee the Williams team principle’s treatment.
Of the many friendships he developed with racing drivers, Watkins’ relationship with Ayrton Senna was especially close.
Early in Senna’s career Watkins treated him for a facial nerve condition called Bell’s Palsy which Watkins’ father had also suffered from. Senna later became more vocal on the subject of safety and paid close attention to Watkins’ work.
Following the death of Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, Senna broke down in tears while talking to Watkins.
Watkins urged Senna to consider retirement, but he refused. The following day Senna crashed violently at Tamburello curve. Watkins arrived at the scene to find his friend had suffered a terminal head injury.
The two fatalities of Imola 1994, F1’s first for eight years, shocked the sport to its core. Within days the FIA established a new Expert Advisory Group for Formula One to look into raising safety standards and appointed Watkins to chair it.
The work to make the sport safe resumed with renewed vigour. Wheels were tethered, survival cells strengthened, run-off areas improved and far more besides.
Watkins oversaw the first ten driver fatality-free years after Imola before handing over the role of medical delegate to Gary Hartstein in January 2005.
One year earlier he had been invited by FIA president Max Mosley to head its new Institute for Motor Sport Safety, an umbrella group for research into improving safety in different branches of motor sport. Watkins remained president of the institute until December last year and was awarded an FIA Gold Medal for his work.
Watkins established the Brain and Spine foundation in 1992, and his work led to major improvements in the treatment of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy. He was awarded an OBE in 2002.
He had already written two books on his time in F1: Life at the Limit (1996) and Beyond the Limit (2001), and was understood to have begun work on his memoirs.
Watkins, who turned 84 last week, is survived by his wife Susan and six children.
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