The Motorsport world is today mourning one of the most enigmatic characters ever to have been involved in Formula One.
Professor Eric Sidney Watkins sadly passed away yesterday following a battle with cancer. He was surrounded by his family at the King Edward VII Hospital in London.
The Prof, as he was affectionately known, devoted twenty six years of his life as the FIA Safety and Medical delegate, head of the on-track Medical team and was also a first responder in the event of a crash.
Sid, as he was also known, would be on hand to provide his extensive medical knowledge to both the paddock and the FIA after a chance meeting with Bernie Ecclestone in 1978.
Circuits were hostile towards his appointment to begin with, their initial reaction was that he was there to monitor their performance and facilities. His impact on the sport would not have to wait long however, during the 1978 Italian Grand Prix Ronnie Peterson was involved in a crash in the first lap, his car subsequently catching fire.
Peterson’s fellow drivers James Hunt, Patrick Depailler and Clay Regazzoni were first on scene and managed to pull him from the wreckage. Watkins however, was delayed in getting to the scene to provide much needed medical assistance, Italian Police had formed a cordon around the scene of the accident and weren’t allowing anyone through.
Following a delay of nearly twenty minutes, an Ambulance finally arrived on scene, much to Watkins’ annoyance. The delay in Peterson receiving medical treatment and the Ambulance arriving to take him to hospital, sadly led to Peterson’s death the following day.
Thanks to Watkins’ insistence, his incident would significantly change the sport from the very next race. He would demand that Ecclestone provided not only better safety equipment, but also an anaesthetist, Medical Car and helicopter to assist in the swift evacuation of seriously injured drivers.
In addition, Watkins himself would be carried in the Medical car for the first lap, so that he could be on hand swiftly in the event of an incident in the opening lap.
He would once again be on scene for the serious accident involving Gilles Villeneuve at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, quickly inserting a tube to maintain his airway. Villeneuve was taken to University Hospital in Liege, but after Watkins had spoken to Villeneuve’s wife, it was agreed that the respirator be switched off and sadly Villeneuve died.
Later that year at the Canadian Grand Prix would see Watkins deal with yet another fatality. On the first lap of the race, Riccardo Paletti crashed into the stalled Ferrari of Didier Peroni. Watkins arrived within sixteen seconds of impact, but on lifting Paletti’s visor, he would see the signs were not promising, Paletti’s pupils were blown.
As Watkins clambered over the wreckage, the ruptured fuel tank ignited. By the time the fire was extinguished, Paletti was discovered to be without a pulse and the delay in him being extracted from the wreckage, coupled with smoke inhalation and impact injuries from the crash, he was later pronounced dead at The Royal Victoria Hospital where he had been airlifted.
In 1985 at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, Watkins was presented with a silver trophy during the drivers briefing; the inscription read ‘To the Prof, our thanks for your invaluable contribution to Formula One. Nice to know you’re there.’
Following Nelson Piquet’s crash during practice for the 1987 San Marino Grand Prix, Watkins would declare him unfit to participate further in proceedings. Understandably, Piquet was not happy at this decision, fearing that any loss of points would impact his possibility of winning the title, despite it only being the second race of the season.
Piquet would dispute Watkins’ decision with officials, in the hope of being allowed to compete. Confident in his decision to exclude Piquet from the remainder of the weekend, Watkins threatened resignation if he was overruled. His decision was upheld and Piquet sat out the race, later admitting it was the correct decision.
Thankfully, there were no further fatalities in Formula One since the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix, until that fateful weekend at San Marino in 1994.
During Friday Practice, Rubens Barichello’s car hit a wall at Variante Bassa which turned him upside down. Knocked unconscious by the impact and his tongue blocking his airway, Barichello’s life was in the hands of Watkins and his team. After a short stay in hospital, Rubens would return to the track the following day with nothing more than a broken nose and a cast on his arm, his injuries ruling him out of further participation in proceedings.
Events would take a further turn for the worse on the Saturday however. Roland Ratzenberger’s Simtek failed to negotiate the Villeneuve Curva, causing him to collide head-on with the opposite wall. He sustained a basal skull fracture from the force of the impact and would later be pronounced dead at the local hospital.
By this time, Watkins had formed a strong bond and friendship with Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna. On hearing the news of Ratzenberger’s death, Senna was said to be distraught. Recalling the occasion in his memoirs, Watkins said “Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder.”
Whilst consoling his friend, Watkins tried to persuade Ayrton not to take part in the race the following day. He asked of Senna “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,” (a passion they both shared) but Ayrton was insistent, saying, “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.”
At this stage, Senna had taken it upon himself to fight for driver safety in the sport. He spent the morning of the 1st May 1994 meeting with fellow drivers in the hope of re-establishing a drivers group.
Another huge accident occurred on the opening lap when JJ Lehto stalled his Bennetton-Ford, resulting in Pedro Lamy’s Lotus-Mugen Honda colliding with him. But Watkins was perhaps about to undergo the greatest test of his career.
Following the Safety Car as a result of the earlier crash, the remaining cars circulated at a slower pace than perhaps was thought as safe. As the race resumed, Senna set a very quick lap.
On the second lap however, Senna’s car left the track at Tamburello whilst traveling at around 140 mph. The crash, as everyone watching could see, was a bad one and the race was red flagged at 2:17pm local time, Watkins arrived on scene shortly after to treat his friend.
Administering his initial treatment, Watkins knew the signs were not good, but continued to battle for his friends life, administering a tracheotomy and requesting the immediate airlift of Senna to the local Maggiore Hosptial in Bologna, where his death was later confirmed.
Later speaking of his experience, Watkins said he knew as soon as he saw Senna’s fully diluted pupils that his brain stem was inactive and that he would not survive. He also said that, despite not being a spiritual man, he felt “his spirit depart at that moment” when Senna apparently drew his last breath.
Later the same year the FIA Expert Advisory Safety Committee was set up, of which Watkins was appointed its Chairman. He continued to work tirelessly towards the safety of Motorsport in general right up until January 2005, when he announced his retirement from the various medical positions he held with the FIA, but wanted to continue as President of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety.
There have been no further fatalities in Formula One since the death of Ayrton Senna in May 1994, largely to do with the tireless efforts towards safety of Sid Watkins.
Tributes have continued to flood in following the announcement last night.
“This is a truly sad day for the FIA family and the entire motor sport community,” said Jean Todt, FIA President.
On Twitter, Rubens Barichello said “It was Sid Watkins that saved my life in Imola 94. Great guy to be with, always happy, thanks for everything you have done for us drivers. RIP.
Jenson Button, also on twitter, said “Motorsport wouldn’t be what it is today without you. Thank you for all you have done, we as drivers are so grateful.
My thoughts and condolences go to his family and all those whose life he had an impact upon.