The Doctor Passes Away

Earlier this week, one of the most critical figures in motorsport passed away. Professor Sid Watkins is regarded as the man who saved countless lives in motorsport and treated many others who sadly could not be saved.

Born in Liverpool, he worked in mechanics with his father for many years before going on to study medicine. Leaving the University Of Liverpool as a Doctor of Medicine in 1956, he researched thee ffects of heat stress on performance and worked with the Royal Army Medical Corps for a number of years in Africa. He liked to race cars as a hobby but when he realised he may not be talented enough to compete successfully, he opted for a medical role in the sport instead.

His first event in which he was involved medically was a kart race at the Brands Hatch circuit in England. Also working as a race doctor at the Silverstone track, he was was given the chance to be the official Formula One doctor by F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone. He accepted and it was then that his life-long association with the sport began. In just the seventh race in his position, his knowledge was put to the test as Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson crashed on the first lap of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. Trapped in the burning car, the Swede was dragged free of the fiery wreck and brought to hospital where he died the next day. Such was the lack of facilities for medical emergencies at the track, Watkins demanded that better be provided, including an anaesthetist, a medical car and medical helicopter. All were provided at the following U.S Grand Prix.

Watkins had been present at the deaths of many F1 drivers including Roger Williamson and Ricardo Paletti, but perhaps the most famous and most personal was that of Ayrton Senna. The weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix remains as the darkest weekend in F1 history for the deaths of two drivers and injuries of others including pitcrew. On Friday’s running, Rubens Barrichello’s car crashed violently and landed upside down. Miraculously, Barrichello escaped with a broken arm and nose. Senna went to see his friend in hospital and thought himself about not racing further that weekend. The events of the following day were to prove eerie. On the Saturday during qualifying, Roland Ratzenburger’s Simtek crashed at close to 200mph. He died in what was only his third Formula One Grand Prix weekend.

If Friday’s accident with Barrichello had effected Ayrton, Ratzenberger’s death shook him to his core. He considered quitting the sport altogether, but as Professor Sid Watkins would later discuss, he felt he needed to carry on.

’It was the first fatality at a Grand Prix meeting for a dozen years, and for most of the drivers, of course, it was the first time they had had to confront the situation,’ said Watkins. ’Even allowing for that, I judged Ayrton’s reaction to it abnormal. I told him I didn’t think he should race the next day – and that he should think very seriously about racing again – ever.

’He thought a great deal before he answered. A minute or more. He was always like that. If you asked a difficult question, there was always a very long silence – he’d never come up with a rapid response, which he might regret. Eventually he said that he couldn’t not race, in effect. There was no particular explanation, but I believe he felt trapped by every aspect of his life at that time. I honestly think he would have liked to step back; that was the impression I’d been getting for a while.”

Less than 24 hours later while leading the race after a Safety Car period had just ended, Ayrton Senna’s Williams struck a wall at the Tamburello corner at around 135mph. Watkins and his medical team arrived to Senna’s aid where he performed an on-site tracheotomy. Senna passed away a few hours later at the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna.

In 1995, Finnish driver Mika Hakkinen’s life was saved by Watkins at the Australian Grand Prix as he crashed due to a tyre failure at high speed. Suffering from a fracture of the skull and internal bleeding, the tracheotomy which could not save Senna, saved Hakkinen. He would go on to win two World Championships i his career.

Watkins was a tireless advocate of driver safety, as was his good friend Senna. On the morning of Senna’s death, there was a meeting held between the drivers where they agreed that more must be done to prevent further losses of life. The 2000s were the first decade that not a single Formula One driver died.

Former boss of the McLaren Formula team, Ron Dennis paid tribute to the life and work of Professor Sid Watkins.

“No, he wasn’t a driver. No, he wasn’t an engineer. No, he wasn’t a designer.

“He was a doctor and it’s probably fair to say he did more than anyone, over many years, to make Formula One as safe as it is today.

“Many drivers and ex-drivers owe their lives to his careful and expert work, which resulted in the massive advances in safety levels that today’s drivers possibly take for granted.”

Rubens Barrichello shared his feelings with the world on website Twitter.

“It was Sid Watkins that saved my life in Imola 94.Great guy to be with, always happy. Thanks for everything you have done for us drivers. RIP.”

His replacement as chief F1 medical delegate Gary Hartstein, said his thoughts.

“Sid was absolutely the most charismatic and extraordinary problem-solver I’ve ever met.

“What he got done was extraordinary – but it was the way he got it done in the face of extraordinary opposition at the time. He kept pushing and pushing so hard to the extent that it is now accepted as ‘the way’.”

Watkins leaves a legacy of which may not be measured in number, but instead in life.

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