• Watkins dies at 84, 26 years of which were spent at trackside
• He saved my life at Imola 94, says Rubens Barrichello
Formula One has been paying tribute to its former medical delegate Sid Watkins, who died on Wednesday evening at the age of 84.
Watkins, a wise-cracking neurosurgeon with a love of cigars and whisky, was F1’s on-track surgeon from 1978 until 2004, his crusade to improve medical facilities helping to dramatically cut the number of deaths and serious injuries in the sport.
His actions helped save the lives of Northern Ireland’s Martin Donnelly, Finland’s two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen and the Austrian Gerhard Berger, among others.
“Sid made a unique contribution to motor sport, particularly in improving safety for F1 drivers, officials and spectators around the world,” the sport’s governing body, the FIA, said in a statement. “He was highly respected as an acclaimed neurosurgeon, F1 medical delegate, chairman of the FIA Expert Advisory Safety Committee, and as the first president of the FIA Institute. Sid’s experience, intelligence and endearing humour will be forever greatly missed.”
The FIA’s president Jean Todt said: “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.”
Gerard Saillant, the 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.”
The McLaren chairman and former team principal Ron Dennis added: “The world of motor racing has lost one of its true greats. 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 he did more than anyone, over many years, to make Formula One as safe as it is today.
“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.”
Rubens Barrichello, an F1 veteran for 19 seasons, tweeted: “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.”
Bruno Senna, nephew of the three-time world champion Ayrton, who was tended to by Watkins following his fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, said: “RIP Prof. Sid Watkins. Sad news for us who stay behind.”
F1’s current medical delegate Gary Hartstein, who spent seven years under Watkins’ wing, said: “For a long time I wanted to call him every time I had to make a decision. Then I just started thinking: ‘What would he do in this situation?’
“And finally, for better or for worse, I realised I was doing just what he’d do [but probably not as well]. When I told him this a few years ago, he smiled and said: ‘Of course old boy. You’ve had a bloody great teacher.
“It took me a few years before I actually called him Sid. It was at Spa, maybe 1993, and I asked him if I could. And he said: ‘The bums sleeping on the stairs of my hospital call me Sid, I don’t see why you shouldn’t’.
“He kinda had a big place in my life for a long time. Just about the most extraordinary person I’ve known.”
Watkins worked tirelessly to improve safety in the cockpit, on the track, and the medical support at circuits, alongside the likes of Scotland’s three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart and the former FIA president Max Mosley.
During his time as medical delegate, he witnessed at first hand the deaths of drivers like Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson, who died after an accident in 1978, Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.
Watkins’ interest in motorcycling dated from his childhood in Liverpool, where his family had a bike shop and garage.
After qualifying at the Liverpool University Medical School, he trained as a neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford before becoming professor of neurosurgery in New York, where he regularly attended races at nearby Watkins Glen.
Watkins became the first professor of neurosurgery at the London Hospital in 1970, when he was also appointed to the RAC medical panel.
He was approached by Bernie Ecclestone in 1978, shortly before the death of Peterson at Monza, to become an on-track surgeon at grands prix and he was also the chief medical officer for the FIA.
Upon stepping down, Watkins focused on his role as the president of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety through to December 2011, continuing only in an honorary position.
In his book Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One, Watkins wrote of Senna’s final days and how distraught the Brazilian was at Ratzenberger’s death in qualifying.
Advising Senna not to race, he added: “In fact, why don’t you give it up altogether? What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.”.
Senna’s reply, the last words he spoke to Watkins, was simple: “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.”