The world of Formula One paid tribute to former medical delegate Sid Watkins who died on Wednesday night at the age of 84.
Watkins was the on-track surgeon for 26 years from 1978 through to 2004, with his crusade to improve medical facilities in Formula One helping to dramatically cut the number of deaths and serious injuries in the sport.
Throughout his career in F1, Watkins’ actions helped save the lives of Northern Ireland’s Martin Donnelly, Finland’s double world champion Mika Hakkinen and Austrian Gerhard Berger, among others. Confirming Watkins’ passing, McLaren Group chairman and close friend Ron Dennis said: ‘Today the world of motor racing lost one of its true greats.
‘No, he wasn’t a driver. No, he wasn’t an engineer. No, he wasn’t a designer. He was a doctor and it’s probably fair to say he did more than anyone, over many years, to make Formula One as safe as it is today.
‘Many drivers and ex-drivers owe their lives to his careful and expert work, which resulted in the massive advances in safety levels that today’s drivers possibly take for granted.’ Watkins was a well-known and highly respected figure in motor sport, with drivers and fans alike expressing their sadness on Twitter.
Britain’s Jenson Button, world champion in 2009, posted: ‘Rest in Peace Sid Watkins…Motorsport wouldn’t be what it is today without u. Thank you for all you’ve done, we as drivers are so grateful.’
Rubens Barrichello, an F1 veteran for 19 seasons, said: ‘It was Sid Watkins that saved my life in Imola 94.great guy to be with,always happy…tks for everything u have done for us drivers.RIP.’
Compatriot Bruno Senna, whose uncle and three-time world champion Ayrton was tended to by Watkins following his fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, added: ‘RIP Prof. Sid Watkins. Sad news for us who stay behind.’ F1’s current medical delegate Gary Hartstein, who learned his trade for seven years under Watkins’ wing, said: ‘For a long time I wanted to call him every time I had to make a decision. Then I just started thinking ‘what would he do in this situation?’
‘And finally, for better or for worse, I realised I was doing just what he’d do (but probably not as well). When I told him this a few years ago, he smiled and said “Of course old boy! You’ve had a bloody great teacher!
‘It took me a few years before I actually called him Sid. It was at Spa, maybe 1993, and I asked him if I could. And he said “the bums sleeping on the stairs of my hospital call me Sid, I don’t see why you shouldn’t”.
‘He kinda had a big place in my life for a long time. Just about the most extraordinary person I’ve known.’ Watkins worked tirelessly to improve safety in the cockpit, on the track, and the medical support at circuits alongside the likes of Britain’s triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart and FIA president Max Mosley.
During his time as medical delegate, he witnessed at first hand the deaths of drivers like Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson, who died after an accident at Monza in Italy in 1978, and Senna at Imola. Watkins’ interest in motor cycling dated from his childhood in Liverpool where his family had a bike shop and garage.
After qualifying at the Liverpool University Medical School, he trained as a neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford before becoming Professor of Neurosurgery in New York where he regularly attended races at nearby Watkins Glen. Watkins became the first Professor of Neurosurgery at the London Hospital in 1970 when he was also appointed to the RAC medical panel.
He was approached by Formula One ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone in 1978 to become an on-track surgeon at grands prix and he was also the chief medical officer for FIA, the sport’s world governing body.
Upon stepping down, Watkins focused on his role as president of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety through to December last year, continuing only in an honorary position.
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