Motorsport: He took safety to heart
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Driver welfare was important to safety campaigner, says Bob McMurray
Safety in motor sport is a huge issue just now. The topic is always in the background but comes the fore after every serious on-track incident, with recent events bringing the focus sharply back on driver cockpit safety.
What is missing in all the current debates is a single, sensible, experienced voice that would give direction and guidance as well as command immediate respect from the entire motorsport community.
Sadly, that voice died on September 12, 2012 aged 84.
Eric Sidney Watkins, better known as Professor Sid Watkins OBE, ‘‘The Prof’’ or simply ‘‘Sid’’ was the doctor to the entire Formula 1 paddock; be they world champions or mechanics, team owners or catering staff, Bernie Ecclestone or a truck driver with a bad foot.
If you had a problem — not always a medical one — you went to see Sid.
A gentle, amiable man with a wonderful, sometimes wicked, sense of humour day-to-day, he was also a fierce fighter for improved safety standards in all forms of racing.
And he was one of the very few people, perhaps the only person on Earth, who could tell Bernie what to do and when to do it.
Campaigning for safety standards to be improved was not a popular thing in the 1970s when Jackie Stewart began to agitate for change but it was Sid who had the knowledge and wherewithal to crusade from the 1980s and into the 2000s.
The huge improvements in driver cockpit safety, on-track medical facilities, medical chase cars, evacuation helicopters on standby even introducing the now standard Hans (Head And Neck Support) device are all down to the hard work of Sid. He was also the first President of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety and Sustainability.
He influenced worldwide racing car design with many of his carefully studied innovations.
It would take a book to describe the life and achievements of Sid — two in fact, both written by him — and I urge you to read them.
First and foremost though, Sid was an eminent neurosurgeon based at the Royal London Hospital and this is where his wonderful bedside manner came from. He became known worldwide after dramatically saving Mika Hakkinen’s life at the Adelaide F1GP in 1995 by performing a trackside tracheotomy but he touched all of the lives in the paddock in some way.
Two personal incidents involving Sid come to mind. I was at the Monza F1 GP pre-race testing days and two Kiwi friends who were coming to the GP that weekend were staying at Lake Como, north of the track. The wife of one became seriously ill in hospital in Como, an apparent life-threatening situation.
I mentioned this to Sid and he immediately contacted the hospital, found out the situation and asked the doctors to keep him appraised.
I think his name had some considerable effect as the level of care ramped up and the situation was quickly resolved, especially as Sid continued to contact the doctors almost every day.
In the early days of mobile phones there was concern about brain damage or tumours caused by overuse.
At the Canadian F1GP I was suffering from continual headaches around my ‘‘phone ear’’.
I went to Sid and he immediately made an appointment for me to have an MRI and brain scan at the Royal London Hospital.
I waited for four or five anxious days for the results, convinced that the end was near.
On the sixth day when Sid visited McLaren, he came to the office to give me the news — but of course I was out at the time.
He then loudly exclaimed to the others around the office, “Please tell Bob that we did the scan looking at his brain and nothing was found, with the emphasis on nothing.” Thanks Sid.
At this time of soul-searching and sometimes knee-jerk reaction, with a myriad well-intentioned ideas to do with increased driver protection, the motorsport world has cause to feel the loss of Professor Eric Sydney Watkins OBE intensely.
■Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One by Sid Watkins
■Beyond the Limit by Sid Watkins