This week, Formula One lost arguably one of the most important individuals in the sport’s sixty-plus year history. Professor Eric Sidney Watkins, better known to many simply as Prof, passed away on Wednesday following a heart attack, just a few days after his eighty-forth birthday.
Born in Liverpool in 1928, Watkins had worked at his father’s vehicle repair garage until he was twenty-five, while also attending the University of Liverpool. Upon graduating as a Doctor of Medicine in 1956, Sid served in West Africa with the Royal Army Medical Corps before returning to the U.K. in 1958. Now specializing in neurosurgery at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, Watkins began acting as Race Doctor for various race events at Brands Hatch and Silverstone.
In 1962, Watkins was offered a position of Professor of Neurosurgery at the State University of New York, so he moved to Syracuse, where he continued his endeavors in motorsport by working at Watkins Glen. Eight years later, he would return to England as London Hospital’s head of neurosurgery.
A 1978 chance meeting with Bernie Ecclestone, who had checked into the hospital for a medical problem, saw Prof offered the position of Official Race Doctor for Formula One. Watkins accepted the position which, though paying $35K annually, required Sid to pay for his own airfares, hotels and rental cars. At the time, safety in F1 was mostly an afterthought, with trackside medical facilities often being nothing more than a tent and safety personnel usually consisting of a local, off duty ambulance service.
At one of Watkin’s very first GP meetings, the 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, a huge, fiery first lap crash saw Vittorio Brambilla knocked unconscious and Ronnie Peterson suffer sever leg injuries. As several other drivers pulled the Swedish pilot from his wrecked Lotus, local policemen formed a barrier around the accident scene, preventing anyone, including Watkins, from attending to the injured drivers. He was eventually let through, but it would be eighteen minutes before an ambulance arrived and, though his injuries initially appeared to be non-life threatening, Peterson would succumb to a blood embolism in a local hospital the following morning.
After the race weekend, Watkins made several demands of Ecclestone before the next GP: a medical car, a medivac helicopter on site at all times, an anesthetist and better safety and medical equipment. All demands were met, in addition to the safety car following the field around on the first lap of the race in order to be on site immediately in the occurrence of another first lap accident.
1982 was another tragic year which saw the deaths of Gilles Villeneuve in Belgium and rookie Riccardo Paletti in Canada. But that season also saw Watkins save both the life and the legs of Villeneuve’s Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi following a qualifying accident at Hockenheim.
The tragic events of Imola in May of 1994 saw Watkins attend no less than five major incidents. On Friday of the race weekend, Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello suffered a massive, airborne crash, which rendered the Brazillian unconscious and choking on his tongue. Barrichello credits Sid’s trackside assistance for saving his life that day, but there was little the doctor could do for Roland Ratzenberger or the Prof’s own good friend, Ayrton Senna on the two subsequent days.
Immediately following that tragic weekend, the FIA set up the Expert Advisory Safety Committee and appointed Watkins as chairman. The safety standards that have been in place since have seen Formula One continue without a fatality for more than eighteen seasons. During his career before and since, Sid Watkins has been credited with saving the lives of several drivers, including Mika Hakkinen, Karl Wendlinger, Gerhard Berger and Martin Donnelly.
Outside of F1 and due to his work in it, Watkins has continued to work in the medical field and has received many awards and honors. In 1992, Prof founded The Brain and Spine Foundation, a charity benefitting people affected by brain and spine disorders and, in 2002, he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire. He held many positions within the FIA before retiring from the sport at the end of 2011.
Sid Watkins leaves behind his wife, two daughters and four sons.
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