Tag Archives: Nelson Piquet

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.

Grand Prix Legends – Alain Prost

Prost followed the usual trend, and entered Motorsport via Karting, he progressed through the ranks winning both the French and European Formula Three Championships, joining the McLaren F1 team aged 25 (1980).

On his debut in Argentina, Prost scored a point, finishing in sixth. He remains only one of a very small number of driver’s to score in their first race. Despite a promising start to his career, and having two years left to run on his McLaren contract, he decided to leave for a drive with Renault in 1981.

Prost was joined by compatriot Rene Arnoux to produce an all French line up. But Prost would retire from six of the first seven races. It would be at his home Grand Prix, fittingly, that Prost would score his first victory with Renault. Two more retirements would follow in Britain and Austria; he would finally place fifth in the Driver’s Championship in his first season with the French marque.

His second season with Renault began well with wins in both South Africa and Brazil, but that was as good as it got. He did however improve on his previous attempt by finishing fourth.

During their time together at Renault, Prost and Arnoux’s relationship was not the greatest to say the least, but after the French Grand Prix that year it would decline further. Prost, who finished second to Arnoux, believed that he had reneged on a previous agreement where Arnoux would support him in the race.

Arnoux left Renault in 1983 to be replaced by Eddie Cheever. Prost secured a further four wins that season, but his relationship with the team and fans worsened. Prost believed the team were too conservative in the development of the car, and conversely, Renault blamed Prost for not winning the Championship for them. He was fired from the team just two days after the South African race, from which he retired.

He would return to the McLaren fold for the 1984 season to partner double World Champion Niki Lauda. Prost won his first race in Brazil on rejoining McLaren; and would go on to win six further races that season. Despite only winning five races, teammate Lauda would pip him to the Championship by just half a point.

The culmination of the 1984 Championship would be down to the foreshortening of the Monaco Grand Prix. Due to heavy rain, the race was stopped at the end of lap 32. Prost led the grid from Pole, and went on to win the shortened race. Because 75% of the scheduled laps had not been completed, only half points were awarded. If only the decision to Red Flag had been left a little later, Prost would probably have gone on to win the Championship that year.

Prost became the first Frenchman to win the Driver’s Championship in 1985; driving the McLaren MP4/2B TAG Porsche V6 (pictured above). Winning five of sixteen races that season; despite a Disqualification at San Marino for a car that was 2Kg underweight after scrutineering. Prost won by a huge margin of 20 points.

In 1986, Prost would be joined at McLaren by Keke Rosberg, replacing Niki Lauda, who had decided to retire from the sport at the end of the ’85 season. Prost would go on to successfully defend his Title, although the challenge from the Honda powered Williams cars was significant.

The 1986 season wasn’t without difficulties for Prost, he almost managed to run out of fuel at San Marino, but managed to coax the car over the line to victory. It was however, his actions at the German Grand Prix that would be noteworthy. Running in fourth, Prost had again managed to run out of fuel in the finishing straight on the final lap. To the delight of the crowd, Prost hopped out of the cockpit and tried to push the car over the line, but it was too far and he ended up finishing sixth.

The 1987 season would see Prost win three races, but more importantly, he would overtake Jackie Stewart’s record for the most Grand Prix victories, with 28 wins. Despite this, he would finish the season in fourth place, thirty points behind Champion Nelson Piquet.

In 1988, Prost convinced Team Principal Ron Dennis to sign Ayrton Senna to McLaren. This helped in persuading Honda to move engine supply from rivals Williams to McLaren, and would see the pair have the most successful season in recent history. Between them, Prost and Senna dominated and won fifteen out of the seasons sixteen Grands Prix; a record which remains unequalled to this day.

Prost scored 105 points in 1988, but only the eleven best results counted towards the Championship, so only 87 points were counted. Senna would score 94 points, with 90 points counting towards the Championship and became Champion despite not scoring the most points that year.

The McLaren dominance would continue into 1989, and would see the relationship between the two drivers deteriorate to out and out hatred. Prost had accused Senna of “Dangerous Driving” and even accused the team of favouring Senna with set-up and the resources he was offered.

The embittered pair literally came together at the Japanese Grand Prix. Prost had turned into Senna’s path as he went to pass him for the lead, and the team mates collided into the final chicane on lap 46. The Frenchman got out of the car, and the marshals separated the two, but had inadvertently put Senna’s car in a dangerous position. In pushing Senna forward to move him from danger, Senna managed to bump start the car and continue the race to win. But he was disqualified for missing the chicane, and later fined $100,000 and given a suspended six-month ban.

Prost’s accusations of favouritism towards Senna within the team would compound his exit, and he resigned in July 1989. He was promptly snapped up by the Scuderia, joining Nigel Mansell for the 1990 seas0n.

Alain would finish his first season with Ferrari in second place in the Championship, and took the place of lead driver as reigning World Champion, much to the disgust of Mansell. But Prost had seen Mansell as a threat to his superiority, and had convinced the Ferrari engineers to switch their cars (as detailed here).

The Prost/Mansell relationship had deteriorated significantly for Mansell to leave the team in 1990 to rejoin former employer Williams, and Prost was joined at Ferrari by compatriot Jean Alesi. Prost had failed to win a race in 1991 and blamed the team for their inferiority, publicly criticising the team by describing the car as “handling worse than a truck”.

He was fired prior to the end of 1991, and would go on to take a sabbatical in 1992. But he would return in 1993 to the Williams team, where he won his fourth and final title. But he was regularly challenged by Damon Hill, and ex-team mate Senna. Prior to the Portuguese race that year, he announced he would retire as the World’s most successful driver in the sport’s history.