Some very sad news to report today, with word that Professor Sid Watkins, Formula 1’s former Medical Delegate, has passed away at the age of 84. The Englishman was an instrumental figure in improving motorsport safety, and was credited with saving countless drivers’ lives.
Hailing from Liverpool, Watkins studied medicine before specialising in neurosurgery. Bernie Ecclestone offered him a post as a permanent medical official in Formula 1 in the late 1960s, and while his appointment was met with much resistance from many circuits’ onsite medicos – particularly when Watkins was very vocal about the substandard facilities many circuits had in place – he quickly became a widely-respected figure in the paddock.
Wearing his well-worn FIA peak hat, and armed a box of Cuban cigars and a fine bottle of Scotch whiskey in the glovebox, Watkins was a permanent fixture on the grid in the medical car that chased the field around the track on the opening lap of every Grand Prix.
He was the doctor that no driver ever wanted to need, but a man that everyone became grateful to see if they fell into strife and had an accident.
Among the many drivers whose lives he saved included Didier Pironi (1982 German Grand Prix), Gerhard Berger (1989 San Marino Grand Prix), Martin Donnelly (1990 Spanish Grand Prix), Karl Wendlinger (1994 Monaco Grand Prix) and Mika Häkkinen (1995 Australian Grand Prix).
A pioneer of the latest in safety standards, Watkins insisted on the latest and best medical facilities at every circuit and also developed today’s driver extraction techniques to support the safe removal of drivers from their cars in the event of a major accident.
In 2002, he also helped launch the first use of the Head And Neck Support (HANS) device – a design he worked on in conjunction with leading IndyCar/CART medico, Dr Steve Olvey – which is now mandatory in all forms of four-wheeled motorsport competition around the world.
That same year, Watkins was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to motorsport medicine.
A close friend to many on the grid, the no-nonsense ‘Prof’ was particularly close to Ayrton Senna, and actively encouraged the Brazilian to walk away from the sport the day before the Brazilian succumbed to fatal head injuries at the San Marino Grand Prix. His autobiography, Life At The Limit, is a particularly fine read.
Watkins announced his full-time retirement at the beginning of the 2005 season, handing over the reins to Dr Gary Harstein, who continues Watkins’ legacy today.
Watkins kept his roots firmly planted in F1 thereafter, remaining on as the President of the FIA Institute until he stood down from his post in late 2011 to pursue his other love of fly fishing.
The entire RichardsF1.com team extends its condolences to the ‘Prof’s family and friends, many of whom have already posted their condolences on Twitter: