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'Prof' Watkins hangs up his helmet

Alan Baldwin | January 20, 2005 20:24 IST

Professor Sid Watkins, who stepped down as Formula One's medical head on Thursday, leaves behind a far safer sport than the one he entered 26 years ago.

No Grand Prix driver has died on the track in more than a decade, despite cars lapping faster than ever, and much of the credit for saving lives belongs to the wise-cracking septuagenerian that most drivers know simply as 'Prof'.

"Professor Watkins has made a unique contribution to improving the standards of safety and medical intervention in Formula One and indeed internationally throughout motor sport," said Max Mosley, president of motor racing's ruling body (FIA).

One of Formula One's characters, and a close friend of commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, the 76-year-old Briton is a familiar sight in his blue overalls following drivers in the medical car for the first lap of every race.

When he steps out of the car on the track, it's serious.

The death of Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was one such occasion.

First on the scene when the Brazilian speared his Williams into the wall at Tamburello, Watkins described in his book 'Life at the Limit' the scene as he tended to his friend.

"We supported Ayrton's neck and removed his helmet," he wrote. "He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground.

"As we did, he sighed and although I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment."


That accident, the last driver fatality, prompted major safety revisions and developments in head and neck protection.

"I've heard it said that it is so safe now they shouldn't pay the drivers such sums of money," he said in an interview a few years ago. "Of course it is very much safer than it was but it is still very dangerous.

"We've tried to cater for everything we can think of, but there is always the unexpected."

Watkins was recruited by then-Brabham boss Ecclestone in 1978 at a time when safety was rudimentary and medical assistance basic and haphazard.

That same year Swedish great Ronnie Peterson died in hospital at Monza of a bone marrow embolism following serious leg injuries sustained in a crash at the Italian Grand Prix.

Four years later Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, a Ferrari favourite and father of 1997 world champion Jacques, was killed at Zolder in Belgium.

Of the more recent generation, Watkins performed a life-saving emergency tracheotomy on Finland's Mika Hakkinen at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide in 1995. Hakkinen went on to win two world championships.

Watkins will be replaced by his assistant Gary Hartstein and will continue to work with the world body as president of the FIA's newly-established Institute for Motor Sport Safety.

"As a neurosurgeon I shouldn't be needed at a motor race," he once joked.

"The drivers can't have any brains or they wouldn't be competing in the first place."

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