The accomplishments of Eric Sidney Watkins OBE aka ‘Professor Sid’ in racing circles will live on forever. Today the famous English neurosurgeon passed away. His wife Susan and their two daughters and four sons are now grieving the loss of their loved one.
Watkins retired on January 20, 2005 from the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) where he set the standards for all of motor sports safety. After 26 years as the head of the Safety and Medical teams in Formula One, Watkins stayed with the FIA in various positions.
Today the world of motor racing lost one of its true greats.
However, ‘Professor Sid’ stayed on as the President of the FIA Institute for Motor Sports Safety until 2008 when he officially stepped aside on December 8th, but he remained on as an advisor.
Ron Dennis, Executive Chairman, McLaren Group, said: "Today the world of motor racing lost one of its true greats: Professor Sid Watkins. 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 that he did more than anyone, over many years, to make Formula 1 as safe as it is today."
Watkins career in F1 came after he treated Bernie Ecclestone in 1981 for a medical condition. The then head of the Formula One Constructors Association hired Watkins for a small sum that did not include expenses as the medical doctor for Formula One. Two years later, he had to deal with the death of Gilles Villeneuve. Later that same year, he tried in vain to attend to Riccardo Paletti on the first lap of the Canadian Grand Prix, and has he was attending to the Italian, the rupture fuel tank erupted causing a fire. Watkins earned the respect of many when he stayed at the scene despite the burns on his own hands in an attempt to save Paletti.
In 1985, the Formula One drivers presented ‘Professor Sid’ with a special trophy and one that meant the world to him, and also showed the close friendships he was building. The trophy reads: "To the Prof, our thanks for your invaluable contribution to Formula 1. Nice to know you're there"
In 1987, Nelson Piquet crashed during practice at the San Marino Grand Prix, and was declared unfit to race by Watkins. Despite it being only the 2nd race of the season Piquet tried to persuade officials to allow him to compete knowing any lost points could lose him the championship (which he ultimately won). In response Watkins threatened to resign if overruled. The officials opted to support Watkins, and Piquet sat out the race, later admitting that it was the correct decision
He saved many lives including Nelson Piquet, Mika Hakkinen, Martin Donnelly, Gerhard Berger, James Hunt, and Rubens Barrichello.
In 1994, at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy – later known as the darkest weekend in F1 – Barrichello had a massive crash in practice on Friday. The Jordan driver was attended to by Watkins, and credited him for saving his life. On Saturday, Roland Ratzenberger hit the wall when he went off at the Villeneuve corner. Despite attempts to revive the Austrian, he did not survive the accident.
His most heart-breaking loss was during the race on Sunday when Ayrton Senna did not survive his crash. The two had formed a close friendship.
"RIP Prof. Sid Watkins. Sad news for us who stay behind," said Bruno Senna. The nephew of Ayrton races for the Williams team.
The last fatality in F1 was Ayrton Senna. While many horrifying crashes have occurred, the credit needs to be given to Watkins and his staff. Dennis added that “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.”
In July of 2008, Watkins was given the ‘Most Outstanding Contribution to the Motorsport Industry’. A well-deserved honor for the Liverpool, England native. Martin Brundle presenting the ‘Prof’ with the distinguished award at the House of Lords.
Later that same year, he received the FIA Academy Gold Medal for Motor Sport at the official FIA Gala prize-giving ceremony in Dubai.
It was not easy for Ron Dennis to learn of his friend’s death as he commented, “I'll miss him bitterly. To his widow Susan, and to his family, I extend my sincerest condolences. He was a truly great man, and the world of motor racing simply won't be the same without him."
Thanks to Watkins, other racing series now have first response medical teams. He has set the margin for medical and safety in motor sports at a very high level.
RIP Mr. Watkins, your legacy lives on.