Professor Sid Watkins, who died on Wednesday evening at the age of 84, unified Formula 1 motor racing. That in itself is a one-off epitaph, a rarity enough to ensure near-legendary status and sizeable mentions in distinguished dispatches. That an unassuming doctor from Liverpool should unify a global sport governed by big money, commercial imperative, fame, petrol, speed, burning rubber and ego is incredible.
“The Prof” became the chief medical officer of F1’s governing FIA (Fédération International d’Automobile) in 1978 when motor sport’s crowning formula was a shambles of deathly weekends, pushy team bosses and bales-of-hay safety barriers. Triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart was described as “a certain beady-eyed little Scot” for daring to not want to die and for trying to protect the life of his fellow drivers. Until Sid Watkins came along, Stewart was a lone voice in the sport, asking that drivers be considered drivers rather than daredevils.
Watkins helped codify many of the safety features still familiar in Formula 1, where once, and at best, hedgerows and hay bales offered crash protection, at worst concrete walls. Armco crash-barriers were not erected around many of the sport’s most infamous circuits at the Netherlands’ Zandvoort, Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps and the widow-maker supreme, Germany’s notorious, snaking Nürburgring.
The headline on the UK edition of Yahoo’s news website, read “Senna doctor Watkins dies”, and this tabloidised simplification of a man’s life’s work isn’t so unfair. Watkins became close to many of the drivers he worked with, treated, gave a clean-ish bill of health to and Senna was not only the most famous, but also the closest to the Prof. After Northern Irish racer Martin Donnelly’s shocking crash at Jerez in 1990, Senna became sensitive to Watkins’s work on safety, influencing car design and sitting down with team principals to make sure that human life wasn’t sacrificed in the interests of speed. It was Watkins’s job to save the day for Donnelly and he did so; Brazil’s Rubens Barrichello, Austria’s Gerhard Berger and Finland’s Mika Hakkinen may also owe their race-winning ways to Watkins’s timely turning-up to the scene of the crash.
In many ways, The Prof was the antithesis of the sport that he administered to. Although, as a neurosurgeon, he was a man who knew he had a decent brain and a personable manner himself, Watkins eschewed the playboyism, super-hospitable sponsorship tents and razzle-dazzle of the ultimate glamour sport. His affection for Scotch and cigars might suggest he wasn’t a heart surgeon but don’t suggest he’d been caught in motor sport’s glitz-web.
When Ayrton Senna died in a crash at Imola in 1994’s San Marino Grand Prix, he was perhaps a man mindful of his destiny and affected by it. Senna had been dumbstruck by the death, during qualifying for that race, of Austria’s Roland Ratzenberger. Senna had concerns over whether the race should be run and confessed his fears to Watkins, by now a close friend and race-weekend confidant.
Watkins recalled telling Senna that he didn’t have to race at all, “Why don’t you give it up altogether?”, said Watkins, “what else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.”
That the world wished Senna was a keener fisherman than racing car driver is another reason Sid Watkins unifies the now saner sport of Formula 1.