In the first of a series of weekly blog posts, esteemed motorsport journalist ALAN HENRY befittingly takes a poignant look back at the life of Professor Sid Watkins, or 'The Prof' as he was affectionately known by Ron Dennis...
“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,” said McLaren Group executive chairman Ron Dennis in poignant reflection after his close friend Professor Sid Watkins died ten days before the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix.
On the face of it, you might be forgiven for wondering how these two very different personalities could have forged such a tight bond: Ron meticulous, always thinking carefully before speaking lest his words be misinterpreted; ‘The Prof’, as he was affectionately referred to, was laid-back, outspoken and mischievous. And yet they shared a drive to ensure that their chosen sport should always do its best by – and on behalf of – its participants. Neither man would accept second best.
Ron and ‘The Prof’ hit it off together brilliantly. I well recall the first time I noticed how intently Ron listened to what Sid had to say about things. Coming home from the 1988 Hungarian Grand Prix, I was privileged to be offered a ride in the McLaren Falcon 20 on which Ron and Sid were also travelling. When it came to taking a practical view of the way F1™ should develop, both of them were reading from the same script. Remember, McLaren in 1981 had pioneered the carbonfibre composite chassis technology which not only offered a great potential performance boost, it also gave momentum to the safety initiative which was gathering pace at that time.
From an early age, Sid was determined to pursue a medical career. After graduating from Liverpool University medical school he trained as a neurosurgeon at the famed Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford before being appointed as Professor of neurosurgery at the University of New York in Syracuse, where he developed his motorsport links as a regular member of the medical team officiating at the US Grand Prix. He joined the sport in an official capacity in 1978 at the behest of Bernie Ecclestone and began his mission to transform the sport’s thinking.
Initially he focused on modernising the track facilities, sweeping aside the ingrained practice of allowing individual circuits to determine what medical back-up they offered. But there was more to do. The death of Ronnie Peterson after complications following a crash at the ’78 Italian Grand Prix grimly demonstrated the lack of rapid-response facilities; in subsequent grands prix Sid insisted upon having a fully equipped medical car ready to be scrambled at any moment during a track session.
Notable drivers who owed their survival to prompt intervention from ‘The Prof’ included Ulsterman Martin Donnelly, who survived a huge crash in his Lotus practising at Jerez in 1990; Gerhard Berger, who emerged from his blazing Ferrari at Imola in 1989; and McLaren star Mika Hakkinen, on whom Watkins performed a life-saving tracheotomy at the trackside in Adelaide after Mika crashed during practice for the 1995 Australian Grand Prix. A tyre had suddenly deflated just before a fast right-hand corner.
“I remember sitting in the car and not being able to see anything,” said Mika. “I was feeling pain, and I couldn’t move, but I understood what was going on – I understood that I was hurt quite badly. It was difficult to breathe, and getting more difficult… then I lost consciousness. After that, I remember nothing until being in the hospital and looking up at Sid Watkins.”
Rapid attention not only saved Mika’s life, it set him on the road to a speedy recovery – just a few months later he was on the grid for the start of the 1996 season. Sadly, Sid was unable to save his great hero and close friend Ayrton Senna after the three times world champion crashed his Williams-Renault while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Sid’s professional address book was voluminous to say the least. He was seldom stuck for advice and usually had some long-established colleague he could call upon in just about any corner of the world.
“Oh, I think I’ll give old Charlie a ring and see if he can help,” he would say with unflappable confidence, referring to another eminent colleague which whom he had perhaps trained many decades before. And, sure enough, “old Charlie” would come up trumps, leaving Sid beaming with satisfaction at this promptly organised intervention. Sid truly was emblematic of the old saying “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” And he never failed to come up with a solution.
Bernie Ecclestone described Sid Watkins as “irreplaceable” and, if anything, that was an understatement. He bequeathed a powerful legacy to F1™. On a more straightforward level he was a fine man with great humility. His death has not only robbed the sport of a wise and generous-spirited personality, but also of a great friend.