Professor SID WATKINS was the keynote speaker Tuesday for the SAE 2006 SAE Motorsports Engineering Conference in Dearborn, Michigan.

He is now the president of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, but is best known for his 26 years in Formula One as its first doctor. The 76-year old noted neurosurgeon was the FIA medical delegate and safety delegate. He headed up the F1 Medical Safety team, was the first responder at any crash, and trained the local medical staff at each grand prix venue. All FIA series have extrication practice at each race, as do A1GP and Formula One Masters series.

Dr Watkins started out at age eight by fuelling cars in his father's garage, but he eschewed following in his father's footsteps and became a physician instead. He went on to have a storied career. Dr Sid incorporated his passion for motorsports by becoming medical director for several circuits, including Silverstone and Watkins Glen International in its early days.

In 1978, he was recruited by BERNIE ECCLESTONE to work in Formula One. One of Watkins' first changes was to upgrade track medical facilities. He is considered responsible for the modern medical practices in Formula One, with standards higher than in any other form of motorsports. Many credit his work with motorsport safety for no F1 deaths or life-threatening injuries since 1994, when ROLAND RATZENBERGER and AYRTON SENNA died. In 1996, MARIO ANDRETTI presented Dr Watkins with the Mario Andretti Award for Medical Excellence.

Among the things for which Dr Watkins has lobbied were collapsible steering columns, protective foam around the top of the cockpit, crash testing for various kinds of impacts, and the HANS device. One feature Formula One cars have is an extricable seat making it a removable splint. The F1 driver is lifted out of the car still in his seat. In the United States, for example, Champ Car uses a Ked Board to remove an injured driver.

Along the way, Dr Sid collected an Order of the British Empire from the Queen of England in 2002, and for some time there have been efforts by his many fans to get him knighted. In January 2004, he retired as F1 medical doctor. On 12 October 2004, the 100th anniversary of FIA, Professor Watkins became the first president of the FIA Foundation for the Automobile and society, and then, two months later, he was made the first president of FIA's Institute of Motor Sport Safety. The Motorsport Safety Fund has selected Dr Watkins to be its speaker at the Watkins Lecture at the 2007 Autosport International Show in January 2007. The annual lecture concerns motorsport safety related topics.

The FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety has six Research and Working Groups - Open Cockpit Research Group; Safety Training Working Group, Closed Car Research Group; Medical Training Working Group; Karting Research Group; and Industry Liaison Group. This year, the Institute created and has issued a drivers' handbook.

Dr Watkins said the FIA Institute is quite open with sharing its information with the various involved manufacturers and exposes the manufacturers' representatives to data. And that sharing works both ways. Recently, Peugeot presented its own test results to the FIA Commission.

After the keynote speech, it was pointed out to Dr Watkins that, in America, such sharing is not always the case. The example given was NASCAR, which funds most of its research, but doesn't always share it completely with the involved manufacturers.

Among the things the Institute is now working on is improving the safety of open wheel cars during a T-bone accident, such as suffered by then Champ Car driver, ALEX ZANARDI. FIA's ANDREW MELLOR is developing a side panel to prevent the intrusion of a car by another car. It is designed to collapse the nose cone of the intruding car, so it does not penetrate the crashed car. This development will be discussed by Dr HUBERT GRAMLING later in the SAE Conference. Research on the side panel has already been done at Monza. Both Mellor and Gramling are members of the FIA Institute and in attendance as presenters at the SAE Conference.

Last week, Zanardi tested a BMW Sauber Formula One car which had been specially configured to accommodate his artificial limbs which resulted from his horrific crash which caused him to lose both legs.

Still needing improvement, in the opinion of Dr Watkins, are rear-ended car launching and losing wheels. Changing the geometry of car noses is under consideration. For 2007, FIA has doubled the required wheel tether strength for all FIA open-wheel cars.

The first FIA Institute Centre of Excellence award has been given to Paul Ricard circuit, for its commitment to innovation and the development of new safety technology, in terms of medical, marshal and race control safety. Paul Ricard will host the first FIA Safety Summit in January 2007.

Professor Watkins has always been known and respected for his outspoken opinions on motorsport safety. When asked about what it will take for NASCAR to change its policy of not having its own dedicated travelling medical team like so many other forms of motorsports, he said "tragedy." He said he would have thought the death of DALE EARNHARDT would have changed that.

Dr Watkins believes the current most dangerous form of motorsports is rally, with its side intrusions. Rallies have all kinds of natural hazards not found on a paved circuit, such as trees, cliffs, etc. Among the planned improvements are changing internal dimensions to move the driver further away from the roll bar, new seats, threshold testing and energy absorbing head protection.

Professor Watkins has written two books on motorsports safety, Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One, and Beyond The Limits.

SUSAN WATKINS, wife of Dr Watkins, is currently writing an authorised biography of Ecclestone. She has written 17 chapters already and has already called the yet-to-be written last chapter 'Houdini'. A previous, unauthorised Ecclestone biography was written - by a man purported to also write pornography - but most of the copies were bought up by Ecclestone, who had gone to court to have material removed.

Mrs Watkins has already written a book on Mary, Queen of Scots. Among the other titbits of research on Queen Mary unearthed by Susan Watkins was the fact that the brain can function for up to three minutes after decapitation.

Dr Watkins flew back to Europe after his speech, so he could be in Monaco for FIA meetings later this week.

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