Tag Archives: James Hunt

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.

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Grand Prix Legends – James Hunt

James Simon Wallis Hunt was born on 29th August 1947, the son of a very successful Stockbroker. Educated to a high level, Hunt was originally due to study as a Doctor. However, a friend took him to see a motor race on his 18th Birthday, and there the obsession began.

Starting off racing Mini’s, Hunt progressed through the ranks to Formula 3, where he was noticed for his agressive driving style by Lord Hesketh, who later recruited him to his own Formula 3 team. Hesketh Racing however, were no ordinary team, their objective was simply to have ‘as much fun as possible’.

Despite his reputation, ‘Hunt the Shunt’ as he was affectionately known, mainly for his penchant for writing off cars, made his debut in Formula One at the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix. However, both Hunt himself, and the Hesketh team were not taken seriously by their rivals, mainly due to their Playboy lifestyle. The team would all arrive at races in Rolls Royces, stay in Five Star hotels wherever they went, and drink copius amounts of champagne.

Hunt was running 6th in his debut race at Monaco, before having to retire due to engine failure. The rest of that season remained unsuccessful for both Hunt and the team, their first success not materialising until a non-championship BRDC International Trophy race at Silverstone, where the majority of the F1 field were represented.

It was in 1975 that Hunt secured his first Formula One win, at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. A smattering of points finishes throughout the season saw Hunt finish fourth in the Championship. Sadly, it seems that two seasons of opulent flamboyancy by Hunt, Hesketh and the team, had stretched the budget sufficiently, forcing Lord Hesketh to call an end to his involvement in Formula One, after failing to find a sponsor for his team.

Hunt was without a seat in Formula One in the build up to the 1976 season, until Emerson Fittipaldi decided to leave McLaren. With no other top drivers available, McLaren conceeded that Hunt was ‘their best option’, and signed him to the team.

It proved to be a shrewd move on the Woking based team’s part, Hunt took the McLaren M23 to six Grands Prix victories that season, but it was a season frought with problems. Hunt won the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix, but was disqualified due to a car that was 1.8cm too wide, a decision that was later overturned.

Hunt was once again steeped in contoversy at the British Grand Prix in the same season, being disqualified from winning the race after an accident in the first corner which was attributed to him. Once again, Hunt suffered at the Italian Grand Prix, following a problem with octane levels in the fuel, Hunt was forced to start from the rear of the grid.

The season progressed to the Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix, another race, unfortunately, where there was controversy and incident. Niki Lauda suffered a horrendous crash, his Ferrari 312T2 snapped to the right, spun through the fence into an earth mound, rebounding out onto the track. Sadly, two drivers were unable to avoid the flame engulfed Ferrari, Harald Ertl and Brett Lunger both collided with Lauda’s stricken car. Joined by Merzario, who had stopped after seeing the wreck, the three drivers fought to get Lauda out of the flaming car.

Lauda had suffered serious burns, and was left fighting for his life in a German specialist burns unit; meanwhile after a restart, Hunt secured victory at the Nurburgring, closing the lead Lauda had developed in the Drivers’ Championship. Lauda’s exclusion from the following two races due to his injuries, allowed Hunt to close the gap further still, and the title was all down to the final round in Japan, with Hunt just three points behind Lauda.

The Japanese Grand Prix was a horribly wet affair, Lauda had returned to drive the Ferrari, but was forced to retire early in the race, citing that he was unable to blink due the facial burns that he was still suffering.

Hunt led most of the race, but suffered a puncture and had to pit. The stop was delayed, and having received unclear instructions from his crew, Hunt dropped down to third. But a finish in third with four points, was sufficient for Hunt to be crowned World Drivers Champion by a margin of just one point.

The 1977 season saw the beginning of the decline in Hunt’s career. An underperforming McLaren M26 caused Hunt to fall considerably behind rivals Lauda and Andretti, but developments throughout the season saw Hunt being dominant towards the latter part of the season. Unfortunately, it was all too litle too late, Hunt only managed to finish in fifth in the title race.

The 1978 season was no better, Hunt only managed to score 8 World Championship points, mainly due to the fact that Lotus had managed to develop their innovative ‘Ground Effect Aerodynamics’ with the Lotus 79. McLaren were slow to respond, only bringing in their ground effect developments halfway through the season. Unfortunately, it did not work as expected. This caused Hunt to suffer a serious decline in motivation, only compounded by teammate Patrick Tambay outqualifying him in one race.

The 1978 Italian Grand Prix appeared to be the turning point for Hunt. Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus was pushed into the Barriers in turn one, subsequently bursting into flames. Hunt, Patrick Depailler and Clay Regazzoni managed to rescue Peterson from his stricken car. Sadly, Peterson died a day later.

Hunt was particularly good friends with Peterson, and his death had a massive impact on him, he never forgave Riccardo Patrese, who Hunt blamed for causing the accident (it was later proven that Patrese had no part in the accident).

In 1979, with Peterson’s death hanging over him, Hunt moved to the Walter Wolf Racing Team, the car however, was uncompetitive. Six years after his debut in Formula One in Monaco, the 1979 Monaco race would be his last. Hunt failed to finish, and decided to make a statement to the baying press, announcing that he was walking away from the sport.

Hunt was as flamboyant on the track as he was off it. His reputation as a Playboy preceded him, embroiled in speculation regarding beautiful women, alchohol, cocaine and marijuana, he was regularly spotted at nightclubs and discos the world over.

It was during retirement though that Hunt found a real niche as sidekick to Murray Walker, in the commentary box for the BBC F1 coverage. His knowledge and insight into the sport bought Formula One to life for those watching, your author was captivated by his commentary, and quickly became a fan of the sport.

In 1993, Hunt suffered a heart attack, and died prematurely at the age of 45. A sad loss to the sport without question. Had he still been alive today, I am certain he would still have been involved, in whatever guise. In my opinion, a true gent, thoroughly deserving of the title of Grand Prix Legend.