Former Formula One doctor Sid Watkins dies at the age of 84
By Berthold Bouman
Former Formula One doctor, FIA Medical Delegate Professor Sid Watkins has died at the age of 84. Watkins played a key role in improving safety standards not only in Formula One but also in other motorsports, as Formula One safety standards Watkins had pioneered, later became the benchmark for all other forms of motorsport.
Eric Sidney Watkins was born on September 6, 1928 in Liverpool, and in 1956 graduated as a Doctor of Medicine at the University of Liverpool. He later specialized in neurosurgery, and moved to New York in 1962 after he was offered the position of Professor of Neurosurgery at the New York State University. In 1970 he returned to Great Britain as Head of Neurosurgery of the London Hospital.
Watkins’ remarkable career in Formula One started in 1978 when he was asked by now FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone to become the official race doctor, he accepted and thus started the truly amazing story of a man who made the sport as safe as it is today.
His first job was to help Ronnie Peterson after his horrific crash at Monza in 1978, the Swede was pulled from the burning wreck of his Lotus by Patrick Depailler, James Hunt and Clay Regazzoni, but when Watkins arrived at the accident scene, Italian police stopped him and he could not help Peterson who one day later died in hospital.
Watkins was furious and demanded changes before the next race, he got what he wanted: better safety equipment, an anaesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter. Until this day, a medical car follows the racing cars on their first lap to provide help during a first-lap accident, and cars are not allowed on track without a medical helicopter on stand-by at the circuit.
Watkins was a Formula One fan himself, and it was hard for him to lose people who were also friends, he was involved in the fatal accidents of Gilles Villeneuve in 1982 at the Belgian Zolder circuit, Riccardo Paletti during the Canadian Grand Prix 1982, and he was also at the scene of the almost fatal crash of Villeneuve’s team mate Didier Pironi later in 1982 at the Hockenheim circuit.
Watkins witnessed many crashes during his 20 year career and saved the of lives of Didier Pironi (1982), Nelson Piquet (1987), Gerhard Berger (1989), Martin Donnelly (1990), Eric Comas (1992), Rubens Barrichello and Karl Wendlinger (1994), and Mika Hakkinen (1995).
But his biggest test was the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, he first had to attend to Rubens Barrichello who crashed heavily during qualifying on Friday, on Saturday Austrian Simtek driver Roland Ratzenberger died after he had crashed into the concrete wall lining the Villeneuve Curva, and on Sunday had to attend to his close personal friend, three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna, who crashed in the Tamburello corner at high-speed.
When Watkins arrived at the scene, he knew he was fighting a lost battle after he saw the head injuries of the Brazilian three-times World Champion, and later wrote in his book “Life at the limit”, that he ‘felt his spirit depart at that moment’.
Senna’s death sent a shockwave throughout the motorsport community, and it was the reason for Watkins to raise the benchmark again, and together with then FIA President Max Mosley he worked relentlessly to once again raise the safety standards, and there have not been any fatalities in Formula One since that black weekend in 1994.
Watkins retired from his Formula One medical role in 2005, long-time deputy Gary Hartstein succeeded him. After his retirement he kept working on improving the safety standards and medical intervention throughout motorsport. He was also President of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, but stepped down in 2011.
Current FIA President Jean Todt said about Watkins today, “This is a truly sad day for the FIA family and the entire motorsport 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.”