Sid Watkins’ family will be comforted this morning by the tidal wave of warmth from the F1 community that’s followed the announcement of his passing last night aged 84. Sid himself, we suspect, would not need telling he was so well liked. His was a life well lived in a manner we see increasingly rarely these days.
‘The Prof’ was for years the man in the ill-fitting Nomex and lid, riding shotgun in the medical car that follows a Grand Prix away from the grid. It’s a tribute to him that the closer he got to his retirement in 2005, he was rarely required to get out of that car. Sid Watkins led a group, first through sheer force of personality and then through appointment, that has made F1 the safe place it is for drivers today. That we have not had to endure a day like May 1 1994 – the day we lost a hero and Sid lost a friend, Ayrton Senna – is largely down to the work of the really rather magical neurosurgeon with a passion for cars and racing.
They don’t make them like Sid Watkins any more. Proper characters informed, no doubt, by National Service and a stellar career in medicine that took him to New York and back to London and, with F1 all over the world. No TV-doctor, buff in his scrubs, Sid knew a fine malt and a cigar could be as effective as any medical treatment. Whip-smart and beyond confident in his own judgement, he was able to recognise when rules needed applying and when they didn’t.
Martin Brundle tells the story of the aftermath of his terrifying shunt on the opening lap of the Australian Grand Prix in 1996. Climbing out from under the wreck, his first instinct was to check the race had been red-flagged. “Restart,” he thought. He ran back to the pits, then the length of the pitlane to seek out Sid’s permission to take his spare car to the start. Sid’s response was typically pragmatic: “I know you are okay, I’ve just seen you run the length of the pit lane. But what day is it?”, Sid asked. “10 March,” Brundle replied. Off he went and raced.
Of course had Watkins not improved the protection of driver’s heads, necks, legs and feet he might never have met Brundle that afternoon. In the event of the car’s systems failing there were world class medical standards there, and if that wasn’t enough, a helicopter standing by waiting to evacuate to a local hospital that would have had a visit from Sid over the previous few days. None of this was around at Monza in 1978 when Ronnie Petersen lost his life to injuries that should never have claimed him. Bernie Ecclestone knew enough was enough, and it was Sid he called to put an end to F1’s Killing Years.
Over the years many had reasons to be grateful that it was Sid’s face they first saw, Sid’s voice they first heard coming round from The Big One. Mika Hakkinen, Gerhard Berger, Nelson Piquet, Michael Schumacher. He saved the life too of Ferrari driver Didier Pironi only for Pironi to throw it away in another sport (off-shore powerboat racing) that had not benefitted from the likes of Sid.
Ayrton Senna of course never got to hear Sid after the accident. The last words they shared was Sid urging him to pack it in, that it just wasn’t worth it and that they should just go off and fish together somewhere. It speaks volumes about Sid Watkins that he enjoyed that kind of a relationship with a man as complex as Senna. It speaks volumes too of the balance, the wisdom, and the perspective Sid brought to the lives of those who knew him.
We’re not a religious bunch here at the Sunday Afternoon Club, but we hope someday out there soon, in some place somewhere, the pair of them will sit down and tie some flies to a line.
As for that tidal wave of warmth we mentioned? Here’s what the motorsport community had to say about Professor Watkins…
David Coulthard @therealdcf1
Sid Watkins was one of the best Men I have met in my life, totally selfless and the world has lost a great
Jenson Button @JensonButton
Rest in Peace Sid Watkins…Motorsport wouldn’t be what it is today without u. Thank you for all you’ve done, we as drivers are so grateful
Lewis Hamilton @lewishamilton
It’s a sad day, with the loss of professor Sid Watkins. Without his incredible contribution to the sport, our lives as drivers would be a risk. My condolences go out to his family.
Martin Brundle @MBrundleF1
Sid was the ‘go to’ man for health in Motorsport. He helped, saved, or made more comfortable, numerous people who never sat in a racing car
Sid W would often prescribe ‘a stiff whisky and aspirin’ unless your leg was hanging off. His way of saying ‘just put up and get on with it’
Jake Humphrey @mrjakehumphrey
Sid Watkins. Not lauded or idolised as the men behind the wheel are but you could argue his skills were far greater-RIP
Alex Brundle @AlexBrundle
I’ve played a lot of football with my Dad. I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for a bloke I never met called Sid Watkins. Never got to thank him.
Rubens Barrichello @rubarrichello
It was Sid Watkins that saved my life in Imola 94.great guy to be with,always happy…tks for everything u have done for us drivers. RIP
Bruno Senna @BSenna
RIP Prof. Sid Watkins. Sad news for us who stay behind.
Lucas Ordonez @Lucas_Ordonez
RIP Professor Sid Watkins, sad news. We will never forget how many lifes you safe in Motorsport
David Brabham @brabsracer
RIP Prof Sid, we will be forever indebted to you. Say hi to the greats up there, I bet they were all waiting for you.
Manish Pandey @mpandey69
He was the most special, serene man. A surgeon’s surgeon & great friend. Hugged him & said goodbye on Tue night. RIP Prof. Love you so much.
Heikki Kovalainen @H_Kovalainen
Sad to hear professor Sid Watkins has passed away, one of the true greats in motorsport. R.I.P
Allan McNish @AllanMcNish
Feel sad that Prof Watkins has passed on, looked after me on many occasions. Nice to see so many personal stories about the lives he saved.