THE man known to the fastest drivers in the world as ‘Professor Sid’ or even just ‘Sid’, died last week (September 12) aged 84.
Watkins served as a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Syracuse, New York, before returning to the UK and the University of London. He kept up his professorship there while at the same time pushing for extended safety measures in Formula 1, the sport that he loved.
Watkins took up the role of Formula 1 Race Doctor in 1978, after being offered it by Bernie Eccleston. He would serve as track doctor for the next 26 years.
Three years later he was appointed chairman of the FIA Expert Advisory Safety Committee.
He is held in great esteem by the Formula 1 community for his work in driver safety, in particular during the dark days of the mid-1990s, when a series of dangerous, sometimes fatal crashes brought the sport’s existence into doubt.
Watkins’ actions helped save the lives of Northern Ireland’s Martin Donnelly, Finland’s double world champion Mika Hakkinen - who received an emergency trackside tracheotomy from Watkins - and Austrian Gerhard Berger, among others.
It was Watkins and his team who pulled Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian driver hailed as one of the greatest drivers of all time, from his fatal crash at Imola in 1994.
Senna’s death marked a nadir in the sport’s history: at the track same Grand Prix rookie driver Roland Ratzenberger was also killed. In qualifying, Rubens Barrichello went into another dangerous collision.
Watkins had counselled Senna before the race, noting how upset the Brazilian was at the deaths of his colleagues.
“What else do you need to do?” Watkins asked, “You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.”
Rubens Barrichello led the tributes on Twitter, saying: “It was Sid Watkins that saved my life at Imola in 1994. Great guy to be with, always happy. Thanks for everything you have done for us drivers.”
Another Brazilian, Senna’s nephew Bruno, in his first senior F1 season, wrote: “RIP Prof. Sid Watkins. Bad news for us who stay behind.”
Thanks in no small part to Watkins’ efforts, Imola 94 saw the last driver fatality on a Formula 1 track.
McLaren Group chairman and Watkins’ close friend Ron Dennis paid tribute: “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.”
In 2002, he stepped down from his position on the FIA, although he retatined an honorary role. That year also saw his services to sport safety and medicine - he was at the forefront of neurosurgery - rewarded with an OBE.
After stepping down from his Formula 1 duties, Watkins retired to the Borders, firstly at Lennel and then near Crookham, with his wife, Susan, where he enjoyed the fishing that he had urged Senna to take up.