Sid Watkins on safety in Formula One

Professor Sid Watkins has been working as a Formula One doctor for the past 24 years and is one of the most highly regarded experts in his field. He was recently awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his services to the sport and to the...

Professor Sid Watkins has been working as a Formula One doctor for the past 24 years and is one of the most highly regarded experts in his field. He was recently awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his services to the sport and to the many other projects he is involved in. Sid took part in a live web-chat with ITV-F1 to answer fans' questions on his job and saftey in F1.

Q: What safety feature, etc, in your opinion, has made the greatest difference to the sport over the years? Why?

The most important change was the design of the chassis where carbon fibre was introduced, that was really the big turning point. The introduction of crash testing, which was introduced in the early 80s, and has been now extended as we have frontal, side and back impact tests. That really is the key thing. Then of course there has been lots of other additional things, the safety harness in the car, we've learnt how to use that properly. We've learnt how to protect the drivers head and neck properly, we've got a collapsable steering wheel, the nose cones, there are lots of features and the next step will be the head and neck support.

Q: Given your F1 involvement has spanned the last 24 years what do you consider to be your high and low points so far?

The low point is when a driver has a fatal accident, so I've had several of those, either in practice or at the circuit. Of course, Senna and Ratzenberger, those are the lows. Because I knew Senna so well, that was probably the most difficult. The high point was when Mika Hakkinen was injured and we got his airway clear and he turned pink and we realised he was going to survive, that was brilliant. There was a great sense of what can be accomplished trackside.

Q: Who is the fittest driver?

They're all very fit now you know. They're remarkable athletes now. The coolest one is Michael Schumacher, he steps out of the car like it's a band box doesn't he! I think the standard of fitness was set some years ago, in particular by Senna. He used to train very hard and he trained in the heat in Brazil. He could tolerate the physical problem of driving an F1 car in a hot climate with no difficulty.

Q: How does an accident alter a driver's approach to his sport?

The significant thing is they become much more concerned about safety, it makes them much more conscious. It changes your attitude when it happens to you. There are physical things that prevent drivers getting back to F1, particularly injuries to legs and ankles. Some drivers don't make it back. Your feet have to be very adept in F1, and indeed in any racing car. The psychological thing is overpowering. If the driver has been unconscious that usually helps. If they were awake, it tends to depend on the person, as it didn't affect Michael, or Mika Hakkinen. Two years is normal recovery from that type of injury.

Q: Given the huge increase in cornering and braking ability of modern F1 cars, are you concerned that drivers may suffer long term effects on brain or other organs?

I don't think there's any worry about that. There's long term effects from suspension, which is similar to many other sports, even footballers get arthritis in the neck and so do drivers. They also have problems lower down in the spine. Having said that, I actually haven't got any patients from F1 that have any significant trouble.

Q: We only see you on our TV screens rushing out to accidents on the track, but what work do you actually carry out during a whole race weekend and during the week?

I have to get to the circuit on the Thursday and the first thing that we do are the extracation exercises with the spinal teams. We have two or three teams at every circuit, and we practice extracting one of the crew from a Jaguar chassis that we have, which is the same as a F1 cockpit, then we actually do it on a race car. Each team, ie Jaguar, Ferrari, at each race we hijack a F1 car and the teams practice taking someone out. Then we do the same for Formula 3000 so everyone is up to speed on the Friday morning. On the first morning of practice, the medical centre is inspected, we need to know all the personnel involved at the circuit and hospital etc, which is done about 6 weeks before.

I inspect every ambulance post. Then I inform the race director that we are safe to go, then it's up to him. This occurs every time, just before the practice session, the warm up or the race, to make sure the doctors are at their station. The hospitals are inspected whenever we go to a new place and we have a list of the specialists who are on call for the event. At the end of the event, we fill in a report, reporting any accidents and the performance of the local team at the circuit. We fill in a similar form for the hospitals too if we have to use any of them. It's a very complex and busy weekend. At Silverstone I got up at 5am every morning and was at the circuit at 6.30am, it's a 12 hour day minimum.

Q: Could you please tell us about the HANS device, what exactly it is and when it will be compulsory for drivers to wear one?

The device is made from carbon fibre. It is a sort of neck splint. It is basically a yolk with a vertical projection mounted on it. The yolk sits on the shoulders of the driver and retained by the normal seat belt which holds it in position. It does reduce the deceleration forces in the head and the neck very significantly, as much as a frontal air bag would. The device will be used from the beginning of the season next year, hopefully.

Q: Do you ever feel like you are risking your own life when you offer trackside medical assistance, like when Sato crashed in Austria?

You don't think about it at the time but it's obviously the case. We have had some hairy moments when we've been looking after somebody and one of the F1 cars lost it and nearly demolished the medical car. We had a hairy time with the marshall being injured at Monza, one of the Minardi's lost it and managed to miss the medical car by a centimetre. We do park the medical car so that we protect ourselves. All things are possible though. In the Bernoldi accident in Brazil, all would have been well but for the unfortunate opening of a door. I didn't notice that at all though, I was concentrating on getting Bernoldi out of the car.

Q: What's the hariest moment you have had following the field in the medical car on the opening lap?

I guess in Barcelona in heavy rain with a normal start some years ago. We were just behind the pack at the first corner and you can't see a thing because of the spray. We first noticed a wheel coming by our car, then a wheel the other side, then we saw the damaged cars, one was Coulthard. That is the sort of incident that can be difficult, when you're diving into spray and can't see. Apart from that, I've followed cars down the pit lane, which is embarrassing for the drivers. The worst ones are always the wet races.

Q: How much longer do you expect to be working in Formula 1 and what motivates you to do the job?

As long as Bernie and I are alive! I enjoy it so that motivates me. As long as I'm fit and agile enough and as long as the FIA will keep me on, I'm happy to carry on.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Michael Schumacher , Mika Hakkinen
Teams Ferrari , Minardi