At the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal on 15th June 1997, Olivier Panis’ Prost speared into a tyre barrier, breaking both of Panis’s legs. The race was stopped and, as ever, Professor Sid Watkins led the efforts to treat Panis as quickly as possible.
After the race the two championship protagonists of that year spoke to the press.
Michael Schumacher spoke of his distress at the accident and that it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Jacques Villeneuve thought it an over-reaction to stop the race because a driver had broken his legs. After all, he pointed out, it happens in skiing all the time.
So, which side did Professor Watkins take?
Professor Watkins is rightly lauded for his exceptional efforts in improving circuit, car and driver safety from the 1970s until his retirement earlier this decade.
But he is also a realistic, down-to-earth individual who, in the face of ever hysterical views about individuals taking part in dangerous sports, has a refreshingly candid perspective about people like F1 drivers who choose to put themselves in harm’s way.
No surprise, then, that he agreed with Villeneuve.
“Beyond the Limit” is the second part of his memoirs, the first being “Life at the Limit”, which covers the decade and a half up to the Imola tragedies of 1994.
The second part is organised somewhat strangely. The season 1996-9 get a few short chapters, 2000 is covered in race-by-race detail, and the latter third is divided into personalities past and present.
Watkins doesn’t have the “memoirs of race track safety personnel” micro-niche to himself these days – Dr Steven Olvey published his recollections of a similar, slightly longer career in American open-wheel racing last year.
“Rapid Response” is more graphic and heavy going in parts than either of Watkins memoirs, but it also tackles the subjects of safety, technology and, inevitably, politics, with greater aplomb.
The brevity of “Beyond the Limit” makes for an entertaining read but the approach and execution feel rushed and haven’t done justice to the subject matter or, indeed, Watkins’ treasure trove of anecdotes and good-humoured delivery. In particular, I thought the section on the death of Paolo Ghislimberti (the marshal killed during the 2000 Italian Grand Prix) almost perfunctory.
It’s a worthy account but not up to the scratch of its predecessor, let alone “Rapid Response”.