Professor Sid Watkins has called time on his fifty-year career as one of motorsport’s leading medical professionals when he announced his retirement from the role as President of the FIA Institute at its Annual General Assembly meeting in Delhi today.
The son of a Liverpool garage owner, Watkins graduated from the city’s university in 1952 and went on to spend four years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in West Africa.
Upon his return, he gained expertise in neurosurgery, practising in Oxford, and later in London, spending many free weekends lending his skills as a race track doctor.
He did a stint in America – working, appropriately, at the Watkins Glen circuit – before returning to the UK where he met Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone, who offered him the role of F1’s leading medico.
Watkins set about revolutionising the sport, where he found many circuits to be woefully behind the times when it came to the standard of their medical facilities. Some circuits had little more than a makeshift tent onsite to treat the injured, and his arrival was often met with hostility by local circuit doctors and track officials.
It was the death of Ronnie Peterson at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix (where Watkins was blocked access to treat the Swede by a wall of police officers; he would die the next day from an embolism) that prompted him to demand a unanimous standard for all circuits.
At the next round and for every subsequent round, circuits have provided better safety equipment, an anaesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter on standby at all times. A medical car was also commandeered, and it would follow the pack of racing cars on the opening lap of every Grand Prix to provide assistance in the event of a first-lap crash.
These improved standards have seen Watkins play a hand in saving many drivers from life-threatening injuries; the likes of Didier Pironi (1982 German GP), Martin Donnelly (1990 Spanish GP), Karl Wendlinger (1994 Monaco GP) and Mika Häkkinen (1995 Australian GP) would certainly not have survived their respective accidents were it not for Watkins’ prompt life-saving actions in the minutes after.
After the twin deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna (one of Watkins’ closest friends) in 1994 saw Watkins appointed as the head of the FIA’s Expert Advisory Safety Committee, later becoming the president of the FIA’s Institute for Motor Sport Safety.
Following his latest retirement announcement, Watkins was unanimously made the FIA Institute’s inaugural Honorary President, where he will continue to be an ambassador for its important programmes around the world.
“It has been an honour and a great pleasure to lead the Institute since its establishment,” he said in his farewell speech.
“I am very proud of our achievements and our plans for the future, both in terms of motor sport safety and sustainability. I look forward to continue making a modest contribution to these in my new capacity as Honorary President.”
“Sid’s influence in motor sport is legendary,” added Institute Secretary General Richard Woods.
“In everything he’s done throughout his career, he has always been a leader in his field. He led the calls for improved safety throughout the 1980s and ever since has been the catalyst for its continuous development by the FIA and more recently by the Institute. Sid’s legacy for the cause of safety in our sport is unique.”
And so say all of us.
[Title image via LAT; other image via Sutton Images]