Features - Interview


Professor Sidney Watkins


When the lights go from red to green at a Grand Prix, 27 powerful cars accelerate hard towards the first corner. Twenty-six of them have qualified for the race; some of them have even survived the turmoil of pre-qualifying. The 27th car has not qualified -- but it is always guaranteed a place on the grid...

When the lights go from red to green at a Grand Prix, 27 powerful cars accelerate hard towards the first corner. Twenty-six of them have qualified for the race; some of them have even survived the turmoil of pre-qualifying. The 27th car has not qualified -- but it is always guaranteed a place on the grid...

The 27th car is not a single-seater. It is a high-performance road car, often driven by a former Grand Prix driver. It carries Professor Sid Watkins, the official FISA 'Formula 1 Doctor'.

Alain Prost may be called the 'Professor', but there is only one 'Prof' in Grands Prix and he has been visiting F1 races since the Swedish GP of 1978. It was Bernie Ecclestone, then the owner of Brabham, and the boss of FOCA, who asked Watkins to become involved. It was part of Ecclestone's never-ceasing urge to improve F1.

"The medical facilities were not very impressive in those days," explains Watkins. "Sometimes the medical centre was only a tent."

The arrival of an official medical delegate caused a few problems with local doctors.

"They didn't realise that I came to their circuit in order to help them," says Watkins, "not to act as a policeman. As time has gone by these problems have disappeared. Today I enjoy excellent collaboration with local doctors at all circuits. It has to be remembered that they have worked very hard and most of them are unpaid, attending the races out of love."

The Prof had begun his association with the sport as an enthusiast. Originally from Liverpool, Watkins was the son of a motor trader. After he had qualified as a doctor, he became interested in motor racing and started to help out at English circuits.

After a spell in North America -- where he was, on occasion, a doctor at Watkins Glen -- he returned to England and a post at the London Hospital. He has attended all GPs since 1978. In 1981, FISA appointed a Medical Commission and The Prof was elected President. It is a post he holds to this day.

Throughout practice The Prof and his driver are stationed close to the pit exit, always ready to leap into action. The Prof's car is one of several around the track. These enable doctors and rescue workers to reach a crash within seconds.

On race day Prof Watkins follows the field on the first lap. The fast intervention car then pulls into the pits, ready to go onto the circuit again if a crash occurs.

"If practice or the race is stopped," he explains. "The procedure is that my car automatically -- and instantly -- goes onto the circuit, without waiting for instructions from Race Control.

"Even if it is only a mechanical problem which has caused the red flag, it is better to go out to have a look than to find out later that we should gone.

"When I get to an injured driver, the first priority is to stabilise him and then get him out of the car without damaging him more than he already has been. If there is a rick of fire the situation is obviously different and we have to get the driver out as quickly as possible.

"Once we are at the scene and know what the problem is for the driver, the important thing is to keep his blood pressure good and control his pain. Tehn we take him out quietly and nicely."

Despite the fast intervention cars it is often the local circuit marshals who reach an injured driver first.

"The marshals are instructed to assist the driver to get out, if (itals) the driver is all right and conscious. If the driver is injured, they are instructed to leave him in the car until the doctors arrive -- unless there is a risk of fire. In that case they obviously have to get him out -- or get the fire out -- whichever is easiest.

"We have equipment in the car to clear and support the airways and to measure blood pressure. We have a ventilation machine with oxygen, a deformable mattress which conforms to the patient's shape in case of back injuries and we also carry special equipment to extract a driver ith spine or neck injuries and to immobilise him in the car.

"In short we carry all the primary equipment needed to deal with a patient. Once the driver is out of the car, we take him to the medical centre for further stabilization and then, if neccessary, we can transport him to a local hospital by helicopter."

"We have records of every driver -- his blood type, previous medical history, allergies to drugs etc. This enables us to save time and avoid mistakes in case of an accident."

Innes Ireland a leading driver in the early sixties was, for example, allergic to morphine-type drugs.

"When Innes had an accident -- and he had a few in his day -- the first thing that used to happen was that he was given morphine. The local doctors simply didn't know about his allergies. Quite often he actually suffered more from the injections than from the inujuries. Today our records help us to avoid this sort of problems."

It is all well organised, but in his 12 years in F1, things have not always gone to plan..

"With a highly qualified driver and a fast car, our first -- and only -- lap takes on average 2 minutes 20 seconds. If the F1 cars are lapping in 1 minute 30 seconds we have about 40 seconds in hand before the field catches us on their second lap. These 40 seconds allows us to slow a little to see if a driver is okay. If he is not we will stop."

But there have been occasions when the intervention vehicle is caught by the field.

"In Monte Carlo in 1980, there was a major pile-up at the first corner," remembers The Prof. "Derek Daly's Tyrrell landed on his team mate Jean-Pierre Jarier. My driver on that occasion was Jacky Ickx. We stopped to see if everyone was okay. We left the scene just as they were lifting one of the cars away with a crane. It was directly above our car and I said to Ickx: 'Okay, we'd better move quickly'. It was a good thing we did, because just as we accelerated away the car above us dropped off the hook!

"Anyway, the field caught us at the hairpin after the swimming pool. Everybody went past without problems, some of them even giving us a friendly wave. Everybody that is except Gilles Villeneuve. He slid by us with about an inch to spare -- just to show his phenomenal car control.

"We were also overtaken in Rio this year because we slowed to see if Thierry Boutsen was okay after he had stopped.

"It wasn't a problem, the drivers knew there was a medical car on the circuit and we just drove onto the grass on the inside."

The safety record in F1 in the Eighties has been good: only four drivers have lost their lives in F1 cars. Two of the four fatal accidents happened during private testing sessions.

"I do not attend testing," explains The Prof. "There are so many private tests that it is impossible to cover them to the same degree we cover the races. The tests are private matters for the teams and it is up to the individual team to arrange its own medical cover. FISA has issued guidelines, describing the sort of medical facilities there should be available.

"For the most part, the teams conform to these guidelines."

Major incidents aside, The Prof is often kept busy over a Grand Prix weekend as he also fulfils the role of 'GP' for the entire GP circus.

"I look after everybody," he explains. "drivers, mechanics, team managers, journalists. I treat everything from a headache to an appendicitis. At this year's Spanish GP, for example, Tyrrell designer Harvey Postlethwaite had appendicitis and I had to arrange for him to be flown back to England for an operation.

"But," he adds, "I do have a 'proper job'. During the week I work as a neurosurgeon in London. Looking after the F1 drivers is a weekend job."

What The Prof fails to mention is that he is not merely 'a neurosurgeon', he is actually one of the world's leading brain surgeons...