Motor sport has today lost a man who will undoubtedly go down as one of the most important figures in the sport’s history, but the chances are you’ve never heard of him.
Professor Sid Watkins OBE, who died last night after a long battle with cancer is more or less single-handedly responsible for me being able to write the article published on this site last week about Formula One being so safe that it’s virtually impossible to kill yourself.
Prof, as he was known within the sport, arrived in Formula One after a chance meeting with Bernie Ecclestone in 1978; Bernie offered Watkins the position of the official F1 race doctor and it didn’t take long for him to start making the changes for which he has become so well-regarded. The list of people who can tell Bernie Ecclestone to do something, and have it done with no trickery, unexpected bills or future pay back is, to say the very least, a short one. But, at the 1978 Italian GP after twenty minute delay for an ambulance probably claimed the life of Ronnie Peterson. Watkins demanded better on-circuit medical facilities and a Medevac helicopter. They were provided at the next race. The car that follows the racers round on the first lap of every Grand Prix? That was his idea too.
He's the British neurosurgeon responsible for almost every advance in Formula One safety since safety was even considered to be a concern in motor racing.
In fact, the British neurosurgeon was responsible for almost every advance in Formula One (and, therefore, motor sport) safety since safety was even considered to be a concern in motor racing. He can take almost all of the credit for the fact that there hasn’t been fatality in Formula One since Ayrton Senna was killed in 1994 and was directly responsible for saving the lives of two-time champion Mika Hakkinen, recent retiree Rubens Barichello and many, many more.
Outside the sport, he’ll never be remembered in the same way as someone like Ayrton Senna, James Hunt or any of the other drivers who have lost their lives on or off the track. But, within the Formula One paddock and amongst the fans, he’ll go down as the man who saved the lives – directly, or indirectly – of many, and whose work will continue to save lives until a sad, desperate future in which humans no longer race cars for fun.
He’ll be sadly missed, but crikey; what a legacy.
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