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'Professor Sid' dies at 84

12 September 2012

Professor Sid Watkins, best known for his efforts to improve safety in F1, has died just days after celebrating his 84th birthday. He had been battling cancer for some time.

The renowned neurosurgeon spent 26 years as the FIA's safety and medical delegate to the top flight and, as head of the sport's on-track medical team, was often first on the scene at some of its worst accidents. He was rightly acclaimed for saving the lives of some of F1's biggest names, as he was for his efforts to advance the sport's safety record through three of its most notorious decades.

He was also well-known for his close relationship with Ayrton Senna, and for suggesting that the Brazilian pack in F1 and go fishing' during the black Imola weekend of 1994, and continued his work with the FIA long after his friend's untimely passing, eventually taking on the role of heading up the FIA Institute of Motor Sport Safety - a post he held until finally retiring for good in 2011.

Watkins got his introduction to F1 through Bernie Ecclestone in 1978, after the future F1 supremo attended his practice for a personal complaint. Ecclestone appointed him as the official doctor to the then teams' association FOCA, which he headed up via his role as owner of the Brabham outfit. The first race Watkins attended was the 1978 Swedish GP at Anderstorp, and he remained a regular face in an around the world championship paddock until 2004, when he officially retired from his position as safety and medical delegate.

It was in his first season in F1 that Watkins began his campaign to improve safety, having been a witness to the errors that eventually led to Roniie Petersen's death following a start-line shunt at the Italian Grand Prix. Immediately after the event, Watkins told Ecclestone that he would require better safety equipment, an anaesthetist, and both a medical car and helicopter in order to better treat the victims of serious accidents. Each of his requests was answered at the very next race, when it was also decided that the medical car - in which Watkins would become a regular passenger - would start at the back of the field and complete the opening lap in order to be quicker to the scene of any incident.

During his time as the sport's official doctor, Watkins treated - and saved - many of its biggest names. While his relationship with Senna was well-known, the likes of Mika Hakkinen, Martin Donnelly, Rubens Barrichello, Gerhard Berger, Nelson Piquet and Didier Pironi all had reason to be grateful for Watkins' presence, while the Briton was also first on the scene at other, more fateful, incidents, including those of Gilles Villeneuve, Riccardo Paletti and Roland Ratzenberger. He was elected president of the F1 medical commission in 1981.

Despite relinquishing his on-track role, Watkins continued to work closely with the heads of international motorsport, including then FIA president Max Mosley and race director Charlie Whiting, to improve safety standards, leaving Senna as the last driver to die at the wheel of an F1 car. Away from the circuit, he continued in private pracetice for many years, before founding the Brain and Spine Foundation in 1992.

Among the recognition Watkins attracted for his contribution to the sport were the FIA Academy Gold Medal for Motor Sport (2011), the Mario Andretti Award for Medical Excellence (1996) and special award for 'Most Outstanding Contribution to the Motorsport Industry' (2008). He was also made a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2002, while the University of Liverpool presented him with an honorary doctorate in 2004.

Tributes naturally poured in when news of Watkins' death was announced late on Wednesday (12 September), with many of the drivers he saved - and others grateful that the safety advances he pioneered meant that they have never required his attention - remarking on his passing. McLaren Group boss Ron Dennis, however, summed up their feelings in a brief statement.

"Today, the world of motor racing lost one of it's true greats," he claimed, "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 F1 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."

Crash Media Group sends its condolences to Watkins' family and friends.


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