Professor Sid Watkins, one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons, has died aged 84, having transformed the safety of Formula One motor racing with not a single F1 driver having died over the last 18 years.
Watkins was also a distinguished brain surgeon, pioneering new procedures in neurosurgery and leading research into Parkinson’s disease, movement disorders, intractable pain and cerebral palsy.
In the course of 26 seasons as Formula 1’s doctor — universally known as “Prof” by drivers and officials and “Sid” by his friends — Watkins revolutionised the principles and practice of driver safety. After a series of fatal crashes in 1994, including one that killed the Brazilian triple world champion Ayrton Senna, Watkins was appointed by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body for world motorsport, to head a group of experts to advise on car and cockpit design, helmets, crash barriers and circuit configurations in order to improve safety standards.
By 1981 Watkins had devised a protocol defining standards for medical centres at Formula 1 venues and emergency procedures at every circuit.
Famous drivers knew and liked him. The Canadian Gilles Villeneuve joked “I hope I never need you, Prof”, only to be thrown from his Ferrari during a qualifying race for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix in Zolda. Watkins was the first to reach the stricken Villeneuve, performing emergency procedures before flying with him to a hospital in Liège. Although the driver had effectively been killed on impact, Watkins and the hospital medical team kept Villeneuve on a respirator until his wife arrived. “Then,” Watkins reported, “we switched him off.”
But there were successes too. Watkins performed a life-saving tracheotomy on the Finn Mika Häkkinen at the side of the track in Adelaide during the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, and was in action when the Austrian Gerhard Berger crashed in flames at Imola in 1989. He was also on hand in 1990 when the Northern Irish driver Martin Donnelly was nearly killed at Jerez, only to make a complete recovery under Watkins’s care.
In 1994 Watkins tended Ayrton Senna after his fatal crash during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. The night before, Watkins had been unable to save the life of the Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, who had crashed in a qualifying heat; a distraught Senna had sought Watkins out at the medical centre and wept on his shoulder. Watkins urged him to retire from motor racing for good, pointing out that Senna had already proved himself the best driver in the world.
In his book Life At The Limit: Triumph And Tragedy In Formula One (1996), Watkins recalled telling Senna: “Give it up and let’s go fishing”. Senna’s reply was simple: “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.” They were the last words he spoke to Watkins. The following day, while leading the race, he crashed his car into a concrete barrier.
In 1962, when he was 34, he was appointed professor of neurosurgery at the University of New York in Syracuse. Already bitten by the motor racing bug, he became one of the circuit doctors for the American Grand Prix. Finding the facilities at the medical centre limited — “The first job before practice was to sweep out the dead flies that had accumulated since the last meeting” — Watkins mustered a team from Syracuse to attend on race days so that a consultant’s opinion could be sought on any injury.
Returning to England in 1969, he became professor of neurosurgery at the London Hospital, now the Royal London. Then, in 1978, came the call from Bernie Ecclestone to overhaul Formula 1’s medical facilities, and to attend all 16 Grand Prix around the world.
The existing state of affairs was often a shambles.
When the Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson died in hospital after crashing in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September 1978, Watkins blamed his death on the delay in getting an ambulance to the scene. Within a fortnight, Ecclestone had provided him with a specially-equipped car in which Watkins and an anaesthetist tailed the field on the first lap of the US Grand Prix. This procedure remains standard practice in Formula One.
He was awarded an OBE in 2002.
Prof. Watkins is survived by his wife Susan, a historian as well as their four sons and two daughters.