Professor Eric Sidney Watkins OBE
(6th September 1928 – 12th September 2012)
The Formula One world was saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Sid Watkins on September 12th 2012. When the news broke Formula One drivers, team personnel, people involved with the sport, and the fans took to social networking site Twitter to pay their respects and leave tributes to the man who has done so much for the sport over the past thirty or so years. Professor Sid Watkins, or the Prof as he was affectionately known in the paddock, was a pioneer for safety and the treatment of drivers after accidents and it is because of him that the sport has seen no fatalities since 1994 – a fitting legacy in itself. After training as a neurosurgeon, he became the Formula One race doctor in 1978, and his first significant work came at the 1978 Italian GP. Ronnie Peterson was involved in an accident which saw his car engulfed in flames. He was aided by other drivers who had arrived on the scene, but by the time Watkins had got there the police had formed a barrier preventing anyone reaching Peterson, and Watkins was delayed in providing treatment. Peterson died in hospital the next day and this proved to be a trigger of a revolution for the way in which these events are handled in Formula One.
After this tragic event Watkins moved to demand better facilities – he wanted an anaesthetist, a medical car, and a MedEvac helicopter meaning that drivers could be reached and transported quickly, which could mean the difference between life or death. Today we still see the medical car line up behind the cars on the grid, incase there are any first lap or turn one accidents. Otherwise the medical car waits, during the race, at the end of the pit-lane, with the FIA’s chief medical delegate Dr Garry Hartstein on board. In 1980 permanent medical facilities at all race tracks became compulsory. In 1981, Watkins was appointed President of the newly formed Medical Commission. His job did not come without its own risks however, after he hurt his hands trying to save Riccardo Paletti at the 1982 Canadian GP when his car caught fire.
The 1994 San Marino GP at Imola was to be where everything changed for safety in Formula One. There were two, nearly three, fatal crashes that weekend which claimed the lives of Roland Ratzenberger and Watkins’ close friend Ayrton Senna. He saved Rubens Barrichello who also crashed. After that weekend the FIA set up the Expert Advisory Safety Committee, of which Watkins became chairman, and a decade later in 2004, three groups were merged to make the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, with Watkins becoming President. There have been no fatalities in Formula One since that fateful weekend in 1994, and this can be put down to the work that not only Watkins pioneered, but with support from the likes of Jackie Stewart, Max Moseley and Bernie Ecclestone. We only have to look at Robert Kubica’s 2007 crash at the Canadian GP, Heikki Kovalainen’s crash at the 2008 Spanish GP, Mark Webber taking off during the 2010 European GP, and Fernando Alonso’s near miss at Spa in 2012, to name but a few in the last decade, where drivers have walked away with nothing more than minor injuries. That is a real testament to how far safety has come in Formula One, which is majorly down to the work of Watkins. Over the years, he has helped save many lives including Barrichello as stated above, but also Mika Hakkinen, Martin Donnelly, and Gerhard Berger, amongst others. Jenson Button recalled how, after he crashed heavily in Monaco in 2003, he woke up and saw Watkins looking at him and he “suddenly felt a lot more at ease and a lot more comfortable in his presence”.
Watkins only stepped down from his role as President of the FIA Institute of Motor Sport Safety in 2011, aged 83, but continued in an honorary role. He was awarded an OBE in 2002 and given an award for ‘Most Outstanding Contribution to the Motor Sport Industry’ in 2005, as well as the FIA Academy Gold Medal for Motor Sport at the FIA Gala prize-giving ceremony in 2011. His accolades are not only recent, however, as he was presented with a trophy in 1985 from the drivers which read:
“To the Prof, our thanks for your invaluable contribution to Formula One. Nice to know you are there”.
as well as the Mario Andretti Award for Medical Excellence in 1996.
After his retirement a bronze bust of him was commissioned, which was displayed along with a book of condolences which the Formula One world could sign, at the Singapore GP. Before the race itself there was a minute silence for ‘the Prof’ while Sky Sports F1 and BBC both had moving tributes to him during their build up. After he won the race, Sebastian Vettel, who started racing after Watkins had retired from his medical positions within the FIA, dedicated his win to him stating “it’s thanks to all the work he [Watkins] did to bring safety advancements to the sport that we can race on circuits like this. He pushed the boundaries in terms of safety for all of us, so a big thank you to him”. It is not only drivers who have paid their tributes, with fans saying he “seemed to have a good relationship with drivers – nice to see so much respect for one man” and “his push for safety has made F1 what it is today and that is very admirable”. Watkins appeared at the British GP earlier in the season and was interviewed by both BBC and Sky, and it was to Martin Brundle he said the following:
Well as Bernie said, I worked myself out of a job
And it is for that we are all eternally grateful. RIP Professor Eric Sidney Watkins OBE.