MAURICE HAMILTON

Professor Sid Watkins: A Very Special Man


Professor Sid Watkins was buried during a private ceremony in his beloved Borders region of Scotland on Tuesday. A lone piper played a lament, a haunting sound that spoke for thousands of people around the world who had the privilege of knowing this wonderful character. And a few of the racing drivers among them can honestly and thankfully say they are alive today because of the efforts of the man known affectionately as 'Prof'.

As one of the world's leading neurosurgeons and a motor sport fan, Prof Watkins was perfectly positioned to drag motor sport medical resources from the crude standards that would be totally unacceptable today. Having spent spare weekends as a doctor on corner duty at places such as Silverstone and Brands Hatch, Prof become more closely involved with medical support at Watkins Glen in the 1960s during an eight-year stint at the medical centre in nearby Syracuse. His return to Britain coincided with the beginnings of an awareness that something needed to be done about moving medical back-up beyond haphazard systems that were often an after-thought.

The problem was, no one had enough clout to steer the necessary upgrades through the warren of political and personal egos infesting the race tracks of the world. That changed in the 1970s when Bernie Ecclestone's influence moved beyond marshalling the teams and making money. It was Ecclestone and the Formula One Constructors' Association (FOCA) rather than the governing body (then known as FISA) that came to call on Professor Watkins at his post as Head of Neurology in The London Hospital.

"In 1978, Bernie asked me to take an interest in the welfare of the F1 drivers and go to all the Grands Prix. Because this was FOCA and not the FISA, it provoked a great deal of reaction. The manoeuvre was deeply resented by some circuits and their chief medical officers. They saw this as criticism of their standards. But Ecclestone was absolutely marvellous, particularly when I was in great difficulties in the early days."

That quote comes from an interview I did with Prof in his office in The London Hospital in February 1984. By then, he had established a high standard for medical facilities at each F1 circuit, as well as introducing the medical support car trackside at every Grand Prix. Yet to come was pioneering work with the FIA Institute of Motor Sport Safety that drove all manner of innovations ranging from cockpit surrounds to the HANS device which is universal throughout the sport today.

Talking to Prof was always a joy. His gentle English accent was accompanied by a twinkle in the bespectacled eye, Prof's wicked sense of humour helping him cross numerous hurdles as well keeping stroppy drivers and officials in their place. Being F1's Chief Medical Delegate should have been enough to tax anyone 24/7. But you only began to appreciate Prof's enormous energy and range when he explained that each of the 23 files by the side of his desk represented a hospital committee on which he was playing a part.

With this position of authority came a degree of procedural abandon which Sid would exercise with very little inhibition. Following in his wake along a well-polished hospital corridor, it was with a mixture of alarm and amusement that I noticed the overhead 'NO SMOKING' sign in big red letters become wreathed in smoke from his ever-present cigar as he swept past.

You would never get away with that now, of course. But, in many ways, Sid was a gentleman of his times, one for whom political correctness was an anathema. Beneath the sometimes gruff exterior beat a benevolent heart. I am not alone in successfully asking the Prof to use his knowledge and contacts to help out friends in despair over finding a cure or hamstrung by medical bureaucracy. As F1 regulars, we were fortunate to have on hand this leading physician to tend to the minor ailments that affect any travelling circus.

At Hockenheim, I once awoke on race morning to find I had developed conjunctivitis; not ideal when you need unrestricted vision to commentate on the race. This was in the days of the race morning warm-up and I knew where Prof would be located 10 minutes or so before the start. I found him, cigar in hand, by the medical car.

After a quick consultation in this open-air surgery, he ordered me to get on my knees while he dived into his extensive medical bag. In the bizarre juxtaposition that followed in front of a couple of thousand bemused people in the grandstand, the simple act of applying ointment was carried out by a professional who, later in the day, could be saving a driver's life.

Professor Watkins has been widely recognised for his close relationship with Ayrton Senna. In fact, he had a quiet and warm regard for most drivers. When meeting in London in 1984, we spoke about the loss of Gilles Villeneuve less than two years before at Zolder. I asked if, despite the inherent danger and a medical man's necessary unemotional response, it was privately distressing to arrive at an accident scene where nothing could be done.

"I was very upset by his (Villeneuve's) death," he replied. "Not because it was in any way avoidable once the circumstances operated to produce the accident but because, firstly, I knew him very well. And, secondly, because he was always rational and reasonable and a thoroughly nice person to deal with. I was fond of him. When I first met Gilles, he was extremely polite; a gentleman. He said: "I hope I'll never need you." As I identified his car when we arrived at the accident, I thought about those words..."

In many ways, that reflection on Gilles and his relationship with him sums up how a great many of us feel about the passing of Professor Sidney Watkins OBE, FRCS; a very special man indeed.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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