Most people, even the majority of Formula 1 fans, will never have heard of Dr Sid Watkins until his passing last week was announced on national news. Little will they know, then, just how much is owed to one of the most important figures in F1’s safety advancements of the 1980s and 90s.
Watkins’ career and input in F1’s recent history can barely be measured until you look at the reaction of the professional racing community on Twitter.
The likes of Rubens Barrichello, whose life was saved by Watkins, and Alex Brundle, whose father Martin was another patient of ‘the Prof’, posted moving tributes in the aftermath of the announcement.
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
— Rubens Barrichello (@rubarrichello) September 12, 2012
I’ve played a lot of football with my Dad. I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for a bloke I never met called Sid Watkins. Never got to thank him.
— Alex Brundle (@AlexBrundle) September 12, 2012
Many others, including Bruno Senna, whose uncle Ayrton was famously close to Watkins, joined the tributes.
Watkins’ legacy, though, stretches far beyond the many whose lives or limbs he saved on the track. Along with the likes of Jack Brabham, Sir Jackie Stewart and Max Mosley, Watkins will be remembered in Formula 1 as one of the sport’s greatest advocates of safety advancements, and a man who carries a lasting impact on the safety of F1 today.
It was Watkins, for example, who instigated in 1978 the tradition of the doctor’s car following the field around for the first lap of a race to ensure faster response to any first-lap pile-ups (an almost ever-present part of F1 then). More changes came as a result of the death of Ronnie Peterson at Monza, when Watkins was denied access to the crash scene by Italian police. From the next race, Watkins had access to better safety equipment, an anaesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter.
Having only been appointed as the official doctor of Formula 1 that year, Watkins, a neurosurgeon on weekdays, made an immediate and lasting impact. The lives of a great number of drivers, Barrichello, Brundle and Mika Hakkinen included, are fundamentally different because Watkins’ early changes and professional presence enabled a faster, more comprehensive response to their accidents than would previously have been imaginable.
Along the way, he had to deal with his share of fatalities. After Petersen at that first race, Watkins was present to witness the deaths of Gilles Villeneuve, Riccardo Paletti, Roland Ratzenberger and, most troubling of all, his close friend Senna.
F1 still has safety issues facing it, most recently the severe accident to Felipe Massa in 2009 when his helmet was hit by a suspension component which had broken off of Barrichello’s Brawn. This season saw the lowering of monocoque nose-cones, to exclude the possibility of the nose-cone penetrating the cockpit of another car in a side-on collision. There also remains the dilemma of what to do about the rare but terrifying incidents in which one car is flung across the nose of another, as we saw in Spa with Romain Grosjean and Fernando Alonso.
Motor racing, and F1 in particular, will never be perfectly safe. But the work of Watkins, between Brabham and Stewart campaigning for on-site hospitals and Mosley’s push for the HANS device and safer cockpit areas, went a great way towards improving the safety of the sport and lengthening the lives of many of its competitors.
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