The Medicine Man of Formula One
This has been one of those posts I have struggled to write, and I mean struggled. It’s not like I have nothing to say. I have a lot to say, so much to write – but none of it does justice. For how do you describe Dr Sid Watkins, a man who means so much, who has done so much for a sport I love? It is as if every word I write falls short and seems trite. For, every word I write just doesn’t seem enough. Yes, this is definitely a post I have struggled to write…I am struggling to write.
There have been times when I have wanted to take the easy way out. Bring out the achievements, listing them, remembering his “contribution” (god, I hate that word. It feels so hollow). But it’s easy to write up that list. After all, Dr Watkins was the man who had saved the lives of many drivers and introduced extensive safety improvements in F1. It’s difficult to think that he’s no longer there.
But even as I write this, I hesitate, shy away from writing more – there was more to The Prof than his work. It was his heart and soul that made him who he was. But how do I describe him? There is, perhaps, only one way. Through the words of others – racers he saved, men who today continue to do what they love, because of him. I can describe him through the stories that show us the kind of man he was – kind, compassionate and giving, and yes, independent too.
Like that famous Prof story, of a time when Nelson Piquet crashed at Imola. After the accident, the three-time champion discharged himself from hospital and returned to race. But Dr Watkins put his foot down. Piquet wasn’t fit to drive and that was that. The pressure was on. Piquet was racing for championship points. But The Prof was determined. He is famously quoted as telling Bernie Ecclestone, “If Nelson gets into a car, I’m leaving this circuit.” The Prof had his way, and in doing so, probably saved Piquet’s life. He was one of many. That list is long, and includes racers like Martin Brundle, Rubens Barrichello, and Mika Häkkinen. It isn’t surprising really. The Prof was, after all, F1’s guardian angel, the man who placed safety first.
As news of his passing became public, Twitter awoke and tributes flowed – from racers and F1 fans alike. Brundle tweeted, “Motor sport has lost a true visionary +character with death of Prof Sid Watkins, 84. Great man, funny too.Saved my left foot being amputated.” Race car driver Marino Franchitti tweeted, “RIP Prof Sid Watkins, you made all drivers safer, saved many & I know first hand you were there for us, no matter if we were in F1 or not.”
In a tribute Sir Frank Williams said, “My own endorsement of Sid’s abilities goes without saying. He took splendid care of me when I spent 11 weeks in his hospital post-injury. After that I emerged as a human being who, if not fully mobile, could continue with a perfectly normal and healthy lifestyle. I remain forever grateful to him.”
But perhaps, the one tribute that was the most heartbreaking was by Rubens Barrichello. He tweeted, “It was Sid Watkins that saved my life in Imola94. great guy to be with, always happy…tks for everything u have done for us drivers. RIP”
It is a tribute that left me feeling grateful that the racers had a man like Dr Watkins in their corner. Yet, it also filled me with a sense of profound sadness. For Imola-94 was also when Dr Watkins (and millions of people around the world) lost Ayrton Senna. None of us will ever forget that weekend. Neither did Dr Watkins.
Ayrton was a close friend and it was on that Sunday that Dr Watkins asked him not to race. “In fact, why don’t you give it up altogether? 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,” Dr Watkins told him. But Ayrton replied, “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.” That was the last thing Ayrton said to Dr Watkins.
Many years later, Dr Watkins told F1 journalist Nigel Roebuck, “I still think a great deal about Ayrton. I dream about 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.”
It was after Ayrton’s death that F1 finally got all its safety measures, the kind which protects racers even today. Dr Watkins was at its helm through it all, pushing for stronger seats, collapsing steering columns, an evacuation helicopter on the circuit and even better racing suits.
It’s like what Bernie Ecclestone, the man who invited Dr Watkins to join F1 in 1978, said in a tribute, “What Sid Watkins did in the way of safety in Formula One was incredible. He gave his whole life to that cause, to make sure that it could be as safe as it possibly could be. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for his caring and commitment… I am pretty sure that he is irreplaceable. You only meet somebody of his calibre once in your lifetime.”
It’s true. Dr Watkins was one his kind. He leaves behind a legacy that can never be forgotten, one that will stay with us forever.
RIP Dr Sid Watkins 1928-2012