Motor racing community's tribute to F1 doctor

Motor racing community's tribute to F1 doctor

Sid Watkins pictured earlier this year

John Watson

Frank Williams

First published in News The Oxford Times: Photograph of the Author by , Council Reporter, also covering Oxford city centre. Call me on 01865 425429

When ex-motor racing driver John Watson crashed his car during the Dutch Grand Prix in 1980, he knew he could count on his friend Sid Watkins to help him out.

His car had a breaking fault which saw him crash into a barrier at the end of the main straight.

When his car came to a halt he heard a big thud behind him and didn’t move for fear he might have injured his back, but the prompt arrival on the scene of Professor Watkins put his mind at rest.

Luckily the thud turned out to be the sound of fuel hitting the side of the car’s tank.

Mr Watson, who now lives in Cumnor, said: “I didn’t have any injuries other than stiffness and bruising, but I was treated properly by someone I had confidence in.”

The 66-year-old has now joined Oxfordshire’s motor racing community in paying tribute to Prof Watkins, who was the Formula One track-side doctor for nearly 30 years.

Prof Watkins, who trained as a neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, died after a short illness on Wednesday, aged 84.

Mr Watson, 66, was one of the first drivers to meet Prof Watkins after he became race doctor in 1978 and they remained close, bonding over their shared love of angling.

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The five-time Grand Prix race winner, who drove for Brabham, Lotus and McLaren, said Prof Watkins changed F1 permanently.

He said: “He had a massive impact on F1 but it didn’t happen in the first race. It took a long time.

“In those days the season took place in 16 or so countries and there was a huge degree of variation of medical treatment and quality of hospitals and he tried to raise that up.

“When a venue is now considered for a race, part of the equation is the medical facilities available. All these things are fundamentally the legacy of Sid Watkins.”

Prof Watkins also helped introduce specialised medical cars which could race around the track quicker than ambulances, but also had space for all the equipment.

But his life was also marked by tragedy, particularly when his close friend Ayrton Senna died in 1994 during the San Marino Grand Prix.

Mr Watson said: “It was a huge loss. When the crash happened Sid didn’t go back to the medical centre with Senna as he usually did and that’s when I knew something was wrong.

“It was one of the worst moments of Sid’s life.

“He was well liked by the F1 drivers and was almost like an uncle to some of them.”

Born in Liverpool, Prof Watkins served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in West Africa for four years after graduating.

Returning to the UK in 1958, he spent another four years at the Radcliffe Infirmary specialising in neurosurgery.

He continued in his role as on-track surgeon until 2004. During that time he was credited with saving the lives of Mika Hakkinen, Didier Pironi, Martin Donnelly, Gerhard Berger and Rubens Barrichello after crashes.

He was also the chief medical officer for the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the sport’s world governing body.

Sir Frank Williams, the founder and team principal of Grove-based Williams F1, said he had been helped by Prof Watkins after the road accident in 1986 which left him paralysed.

Sir Frank said: “He was in all respects a very special human being.

“In particular, his dedication to the safety of the drivers required endless persistence to achieve the safety standards and level of medical care that were necessary to save drivers’ lives.”

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