Professor Sid Watkins, F1’s medical hero, dies at 84

2012 F1 season

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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36 comments on Professor Sid Watkins, F1’s medical hero, dies at 84

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  1. That is such sad news to hear; such an influential character.

  2. Euro Brun (@eurobrun) said on 13th September 2012, 8:23

    This is the saddest news I’ve heard in ages. Alongside Jackie Stewart, he was probably the most important man in the fight for safety in Motor Sport. It would be nice for there to be some sort of memorial for him at Silverstone.
    RIP Sid.

  3. barkun (@barkun) said on 13th September 2012, 8:30

    RIP Prof… you did a lot to motor racing, now go say hi to Ayrton for us !

  4. Magnificent Geoffrey (@magnificent-geoffrey) said on 13th September 2012, 8:36

    The man is a hero. If it wasn’t for him, the number of fatalities in our sport would have been even higher.

    Everyone in motorsport owes a huge amount to him and his efforts to save lives over the decades. He deserves all the tributes he has been paid and will always be remembered for the work he did as long as the sport continues.

  5. juergen (@juergen) said on 13th September 2012, 8:46

    After seen him on occasional TV appearances, one could tell he was becoming more and more fragile. I hope his family was near him in his last moments.

  6. Mariano (@mariano) said on 13th September 2012, 8:47

    Really sad to learn that Professor Watkins has left us. My deepest condolences to his family.

  7. MahavirShah (@mahavirshah) said on 13th September 2012, 8:59

    Really sad news. I am a relatively new follower to Formula 1 and I started watching from 2007. I think we all enjoy this sport a lot more because of the work Sid Watkins did for ensuring driver safety. Over the past years we have heard of driver fatilites in other sports and yet formula 1 has stayed so safe in terms of drivers safety. So many crashes, notably Webber last year, Kubica a few years ago and even Spa this year have had drivers walking away from their cars thanks to the amazing improvement in safety and it is a testament to him that F1 is considering even more safety. RIP Sid Watkins, many drivers owe their life to you.

  8. Kingshark (@kingshark) said on 13th September 2012, 9:07

    What can you say? RIP Professor Sid Watkins :(

  9. BasCB (@bascb) said on 13th September 2012, 9:16

    While its a sad day for Sid Watkins having passed away, I think he himself could look back and be enormously proud of what he has helped achieve. He saved drivers, marshals, prevented injury of even more and surely achieved great progress in his medicinal “day job” as well.

    Thank you Sid, and I hope you had the time to reflect on your life and be happy as well as surrounded by loving relatives and friends in your last moments.

    • MazdaChris (@mazdachris) said on 13th September 2012, 10:18

      @bascb

      Totally my sentiments. I feel very humble and appreciative for the likes of Watkins, and the pioneering work he did. He’s a man who fully understood the value of human life, and did everything he could to make sure that it was never sacrificed needlessly. In that respect, his passing shouldn’t be mourned; his life and his legacy should be celebrated. There is no sadness or regret to the passing of a life spent so selflessly.

  10. Sean N (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk) said on 13th September 2012, 9:28

    Having read his books I was struck by his medical ability, intelligence, humour, humility and most of all by his love of the sport. We’ve lost another great man.

  11. Alex Brown (@splittimes) said on 13th September 2012, 9:31

    As much an inspiration as any driver or engineer. The balance of his life was so clearly weighted one way, not for winning over other people, but helping them survive their winning. And remembered by Taki Inoue for his love of fine wines.

  12. shaggymike (@shaggymike) said on 13th September 2012, 9:48

    Legend is an over used term, but The Proff has earned it. Not just for his work in Formula 1, but also his work at the forefront of neurosurgery. He will be missed.

  13. Rip Prof :(

  14. f199player (@f199player) said on 13th September 2012, 10:41

    A very special man who lived a very special life. You’ve left a great legacy that we can all be thankful of. You will missed Professor Sid.

  15. Drivers are often touted as legends, but in F1 terms Sid Watkins is up there with the greatest. RIP

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