JANUARY 20, 2005

The importance of Sid Watkins

Alain Prost may have been called The Professor but in Formula 1 circles there has always been only one "Prof" and he has been on the Grand Prix scene fulltime since the Swedish GP of 1978 when Bernie Ecclestone, then the owner of the Brabham team and the boss of FOCA, asked Watkins to help make F1 safer. At the time circuit medical centres were often nothing more than tents with little in the way of facilities. Watkins began the gradual process of changing attitudes and then changing facilities, spurred on by such events as the death of Ronnie Peterson in 1979 after which Watkins began a campaign to ensure that the hospitals to which the injured were taken had the necessary facilities.

Originally from Liverpool, Watkins's father was a car dealer and Sid became interested in the sport when he was qualifying at Liverpool University Medical School. After a spell in West Africa doing National Service with the Royal Army Medical Corps he specialized in neurosurgery and studied with the legendary Joe Pennybacker at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, a hospital which was known for its head injury department.

In 1962 Watkins was appointed Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Syracuse in upstate New York, close to the Watkins Glen racing circuit. On his return to Britain in 1970 he became the professor of neurosurgery at the London Hospital, one of the oldest and most prestigious neurosurgical units in the world. He became a member of the RAC Motor Racing Medical Panel and it was this which ultimately led to an appoach to become Formula 1's doctor.

Watkins's commonsense approach and willingness to speak his mind has made him a respected figure in F1 circles never moreso than after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994 when the Prof was appointed to head a new body called the Advisory Expert Group which revolutionised not only car safety but also circuit safety and systems like the HANS head and neck support. These reforms have saved countless lives in racing in recent years.

Watkins and France's Dr Jean-Jacques Isserman were also responsible for the improvement of circuit medical services and enuring that the local hopitals had the necessary facilities for F1's needs.

In recent years Sid has become more involved in the FIA's campaigns for wider road safety issues and it is to this role that he will now turn his attention. Now 72, Sid has been more than a just a doctor and over the years has acted as a comforter and confessor to many of the top names in F1 not to mention a general practictioner for most of the F1 paddock at some point or other.

Watkins's contribution to Formula 1 was recognised in 2002 with his appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).