Professor Sid Watkins looks back on one of motor racing’s blackest weekends.

facebook share tweeter

Imola is different these days. Where once the cars were absolutely flat out for close to a mile, from the pit straight all the way to the hairpin at Tosa, now they must negotiate two semichicanes en route, and the magic of the stretch is inevitably lost.

Walk down there, and you lament the changes as you remember how it used to be, when Ayrton Senna’s black turbocharged Lotus-Renault, running almost 1500bhp on qualifying boost, would flash by at something over 210mph, scything through the curves, then almost melting its brakes before Tosa. You shivered as you watched.

You shiver a little now, for that matter. There may he far less drama on the track, but as you walk past the first of the chicanes you come upon a memorial, and you remember again May 1, 1994, that seminal date in Grand Prix racing history. The statue of Senna is next to a grandstand, directly opposite the spot where his car came to rest that day.

The images of the rescue operation come back. For those involved it was a hopeless situation, and they knew it, but as they worked away to release the mortally injured driver from his car, the rest of us watched and waited, suspecting the worst. I remember feeling desperate sympathy for Professor Sidney Watkins, involved both professionally and personally in this disaster, having long been a close friend of Ayrton.

The following morning, we had a long conversation and, while I have never forgotten it, I will never write about much that was said. The other weekend, on race morning, we talked about that day again, now at a distance of four years. Was it a problem, I asked, to come back to Imola?

’No, not really,’ the Prof replied. ’It doesn’t cause me any particular anxiety any more, and I suppose that’s strange, in a way. It was difficult coming back the first time after Ayrton died, particularly with all the messages on the wall about him. It lingers on still, doesn’t it? I suppose what’s helped me is the fact that the circuit is so different. In fact, the irony is that it was changed because of Senna’s accident – and he would have hated it, the way it is now!

’When I go through there now, I can’t believe it’s Tamburello – it isn’t there any more, is it? And it’s actually quite difficult to work out now exactly where it happened…’

It was a holocaust of a weekend, Imola ’94, when the disasters seemed without end. On the Friday, Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello survived an enormous accident, but the following day Roland Ratzenheqer was killed at the right-hander before Tosa. Senna went down there, and later had a lengthy heart-to-heart with the man he had clearly come to look upon almost as a father figure.

Professor Watkins rightly and understandably has always declined to go into detail about that conversation, but allows that he did attempt to give Ayrton some advice.

’It was the first fatality at a Grand Prix meeting for a dozen years, and for most of the drivers, of course, it was the first time they had had to confront the situation,’ said Watkins. ’Even allowing for that, I judged Ayrton’s reaction to it abnormal. I told him I didn’t think he should race the next day – and that he should think very seriously about racing again – ever.

’He thought a great deal before he answered. A minute or more. He was always like that. If you asked a difficult question, there was always a very long silence – he’d never come up with a rapid response, which he might regret. Eventually he said that he couldn’t not race, in effect. There was no particular explanation, but I believe he felt trapped by every aspect of his life at that time. I honestly think he would have liked to step back; that was the impression I’d been getting for a while.

’He’d had a difficult time in his last year with McLaren, and then the two races he’d done with Williams had gone badly: in Brazil, he’d made a mistake, and spun. At Aida, he was shoved off at the first corner. He was very upset about those races – he’d just changed teams, and he was having more problems than he’d had before. I think there’s no doubt that he felt very much pressured that he had to win at Imola.’

The race began with a startline accident involving JJ Lehto’s Benetton and Pedro Lamy’s Lotus, which left wreckage all over the track, and caused the race to be run “under yellow” for four laps, Senna leading the rest around behind a ludicrously slow safety car, then getting the signal to go again.

’When they released the cars, Ayrton went by my medical car (parked at the chicane, before the pit straight) like a bat out of hell,’ said Watkins. ’I’m not given to premonitions, but when he came past me, I said to Mario Casoni, my driver, “I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be a f-*’”’ awful accident…” I’d never had it before, and I never have since. I’m normally useless at predicting anything. But when we got the message that the race had been red-flagged, somehow I just knew it was Senna.

’Schumacher was behind him, and he backed off a bit, because he was worried about how nervous Ayrton’s car looked. He said it was like a stone skimming over water – the trajectory of the car through the corners was jerky, not a Senna trajectory at all.

’There were always a lot of big accidents here, weren’t there? Gilles (Villeneuve) had that one in 1980, where poor Ratzenberger was killed, and Jody (Scheckter) had one in practice. And there were several at Tamburello – Piquet, Berger and so on – and they got away with it. I think Ayrton would have walked away, too, if the wheel hadn’t hit him. In my view, his head injury was due to heavy impact with the right front wheel – there was a rubber mark on the side of the monocoque, up to the lip of the cockpit. His helmet was cracked, but it didn’t seem to me to have been penetrated. He had no other injuries whatever. None.’

For years the Prof would suggest to Senna that, once in the lead, he should back off a touch, that there was no need to win by a minute or whatever, but it was always to no avail. ’He couldn’t help himself – and that, in my opinion, was his main fault as a racing driver. I used to tell him that the clever driver is the one who wins while taking the least out of himself and the car. And he’d say, “Yes, I know you’re right. Everytime I go past your medical car, I remember what you said, and I feel guilty about it. But hy the time I get to the next corner, I’ve forgotten…”’

Over time, Senna took an increasingly active role in safety matters, involving himself to an unusual degree in others’ accidents. When Martin Donnelly had his horrific shunt in the Lotus at Jerez in 1990, Ayrton was among the first drivers on the scene, and he immediately stopped. At the time, I wondered if that was a wise course of action for a man facing similar perils; would it not have been better to keep a certain distance from it?

’Yes, I thought that, too,’ Watkins replied. ’Occasionally, I’ve wondered if it might he a good idea if I got all the drivers together, and taught them a little bit about what to do if they arrived at an accident, where another driver was involved. In the end, I’ve always decided against it, because I don’t want to raise the nightmares in their minds.

’In the case of Donnelly, Ayrton was watching what went on, over my shoulder – I didn’t know he was there. Then, the next day, he came to see me in the pit lane, and he said, “I watched what you did. Why did you do this, and why did you do that?” It was all very intellectual, actually.

’Then, of course, subsequently he arrived once or twice at an accident before anyone else did. It happened with Erik Comas at Spa. By the time I got there, Senna was kneeling down, holding his neck – in the correct way, I might add. As we took over, Ayrton said, “I made sure his breathing was all right, and I’ve asked the marshal to keep the helmet, so you can examine it for damage.” He was a great student. I found that anything I ever said to him was filed away in his mind forever. Never forgot a thing.’

In only one respect did the Prof have a problem with Senna. ’He was like Gilles, terrifying in a road car. Because they were so confident, they didn’t allow for ordinary mortals. With people at their level, the biggest chance of an accident was always what the other driver’s reaction was going to he to what they were doing.

’Eventually, I refused to have any further lifts with either of them! I remember telling Ayrton he was scaring me, and he couldn’t understand why. I always drove after that, and he was very kind about it, I must say. He said, “I think you’re a very good and safe driver, Professor – hut painfully slow!” Perhaps he and Gilles might have changed in that respect as they got older – but then neither of them got old enough, did they? They were still youngsters when they died.

’They were very alike in lots of ways, those two: both chargers on the track, hut wonderfully gentle human beings. What distinguishes people like them from the rest is their flair, their total commitment, and their precision. If you were out on the track in the medical car, they’d miss you by a centimetre as they came by. That would never worry me with people like them – but some of these others, I wouldn’t give them a metre! ’

The Prof has no idea why he and Senna became such close friends. ’Just one those things. I hit it off with some of the other drivers, too, of course… Niki, Jody, Gilles, Gerhard. There was no bullshit about any of them, and that’s a quality I’ve always … appreciated, you might say.’

On one occasion, Watkins asked Senna to attend a lunch – between the two sessions on Friday – with the doctors at Silverstone, and Ayrton at once agreed. ’He made a little speech, and thanked them for their efforts, and so on. A perfect ambassador, I thought. Someone said to him, “A lot of the drivers have a retinue around them – a physiotherapist, this, that and the other, and special diets and so on. What do you do?” And he said, “Well, I don’t do anything – if I’ve got a problem, I ring up Sid!” That brought great laughter and applause – they appreciated the lack of bullshit, too.’

He is silent a moment or two. ’It was such an extraordinary weekend, here in ’94, wasn’t it? Apart from what happened with the drivers, there were injuries to the mechanics in the pit lane, injuries to people in the crowd… As far as I rememher, there were 21 casualties altogether.

’It’s odd, I suppose, that I don’t have a problem coming back to Imola. Just before that weekend, I went to Venice with my wife. I’d never been there before – and I’ll never go again, because that, I know, would bring it all back again. What started off as such a great week ended with the most tragic weekend there’s been – certainly in my experience, anyway.

’I still think a great deal about Ayrton. I dream ahout him a lot. It’s one of the problems of old age, you know: you dream more. There are two or three people in my life who have affected me a lot – my father, the neurosurgeon at Oxford with whom I trained, and Senna – and I dream about them constantly. And I hate it, because they’re alive and well, and then you wake up, and you have to face it again that they’re gone.

’My relationship with Ayrton was by far the closest that I’ve ever had with another man, I would say. He was a remarkahle chap altogether, wasn’t he?

By Nigel Roebuck ©