Professor Sid Watkins, 1996, Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One. Macmillan, UK. ISBN: 0-333-65774-8

For someone who has grown up watching Fomula One in the last decade or so, it is easy to forget how dangerous a sport it is…and how fatal it used to be.

The recent and extraordinarily sad passing of the books author, ‘The Prof’, is made even more acute while reading this eloquent text as his personality, wit and straight attitude shine through, saddening readers by reminding us such a great character no longer watches over the paddock.

Life at the Limit was written after the death of Professor Watkin’s friend and inspiration to many, Ayrton Senna in 1994.  Chapter one details that fateful weekend…

“Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control.  I cannot quit, I have to go on”. Those were the last words he said to me

– Page 8, Professor and Ayrton’s last conversation…

The book takes you through the recent history of Formula One through the unique lenses of a man of medicine, a man who didn’t miss much.  Although slightly outdated now (the majority of the book focuses on the seventies, eighties, and very early nineties), the Professor does a wonderful job of taking the readers through the development of safety within the Formula One scene, and it is interesting having major races and individuals referred to not by their typical characteristics such as wins, but by the crashes involved and the injuries sustained!

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There are two things that particularly strike me about this book and meant that it was more than just your average lazy Sunday afternoon paperback (and no, the answer is not that was a hardback…).

Firstly, learning about the history of safety within Formula One and the truly calamitous accidents that occurred with frightening regularity was quite sobering.  In today’s day and age, accidents in the top level GPs are more often than not a spectacle rather than a true cause for concern, and so it is easy to forget that only 20 years ago, any accident could be deadly – as it often was.

The Professor details his exploits in trying to convert die hard racers and obstinate racing officials to his cause, and often the situatiIMG_0422ons he found himself in were quite amusing!  Told in his amusing, dry English manner I found myself laughing aloud a number of times…and also feeling his pain as he was faced time and time again with the prospect of pulling another close friend or colleague out of a crushed cockpit.  It could never have been easy, and although he is the cynical neurosurgeon you could feel the emotion behind some of the pages. 

The second thing I really enjoyed was the personal aspect of the book; Watkins knew everyone there was to know in Formula One and was quite close to many of them.  The stories of the race drivers and officials in the early years were a nice touch, humanising them for someone who just knew their statistics.  They served to remind that these, were just men (really talented men mind you) doing a dangerous job that they loved, in an environment that was often unforgiving.  There are so many names that they occasionally blurred together, but I definitely feel like I had taken an enjoyable trip down F1 memory lane…

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All in all, Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One is an great read for someone who is looking to learn a little about the history of safety in the sport, or any fan who is looking to learn a little more about the great Professor and the personalities of his time.  Stories about Bernie that you’d never hear about, the antics of Nelson Piquet, the trials of organising helicopters for transport or the practical jokes everyone seemed to play on each other…it’s all here, and all worth checking out.

I would say 4 out of 5 flags.  

Enjoy…and if you have had a read, let me know what you think!

Yassmin Abdel-Magied
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Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Two-time Young Australian of the Year finalist, qualified mechanical engineer, social advocate, author and 'petrol head'

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