Grand Prix world mourns 'The Prof'

| 13 Sep 2012

Formula 1 safety pioneer and long-term medical delegate Sid Watkins has died at the age of 84.

The neurosurgeon first attended race circuits in a medical capacity in the 1960s, having graduated from the University of Liverpool in 1956. A stint at the State University of New York enabled him to become one of the doctors at Watkins Glen for the US Grand Prix, before he returned to the UK in 1970 to become head of neurosurgery at the Royal London Hospital.

In 1978, Bernie Ecclestone offered Watkins a job as the F1 medical delegate. Jackie Stewart had done a lot to improve the safety of circuits, but the quality of the medical backup on offer in that era was wildly inconsistent.

Watkins immediately embarked on a campaign to improve circuit facilities. He faced strong initial opposition from track owners who were unwilling to make the required investment but, with Ecclestone backing him up at every turn, Watkins started to turn things around. It seems incredible to recall that, 30 years ago, medical centres were often converted buses and there were no anaesthetists on-site. Or emergency helicopters.

Ronnie Peterson's fatal crash at Monza in '78 led to Watkins' insistence that he would ride in a fully equipped medical car for the first lap of every race, in order to be on the scene as soon as possible if there was an accident. Ecclestone ensured that the drivers of the medical car were up to the job, which led to Watkins being chauffeured by legends such as Phil Hill, Niki Lauda (below) and Frank Gardner.

Watkins' efforts gradually began to take effect. The accidents survived by Martin Donnelly, Gerhard Berger and Mika Hakkinen would almost certainly have been fatal if they'd happened 10 or 15 years previously.

The tragic events at Imola in 1994, when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died, led to a renewed effort to improve safety and Watkins was again a driving force in that.

He was particularly affected by Senna's accident. The three-time world champion had become a close friend and stayed at Watkins' home in Scotland, where the two would fish together. Watkins also visited Senna's farm in Brazil.

After 26 years in the role of medical delegate, Watkins retired in 2004 but became president of the FIA Institute of Motor Sport Safety.

While Grand Prix racing can never be classed as safe, 18 years have passed since the last fatality. That remarkable fact is due in no small part to the procedures that Watkins worked so hard to implement.

Tributes are already being posted on Twitter, with Jenson Button saying: "Rest in peace Sid Watkins. Motorsport wouldn't be what it is today without you. Thank you for all you've done, we as drivers are so grateful."

Lewis Hamilton, echoed his thoughts saying: “It's a sad day, with the loss of Professor Sid Watkins. Without his incredible contribution to the sport, our lives as drivers would be at risk. My condolences go out to his family."

Meanwhile, Mario Andretti said: “Just landed in Calif to the news of Prof Sid Watkins passing. Every driver will remember the contribution he made to the safety of our sport.”