Tag Archives: FIA

The Prof

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.

Silverstone – Home of the British Grand Prix

Straddling the Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire borders, a few miles from Brackley and Towcester, the Silverstone circuit is synonymous with British Motorsport.

Long being associated as the ‘home of the British Grand Prix’, the circuit first hosted the event in 1948 and has been held there each year consecutively since 1987.

The infrastructure we see today, lies on the original site of RAF Silverstone, which was opened in 1943. The Airfield’s three original runways in the classic World War II triangle format, still lie within the outline of the current track.

Originally used to launch Wellington bombers during the war effort, the circuit first had its exposure to Motorsport in 1947 when an impromptu race was organised that September. Living in the nearby village of Silverstone, Maurice Geoghegan was aware that the airfield was out of use at the time, and suggested to a group of friends they held a race over a two mile circuit.

Geoghegan himself ran over a stray sheep that had wandered on to the airfield during the race, his car being written off in the process; sadly the sheep didn’t fair much better and was killed. In the aftermath, the informal event was affectionately known as the Mutton Grand Prix.

In the following year, the RAC (Royal Automobile Club, Great Britain) took a lease on the airfield where they would layout a more formal racing circuit. The first two races they held there were on a rudimentary circuit, made up of two of the runways and tight hairpin bends, the layout of which was set out by hay bales.

1949 saw a switch to the perimeter track for the International Trophy meeting, the same arrangement would be used for the 1950 and 1951 Grands Prix. In 1952 however, there was a significant change to the original layout with the start line being moved between Woodcote and Copse corners; this would remain largely intact for the following 35 years.

The track would undergo a major redesign in between the 1990 and 1991 races in a bid to transform it from ultra high speed to a more technical, and hopefully safer one. The new layout appeared to be a hit. It’s first outing in 1991 would see one of the most memorable races at the circuit for several years, with the added bonus of Brit Nigel Mansell winning the race.

On his victory lap, Mansell stopped to pick up a stranded Ayrton Senna, who’s McLaren had run out of fuel on the final lap, and give him a lift back to the pits on the side-pod of his car.

Further modifications to the circuit were required, as with most circuits, following the tragic deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994, in order to reduce speed and increase driver safety.

Silverstone’s importance in the Formula One World Championship is without doubt, in most peoples eyes. However, it certainly has not been a smooth ride for the circuit over the last decade or so.

Sir Jackie Stewart, President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) and owners of the circuit since 1971, announced in September 2004 that the British Grand Prix would not be included in the provisional 2005 race calendar, and if it were, the likelihood was that it would not be held at Silverstone.

This would be the beginning of a very public battle between the BRDC and Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One rights holder.

In a turnaround however, it was announced on 9th December that agreement had been reached that the circuit would host one of the flagship races on the calendar until 2009, after which the race would switch to Donnington.

Ecclestone categorically stated that he would only negotiate the future of F1 at Silverstone post-2009, if the BRDC gave up its role as promoter of the event; stating that he wanted “to deal with the promoter rather than the BRDC. It is too difficult with the BRDC because you get no guarantees with them. We’ve said that unless they can get the circuit to the level expected from so-called third-world countries we are not prepared to do a deal. A new pit and paddock complex is the minimum redevelopment required”.

Following this, one can understand the indignity of fans and enthusiasts alike. When you consider that eight of the twelve competing teams are based here in the UK (the majority of which are in close proximity to the circuit itself); notwithstanding the 40,000 odd additional jobs the sport brings to Britain, along with an influx of around £50 million to the economy on Grand Prix weekend alone.

His (Ecclestone’s) actions were described as dictatorial, inflexible and sometimes arrogant. Damon Hill later likened the relationship between Ecclestone and the BRDC as that of Aladdin’s Cave: “The genie says give me the lamp and Aladdin says get me out of the cave and I’ll give you the lamp. You’re in this constant cycle whereby in order to get our plans implemented we need to have a Grand Prix contract, and in order to get the Grand Prix contract we have to have our planning.”

Redevelopment of the circuit was approved and on 1st August 2007 it was announced that new grandstands, pit facilities and a development centre would be built. This, however would be the start of yet another bout between the BRDC and the Formula One ‘supremo’.

On 4th July 2008 it was announced that Donnington would host the British Grand Prix from 2010. The Leicestershire venue was struggling at this time to secure the required funding, and there began a see-saw of decisions in favour of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire circuits being the ‘venue of choice’ for the British Grand Prix going forward.

Max Mosley, then FIA President, announced during an interview with the BBC that it was “highly likely” that the British Grand Prix would return to Silverstone in 2010, this was confirmed by a BBC News report in October 2009 that Donnington had failed to secure the required £135 million required to stage a Grand Prix and that Donington’s bid ‘looks over’.

To add to the controversy surrounding the two circuits’ battle to secure a long-term contract to host the British Grand Prix, the BBC went on to report that Ecclestone had offered the race to Silverstone, but that the terms of the offer were purportedly the same as those Silverstone had originally rejected.

Ecclestone’s previous ‘Donnington or nothing’ stance was influenced, not only by the British Government’s unwillingness to intervene, or the Leicestershire venue’s inability to raise the required funding, but was actually attributed to a restructuring of the BRDC, allowing an easier way of negotiating with them over future commercial rights.

Once again, it seems the ‘supremo’ got his way, however unorthodox his actions appeared. It is worth remembering though, that the infrastructure of Silverstone has been significantly improved; that can only be a good thing for the ‘home of Formula One’, the Sport and more importantly the fans. Even if Donnington appeared to be the victim of the whole debacle.

It remains to be seen what will happen when Silverstone’s current agreement expires in 2026, or indeed in the meantime for that matter; but one thing is for certain: the venue will continue to have an influence on the Formula One World Championship for the foreseeable future, at least.