Manish Pandey, writer and producer of the Senna movie, also happens to be an orthopaedic surgeon. IQ sat him down with Professor Sid Watkins, neurosurgeon and F1 legend, the man who tended to Ayrton Senna on that appalling day at Imola in 1994

A glorious May afternoon in Borders country and our car hurtles towards Kelso on the banks of the Tweed, the beloved fishing ground of Professor Eric Sidney Watkins – ‘Sid’ to some, ‘Prof’ to me. It’s a driver’s road, a ribbon of Tarmac through heather and gorse that twists and turns, ascends and falls. Wonderful, and so utterly removed from the high-pitched screams and extremes of Formula One.

Today’s quieter, more restful environment couldn’t be more appropriate, either. Prof hasn’t been well over the winter and his doctors in London have been both worried and impressed. As Prof’s driver, Andy, confirms when he picks me up, Sid Watkins is as robust as they come.

He’s the product of a tough Liverpool mining family – of a father who had emerged from the pits to set up an engineering business, and who reacted to the eight-year-old Prof’s announcement, “Father, I’m going to be a brain surgeon” by telling him, “There’s a job here for you when you’re 14.”

Prof protested, “No, no, I want to be a doctor, Dad, and I’ve got to tell the headmaster tomorrow.”

“All right, you can be a doctor, but it won’t cost me a penny because I won’t be giving you a penny towards becoming a doctor.”

Prof smiles wistfully as we chat in his beautiful tomato red dining room. “So that was it. Dad was a tough guy.”

Ayrton Senna’s father, Milton da Silva, was a tough guy, too – a self-made man who had a knack for turning any business into gold. But when Ayrton told him that he wanted to be a racing driver, he initially indulged the boy, letting him move to Europe before eventually calling him back to Brazil to work in the family business. But Ayrton was just as tough, and in the early ’80s, when mounting frustration with his father’s demands became too much for either of them, it was then that Milton – though a little fearful of motor racing – supported his son wholeheartedly.

My first Senna memory was the BBC’s coverage of his incredible drive in an unwieldy Toleman through the rain-soaked streets of Monaco in 1984. I was a teenager, still a year away from my A-levels, and had just been told that my slight myopia would keep me out of RAF fighter planes. It was all that I’d ever really wanted to do, so didn’t then have a clue about my future. But a direction did seem to suggest itself: my father had trained as a surgeon before going into general practice; my step-mother was a paediatrician; I had an aunt who was an obstetrician and gynaecologist; and a sister who had only ever wanted to be a doctor…

Senna’s spectacular first year in F1 produced a contract from an admiring Lotus team – but his motor-racing career could have ended before he’d ever stepped into one of those stunning black-and-gold machines. He’d contracted Bell’s Palsy, a viral disease that caused a swelling of a key facial nerve and led to paralysis of half his face. One of the potential complications is that the patient cannot shut his eye – my father had it in his 40s and, at one point, surgeons were going to suture his eyelids together until he had recovered, to prevent long-term damage to the affected eyeball.

So Peter Warr, then Lotus Team principal, contacted Prof. He was concerned that if Ayrton couldn’t close his eye he might be at risk of serious injury driving an F1 car. But Prof, whose experience and instinct told him that Ayrton would recover, simply quipped, “Don’t you think it’s better if racing drivers keep both eyes open?” That joke saved Ayrton’s career. Prof recalls: “I put him on anti-inflammatories… The most effective treatment is to take the swelling out of the nerve… Then he returned to Brazil and… they stopped the drugs and his face got worse. Then he came back to London to see me and was instructed to sit with the other patients and be a good boy.”

Ayrton’s first couple of years at Lotus were incredible. He was clearly the fastest, most intelligent and committed driver in F1. Murray Walker had predicted in 1985 that if ever a man could win the championship in his first year in a competitive car, Senna could. But, of course, it wasn’t to be. The Prost-McLaren combination steamrollered on into 1986 then passed the baton to the mighty Williams-Hondas. It was as a Cambridge medical student that I watched Prost grab his second championship, then Nelson Piquet his third (by default) in 1987. Ayrton was fourth and third, respectively, in those championships.

I was ambivalent about being a medical student. Being a good medic is all about commitment and passion for the subject, as well as unwavering focus which has to last six years. I’m not sure I had that at the time. But with Prof it was completely different.

“I read everything I could about the brain,” he chuckles, “and sometimes knew a lot more than the registrars who were teaching us.”

As a young doctor, Prof was conscripted into the army and posted to Africa. “Because I’d done physiology, they were looking for a physiologist to be the army representative on an expedition into the Sahara, at Field Marshal Montgomery’s request, to determine the water and metabolic demands of soldiers in tanks because he believed that World War Three would be fought in the deserts of Africa and the Middle East. I ran a series of psycho-motor tests, measuring manual skill combined with feedback and hand-eye co-ordination – and ultimately wireless telegraphy – and I determined the level at which decrement starts. And I based my MD thesis on the work.”

So, years before Prof had ever entered Formula One, he’d already become interested in how human beings performed in highly stressful physical situations; how their performance deteriorates – and what could be done to help them.
“[In motor-racing] the first medical activity I got involved with was go-karting at Brands Hatch. And then I did speedway and, you know, speedway tracks were dog tracks – and, of course, the riders were coming off their bikes and hitting their heads on lamp-posts that lit the dog-track… So I wrapped the posts with polystyrene and that was the first sort of stumbling steps towards safety…” And before he knew it, Prof was running things at the British Grand Prix.

In 1978, one Bernie Ecclestone contacted Prof about “an eye problem” and met him at the London Hospital, where he had been appointed Professor of Neurosurgery. Prof jokes: “Bernie said ‘I know what you’ve been doing for the British Grand Prix – would you come and try to do it everywhere for Formula One?’ And then he said, ‘I suppose you want to be paid? How about $35,000 a year to do the 16 races?’ So I said, ‘Oh that would be marvellous!’ [At the time Prof was taking home £400 a month as a consultant.] But he [Bernie] said, ‘You pay for your airfares, hotels, rental cars and all incidental expenses.’

“Then when I did my tax at the end of the year my accountant said, ‘Why are you doing all this for Formula One?’ I said, ‘Well, they’re paying me a lot of money’ and he said, ‘No they’re not. You’ve actually made a loss on the travel!'”

And not just on travel. Prof’s on-call rota at the London Hospital meant he was bound to them on alternate weekends. With a 16-race schedule, that meant he worked 42 weekends a year. But it didn’t stop there. For the long-haul events, he had to leave London on the Wednesday or Thursday before the race.

“I didn’t have any holiday for years,” he sighs.

In 1978, safety in F1 was at best hit-and-miss. Prof shakes his head and finds that cheeky smile (which, incidentally, he shares with Bernie) when he recalls the medical centre in Buenos Aires, which was basically a wooden hut.

“The first thing we did was sweep the flies away. The chief medical officer was a cosmetic doctor who objected to my presence.” The on-call hospital for the Argentine race was “absolutely awful” but through Prof’s connections (neurosurgeons are an international mafia) he was able to find a private substitute facility.

Furthermore, at some races, “We had a helicopter on race day only,” Prof grins, sarcastically, “because accidents don’t happen in practice! And Monza was a nightmare, and that’s when we had the first huge accident with Ronnie Peterson.”

Peterson was involved in a start-line shunt and died later, probably of a fat embolism caused by his lower-limb fractures. “My engagement with Bernie was that I would be the surgical consultant, but after the Peterson accident, where we could see that rescue was necessary, Bernie said, ‘You’d better take over retrieval at the circuit.'”
At the next race, Watkins Glen in the US, Prof found himself a passenger in an estate car without any rear seats. The anaesthetist had to spread-eagle himself on the floor in the back clinging to the equipment as they hurtled around the track. “The car wasn’t much good – and the driver was worse.”

As Prof’s role expanded, supported by Bernie, he often came into conflict with circuit authorities. He recalls: “We had an episode in Germany where, just before the race, they were going to the chief medical officer out of race control because they wanted someone else sitting there. So I sent for Bernie half-an-hour before the start. I explained that the person trying to take my place was Hushke von Hanstein, the German representative on the FIA in those days and the big chief at Hockenheim.

“Bernie said to him: ‘Now, I’m going to go down and stand in front of the cars while you settle this problem with Prof Watkins. And if it’s settled, he’s going to lean out and put his thumb up – and if it isn’t settled, he’s going to put his thumb down.’ Hushke said to him: ‘Mr Ecclestone, what am I going to do with 80,000 Germans in the Motordrome?’ Bernie turned round and said: ‘They can go fuck themselves.’ Well, the problem was settled immediately.

“Once word spread that this was how tough Bernie was going to be about medical safety, the dominos started to fall and everybody started to give in. He’s absolutely marvellous, old Bernie, absolutely wonderful, always a great realist. Without him, nothing would have happened. At least, not in my time. He was always so good and so tough.”

By 1982, circuits had proper medical centres; a helicopter on standby for the entire race weekend, and a top hospital always on-call to provide further treatment once a driver had been stabilised. What could possibly go wrong?

Then, when I watched television through a shop window on Saturday May 8 1982 it was with utter disbelief that I saw Gilles Villeneuve’s fatal accident at Zolder being repeated, over and over again. I had never seen an F1 driver die before. Prof takes up the story, and he isn’t dispassionate. Great doctors often possess the gift of razor-sharp memory, but what propels you through medical school often curses you to live with unnaturally vivid images thereafter.

“As we got close to the accident, we could see bits of red Ferrari thrown here, there and everywhere. Gilles had been thrown out of the car and had landed at the foot of the catch fencing – we had that funny catch fencing in those days. His heart was good and his pupils were still working at that point, so I put a tube down him and started to manually ventilate him. And the Belgians came with their sacks and made a surround so TV couldn’t pick him up anymore, and we took him to the medical centre.

“Then we went by helicopter to Liege, a very good hospital, and x-rayed him. It was clear that he had a fatal neck injury and nothing could be done, so I spoke to Madame Villeneuve. She came and we kept him on the ventilator until she arrived and then I had a few words with her and pointed out that it wasn’t possible to do anything – and then we switched him off.”

In October 1988, having completed my pre-clinical training (the theoretical part of medical studies, before students are allowed to get their hands on real patients) I watched Ayrton win his first world championship, on a 12-inch black-and-white television in my room in the Erasmus Building of Queens’ College. That Sunday was a complete joy – a release. Ayrton had achieved something that I knew he could do from the moment I first saw him race. Later, when I saw his post-race interview, he said of winning the championship, “It feels like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.” It felt like a weight off mine too.

In 1989, I moved to London for my clinical training at the Middlesex, and over the next three years wore a white coat and examined patients on the wards while Ayrton scaled the heady heights of three world championships. And over that time, Prof and he cemented a real father-son relationship. They would chat at grands prix and Prof recalls how, “Every time I saw Senna, he was surrounded by people – but when he saw me, he would break out in that beautiful grin of his.” They fished together in Brazil, visited the Jim Clark museum in Duns, Scotland, and “when he came to London, he’d ring up and we’d have a Chinese meal in the East End. The people there would look and say that can’t possibly be Senna in this, you know, second-rate Chinese chop house in Limehouse – but it was!”

Halfway through this period, in the autumn of 1990, Martin Donnelly driving a Lotus had a huge accident during qualifying at Jerez in Spain. He lay on the track, still strapped to his seat, with the debris of his wrecked Lotus strewn around him, his legs twisted at hideous angles – like a broken Action Man. Instead of hiding in his motorhome, Ayrton actually came to the trackside and watched Prof save Donnelly’s life. It is some of the most moving, harrowing footage in our film. At that time, no one knew whether Donnelly would live or not, but Ayrton, though visibly moved, went back out and beat his own pole time by a second. It was beyond brave. For me, it was as if he was telling the track to fuck off – it wasn’t going to do that to a driver and get away with it. If anything crystallised Ayrton as a hero for me, it was that.

But Ayrton being Ayrton, he quizzed Prof on every aspect of that resuscitation and absorbed every detail – and over the next two years, he became more and more concerned to speak up for safety in pre-race drivers’ briefings and even on track. Prof continues: “The next year, [Eric] Comas had an accident at the far end of Spa and I took a reasonable amount of time – even though I was in a fast Porsche – to get there, and when I did Senna was kneeling alongside the car holding Comas’s neck in the correct anatomical position. He said: ‘I’ve been holding his neck the way I saw you do it so that he wouldn’t get more injured than he is.’ So I said: ‘That’s absolutely wonderful’ and took over.”

I qualified as a doctor in 1992, winning the orthopaedic and cardiology prizes. It was the year of Mansell-mania as Nigel floored the opposition in his ‘active’ Williams, which bristled with technology. That summer, I was invited by a friend to Silverstone as a guest of Motorsport magazine and it was the closest I ever got to meeting Ayrton. With seven laps to go, his transmission failed and he was jeered by thousands of ‘fans’ as he walked back to the pits – and right past me. I shrugged apologetically and he gave me a quizzical look – then the moment was gone. There were politics that year and rumours of behind-the-scenes F1 musical chairs, with Prost rumoured to have secured a seat at Williams, Mansell off to IndyCar in the US and Ayrton undecided about his future. For a fan it was dispiriting to watch the greatest driver in the world being trounced every two weeks. And for Ayrton it must have been unbearable. He would repeatedly turn to Prof for advice but all Watkins could offer was that all the top teams were alike and that Ayrton had to decide for himself.

As it turned out, Prost got into the Williams for 1993 and duly secured the championship before Ayrton elbowed him out for 1994. I was delighted. I thought he’d win all 16 races – or at the very least 10 – as he secured a fourth title and equalled Prost’s 51 victories. I have never been more wrong about anything in my life.

I was an orthopaedic senior house officer when Ayrton appeared in the blue-and-white overalls of the new Rothmans-Williams. I remember thinking that this had been Jochen Mass’s livery when he came together with Villeneuve back at Zolder in 1982 – but I pushed such fanciful nonsense to the back of my mind.

The events of that black weekend at Imola 1994 have been much talked and written about – and are now shown in our film – and I won’t dwell on them here. Prof gets very emotional when he describes the events of the Friday, Saturday and especially the Sunday. For me, the salient points are that Ayrton cried on Prof’s shoulders after Roland Ratzenberger’s death on Saturday and Prof told him: “You’re a three-times world champion, you’re the fastest man in the world and you’ve got nothing to prove.” Today, Prof continues: “He liked fishing so I told him, ‘Why don’t you quit and I’ll quit and we’ll both go fishing.’ But Ayrton chose to race.”

I have watched the footage of Ayrton’s resuscitation many, many times while making the film. It has an order to it – a rhythm that is precise, correct, unhurried. This is how we behave when we know that protocol must be followed but that all hope is lost. Prof confirms: “By his neurological signs, I knew it was going to be a fatal head injury – but Ayrton’s heart was still beating, so there were procedures to follow.”

And though Prof isn’t religious, he says: “He sighed… and that was when I felt his spirit depart.” I remember crying my eyes out when I saw that accident and the world’s media drip-fed us: ‘Senna critically ill’, ‘Senna brain dead’… then ‘Senna dead, aged 34.’

Prof ends, tearfully: “His family were very brave, I thought. Gerhard Berger was marvellous.”

Like everyone else, I thought that Formula One was super-safe, so how could two deaths happen in one weekend? Then, two weeks later at Monaco – which for me has never been the same without Ayrton – suddenly he wasn’t there and Karl Wendlinger had a horrific accident at the first chicane after the tunnel.

A week later, Prof was in Nice conducting an annual review of a patient when her English mother congratulated him on his new job: Chairman of the Expert Advisory Group for Formula One – a new committee set up by Max Mosley to look into safety in Formula One. Prof told the mother: “Well, I haven’t heard anything about that.” And she said: ‘Well, it’s been announced on French television.’

“I saw Max after the briefing on Sunday morning and he said: ‘Oh sorry, Sid, I didn’t have a chance to tell you!’ I said: ‘If you’re serious, Max, it’s going to cost an awful lot of money to make these cars safe – or safer.’ So he said: ‘Well, you’ve got carte-blanche.'”

After those 12 charmed years, 1982-94, Prof headed a hand-picked team who analysed every aspect of modern Formula One including circuit design and crash-testing at MIRA with a chassis donated by McLaren. Prof frowns: “We started testing and the first videos of what happened to crash-test dummies during an accident were absolutely terrifying. The forces at relatively low speeds were above concussion level.”

As a consequence, the breadth of the seatbelts was increased to reduce chest injuries, and side- and higher cockpit protection was introduced. To prevent rebound head injuries – whereby a driver’s neck flexes forwards then recoils onto the chassis under the airbox – pads were placed behind the drivers’ heads, so creating the removable U-shaped structure that we see today, a device also permitting easier driver extraction. HANS followed, developed for speedboat racing by Bob Hubbard but modified for F1 by Mercedes. And the work didn’t stop there: contemporary cars have a collapsible steering column, a deformable structure on the gearbox, strengthened sidepods and foam padding (of three different grades) within the monocoque.

Prof smiles grimly: “Immediately, we began to get control.” And he reserves special praise for two scientists: Andy Mellor and Hübert Gramling of the FIA Institute. “They’re geniuses. They’ve done the debris fencing and, of course, the wheel tethers.”

Reading through this list of advances, my heart sinks a little – any two of those improvements on Ayrton’s 1994 Williams could well have saved his life, and he would have, as Bernie once said, “Just walked away. He’d had bigger accidents.”

I also reflect that Prof was a man in his ’70s when he oversaw all this work – a time when most men with a passion for fishing on the Tweed, and who happen to have that glimmering river outside their back garden, would have long ago retired to the easy life. But then doctors work hard – something that was said of Ayrton – and he worked very, very hard.

Strangely, as I look back at my passion for Formula One, I wonder whether I’m an F1 driver in disguise. And, considering Ayrton’s obsession with detail, his wonderful hand-eye control and his affinity with Prof, perhaps he was a surgeon in disguise. Then there’s Prof himself, of course, who embraced both worlds.

After our leisurely reminiscence, we stroll along the banks of the Tweed. Prof is 82 and carries a stick he once used to dispatch a green mamba in Nigeria. Now he uses it to point out his favourite fishing spots. It’s quite a contrast with the in extremis moments this man has found himself in at the trackside over the years, and I remind myself yet again how lucky we’ve all been to have him. My family, Formula One, medicine and film have become the four pillars of my life – and I realise in this moment that Prof has actually been involved in the latter three in the wake of all the help he has given me with Senna.

He was like a father to Ayrton and today gives him his warmest accolade: “Senna was a good lad.”

“You’re a good lad, too,” he adds, giving me a peck on the cheek as we leave Kelso. Another rare moment as it dawns on me that Prof is, in fact, also an element in that fourth pillar of my life. He’s family, too.

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