One of F1’s greatest figures has died this evening; Prof Sid Watkins, who was 84, passed away in a hospital in London.
The neurosurgeon from Liverpool, who was brought into F1 by Bernie Ecclestone to improve safety and medical standards, did more than anyone else in that field, getting F1 to the stage where it is today: a highly dangerous sport where accidents are survivable.
Prof Watkins was for 26 years the FIA medical delegate and introduced correct extraction techniques for getting drivers out of cars after accidents, led moves to improve crash structures and other safety measures and saved the lives of many well known F1 names. He attended to serious accidents for Gerhard Berger, Martin Donnelly, Nigel Mansell and Mika Hakkinen among others as well as the fatal accidents of Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna, who was a close personal friend.
The Prof features prominently in the documentary film “Senna”, released last year. He appeared late last year along with the film makers on the panel which met with BAFTA voters and had a major hand in the film winning the 2011 BAFTA for best documentary.
But he also saved less well known people. In the early 1990s, I was on a long haul flight back from a Grand Prix when a man unconnected with racing collapsed in the downstairs deck of a BA 747. A group of us went in search of the Prof, finding him upstairs on the Business Class deck. Sid woke up immediately, came downstairs and performed a tracheotomy on the man, saving his life.
He began work in F1 in 1978, with the death of Ronnie Peterson one of the first tragedies he encountered which made him push for better medical facilities.
The 2000s were the first decade of the sport where not a single F1 driver died and the Prof had a big hand in that.
Watkins founded the Brain and Spine Foundation and was the first president of the FIA Foundation, which is dedicated to research in motorsport safety.
Since news of his death broke, tributes from the F1 community have poured in for the Prof with McLaren chairman Ron Dennis saying: “Today the world of motor racing lost one of its true greats: 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 that he did more than anyone, over many years, to make Formula 1 as safe as it is today.
“As such, 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.
“But, more than that, Sid was a dear friend of mine, and I’ll miss him bitterly. To his widow Susan, and to his family, I extend my sincerest condolences. He was a truly great man, and the world of motor racing simply won’t be the same without him.
Jenson Button tweeted: “Rest in Peace Sid Watkins…Motorsport wouldn’t be what it is today without u. Thank you for all you’ve done, we as drivers are so grateful,” as did Rubens Barrichello who wrote: “It was Sid Watkins that saved my life in Imola 94.great guy to be with, always happy…tks for everything u have done for us drivers. RIP.”
Martin Brundle also paid his own personal tribute: “Motor sport has lost a true visionary +character with death of Prof Sid Watkins, 84. Great man, funny too.Saved my left foot being amputated.”
The FIA has also issued an official statement with its president Jean Todt hailing the legacy Watkins leaves behind. “This is a truly sad day for the FIA family and the entire motor sport community. Sid was loved and respected in equal measure by all those who knew and worked with him. We will always be grateful for the safety legacy that he has left our sport.”
Gérard Saillant, FIA Institute President, added: “Sid was a true gentleman of our sport and always a pleasure to work with. He will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him, from doctors and drivers to officials and fans. Sid’s influence will live on for many years to come.”
Anyone wishing to learn more about the life of the Prof should read “Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One.”