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

2012 F1 seasonPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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. RIP Sid. Horrible news to wake up to. I’d like to see a corner named after him or memorial created so his vast contribution to motorsport is never forgotten.

  2. Thanks for all you’ve done Prof! F1 is a better place because of you. RIP.

  3. RIP Prof, I hope you’ll be caring for the pack in motorsport heaven.

  4. Very sad news. But he has left back such a great and respectable work. I hope he passed away peacefully and without any regrets.

  5. RIP Prof, a true legend.

  6. The best way, of course, to remember Sid Watkins will be by continuing his work – making F1 as safe as it can possibly be.

    In the meantime, let’s just say goodbye. Goodbye and thank you.

  7. RIP Prof. Thanks to you and many others, but mainly you, I’ve never seen a fatality in Formula One.

  8. What else is there to say? Rest in peace, Sir. Rest in peace, and thank you, for all the people you have saved.

  9. Sid Watkins always seemed an absolute professional, enjoyed his commentary in the Senna film, and a real character that F1 currently lacks. Condolences to his family and friends from the whole F1 fan community…

  10. So, so sad. I started watching F1 once he had already left the sport, but as a fan, exploring F1’s historym his name popped up several times and I began respecting him more and more. Despite having only read of him on Wikipedia articles, which concentrated more on the racing than on him, I always remembered him and listed him amongst the most important F1 people of the years when he was active. He is one of those people that earned a place in F1 history without being a driver, and actually helped them all by improving safety in the sport. His role was crucial and he did it perfectly, and although he was already missed by F1 since his retirement, he will now be missed much more and more affectionately. Rest In Peace, Sid.

  11. So sad to be reading this. This man has saved so many lives. Martin Donnellly, Rubens Barrichello and Mika Hakkinen to name but a few. And without his legacy safety in F1 wouldn’t be the same. Think what would have happened to Robert Kubica in Montreal 2007, or Ralf Schumacher in 2004, if Sid Watkins had never been approached by Bernie Ecclestone over thirty years ago. He made Formula One a lot safer. Although it can never be 100% safe at least we don’t have to worry about a driver getting killed every few races. RIP Professor Sid Watkins, now you can finally go fishing with Ayrton.

  12. This just gutted me… sucks in so many levels… I bet Prof Watkins is probably fishing with Ayrton just about now! RIP Prof!

  13. RIP Sid, The Man who changed Formula1 without turning a wheel.

  14. RIP. A grandfather of modern F1. Forget how quick the years pass just sobered me up to the fact Bernie, Murray and Stirling are all in their 80’s. I feel these people stay the same forever. Fantastic achievements in the sport a titan of his field.

  15. What a guy :) It’s such a shame that he never got to really enjoy his retirement but we’re so blessed to have him look after our idols for as long as he did.

    Thank you for everything you did for us and F1 Sid. You will be given the proper respect you deserve when those engines are next revved up I’m sure.

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