Professor Sid Watkins, the long-serving Formula One doctor and leading neurosurgeon, has died in a London hospital from a heart attack, aged 84.
Watkins started out as the son of a Liverpool mechanic, but ended up the man responsible for turning one of the most dangerous sports in the world, Formula One, into the relatively safe motorsport it is today, despite the cars going faster than ever.
Watkins had an unbridled commitment to all aspects of safety at the track, from cars to driver’s equipment – he was across it all, and spoke his mind when he had to.
Watkins entered the Formula One arena in 1978 as the chief medical officer at the request of then Formula One constructors boss, Bernie Ecclestone. Watkins had previously been working for the Royal Auto Club’s Motor Racing Medical Board. Prior to that, he had done some work at the Watkins Glen circuit, which hosted the US Grand Prix was held from 1961 to 1980.
His invitation to join Formula One came well after the horrific crash by Wolfgang von Tripps who died at Monza, along with 14 spectators and the death of Austrian driver Jochen Rindt, who was also killed at Monza.
There were plenty more, too. Almost immediately after taking the top job, the sport lost Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson, again at Monza.
He was followed by Patrick Depailler at Hockenheim, Gilles Villeneuve at Circuit Zolder, Riccardo Paletti at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and Elio de Amgelis at Paul Ricard.
By now, Watkins had formed close friendships with many of the drivers including, most famously, Ayrton Senna, whose death he had to endure at Imola as late as 1994, along with Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger.
But it was with each fatality that Watkins worked even harder to raise the safety standards in Formula One.
After Peterson was killed, Watkins brought in the lifesaving practice of having a helicopter, mobile hospital and a professionally driven chase car at every Formula One practice session and Grand Prix race. That alone, has saved more than a few lives.
He also demanded (as he often did) that the cars be redesigned with monocoques to offer the drivers more protection and have head-restraint systems.
Watkins also insisted that the tracks be redesigned with crash-absorbing materials and extra run-offs to help prevent serious injury in the event of an accident.
Senna was the last driver to be killed in a Formula One Championship Grand Prix race – thanks largely to the efforts of Watkins and his team.
Watch this marvelous interview with Professor Watkins during the 1990 F1 season.
Watkins family statement on the death of Professor Sid Watkins:
“Professor Sid Watkins, Formula One Doctor and leading neurosurgeon, died peacefully in a London hospital last night aged 84 after a short illness. His family would like to thank everyone for the many messages of support and the touching tributes from the world of motor racing, medicine and beyond. There will be a private family funeral in Scotland followed by a memorial service in London in the coming months, details of which will be announced shortly.”