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Safety Matters
Steven Roy

Steven has been obsessed by motor racing in general, and Formula One in particular, for as long as he can remember. He can always be called upon for informed opinion on any aspect of F1, be it the sport, technology, business and politics or its history.

Sid Watkins, safety pioneer - The incredible work of a man at the forefront F1 safety


Anyone watching Twitter when news of the death of Sid Watkins started filtering through will be aware of how popular he was with those inside and outside of the F1 paddock. The fact that so many drivers took so quickly to Twitter to express their gratitude speaks volumes about the man. There were tweets from drivers like Rubens Barrichello and Martin Brundle, who he had treated, but the tweet that registered most with me came from Alex Brundle.

I've played a lot of football with my Dad. I wouldn't have if it wasn't for a bloke I never met called Sid Watkins. Never got to thank him.

AlexBrundle AlexBrundle

We all know the stories of racing drivers getting injured and of their recoveries but we never think of a driver's foot being saved meaning his son gets to play football with him.

It is important to remember that Sid Watkins was a lot more than just F1's doctor. He had a long and very successful medical career starting at the University of Liverpool where he graduated as a doctor of medicine. After a spell in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he moved to the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford to specialise in neurosurgery. It was while at the Radcliffe that he first took up a medical role in motorsport at a karting event at Brands Hatch. In 1962 he became Professor of Neurosurgery at the State University of New York and took four members of his team and his own equipment to provide a medical service at Watkins Glen. Eight years later he returned to the UK to act as head of neurosurgery at the London Hospital and was invited to join the RAC medical panel at the same time.

The safety and medical delegate

In 1978, Bernie Ecclestone went to see Sid Watkins about a medical problem and ended up offering him the position of Safety and Medical Delegate. It is hard for anyone watching modern F1 with medical helicopters, doctors in Mercedes medical cars and hospitals pre-approved and full medical and surgical teams on standby to understand what it was like in the 1970s. At many circuits medical facilities were a long way from the modern purpose-built facilities with fully equipped and staffed medical centres. Most of them were tents with grass floors staffed by local first aiders. People with no obvious qualifications got the job of Chief Medical Officer at circuits because they were related to or friends with people in power. In his autobiography 'Winning is Not Enough' Jackie Stewart quoted an example of a gynaecologist with minimal experience of neurology, burns or internal medicine getting the job because he was an enthusiast.

Everyone knows Jackie Stewart did a great deal to improve safety in motor racing and faced with the appalling medical facilities, and without the resources and backing to overhaul them completely as Sid Watkins would with Bernie Ecclestone's backing, Stewart decided to hire his own personal doctor to travel with him. He also compiled a list of leading specialists in orthopaedics, neurology and burns in each country he drove in. It was against this background that Sid Watkins started his journey to improve medical facilities. Like Stewart he was attacked by those with a vested interest and those without his vision. Chief medical officers saw him as someone who was judging and criticising them rather than someone who could get them resources to the job that they could never dream of.

F1 was still a long way from something Bernie Ecclestone could put on TV on a Sunday lunchtime

It is a fact that no-one has died driving at a Grand Prix meeting since Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna but things were very different in 1970s. In 1976 we had Niki Lauda's near fatal accident at the Nurburgring. In 1977 Tom Pryce was killed along with along with a young marshal in South Africa when the marshal ran in front of him on his way to help another driver. Then at the Italian Grand Prix in 1978 there was a crash at the start where Ronnie Peterson broke his leg and Vittorio Brambilla was hit on the head by a wheel.

In hospital that night, Perterson died of an embolism. Death and serious injury in F1 was commonplace. While Jackie Stewart had made great strides in safety, F1 was still a long way from something Bernie Ecclestone could put on TV on a Sunday lunchtime.

After the 1978 Italian race, Watkins was able to use his position to ensure immediate improvements. He went to Bernie Ecclestone and demanded that no race could take place without a medical car, an anaesthetist and a medical helicopter. This was a huge step up from what had gone before. Jackie Stewart has often spoken of being driven to hospital after an accident and the ambulance not being able to find the hospital.

Procedures put in place

Drivers continued to get injured and die over the next few years. In 1980 Patrick Depailler was killed in testing at Hockenheim while Clay Reggazoni was paralysed from the waist down at Long Beach. 1982 saw the last death in a GP before Ratzenberger's. At the Belgian Grand Prix, Gilles Villeneuve was killed in qualifying in a horrific accident. He, like Senna, was a great friend of the Prof's and as Watkins approached the scene of the accident in the medical car he thought of a previous conversation where Gilles had said 'I hope I never need you.'

At the Canadian race that year there was a start line crash that like almost everything that year involved Didier Pironi. Pironi had stalled his pole-sitting Ferrari and he was hit from behind by the 23-year-old Italian, Riccardo Paletti, who was starting his second Grand Prix. Paletti had qualified 23rd and was travelling at great speed when it smashed into the back of Pironi's static car. The front of Paletti's car crumbled and he died. The only driver to die in an F1 car in the last 30 years other than Senna and Ratzenberger was Elio deAngelis who died in a testing accident at Paul Ricard in 1986.

The fact that there have been fewer deaths in the last 30 years than in the previous 5 speaks wonders for the work carried out by Watkins and others. It is easy to see that modern cars stand up to accidents a lot better than their predecessors. Even so it is still easy to rhyme off a list of drivers who have had accidents that would have killed drivers of an older generation. The first major accident of that black weekend at Imola involved Rubens Barrichello who has already said on Twitter that Watkins saved his life. Mika Häkkinen required an emergency tracheotomy after an accident at Adelaide. It doesn't bear thinking about if that had been required and all that was available to him was a few first aiders with bags full of bandages.

Martin Donnelly had a horrendous crash in a Lotus at Jerez that resulted in the car splitting in two through the cockpit and the unfortunate driver being dumped on the track at speed. Had that same accident happened 20 years earlier there is no doubt he would have died. Two weeks after Senna's death Karl Wendlinger had huge accident in the first Thursday practise session when his car smashed into a barrier at the chicane. This resulted in him being put into a coma for a few weeks. There are a whole list of other drivers who have been saved either directly by Watkins or by the procedures he put in place.

A drinks cabinet for his whisky

Sid Watkins is famous for having enjoyed life and for having a great sense of humour. He also liked a whisky and a cigar. When he took up his position in Formula One, he was given cars and drivers seemingly at random. Some cars were so poor they didn't even start reliably and many of the drivers had never been on a track before. Like Chief Medical Officers they got the job because of similar reasons.

FIA medical car
Credit: Daimler AG

Eventually a deal was done for Mercedes-Benz to supply two medical cars and two safety cars and properly trained racing drivers were appointed to drive them. Now there is a session at the start of the weekend where these drivers have the track to themselves to allow them to find out how fast they can safely drive them.

When Mercedes-Benz asked Watkins how they could improve the medical car he said half jokingly that he would greatly appreciate it if they would fit a drinks cabinet for his whisky and a humidor for his cigars. When at the first race of the new season the new medical cars turned up each had a drinks cabinet complete with glasses and a decanter full of whisky and a humidor full of cigars.

As well as a sense of humour Watkins could, when the occasion called for it, deliver a barbed response. One year at Spa there was a start line incident. Watkins had the medical car stopped at the first corner and jumped out. He ran up the hill to Nigel Mansell's stricken car. During the run Watkins pulled a muscle or damaged a tendon. He limped to the car as fast as he could seeing that Mansell's head was resting on the steering wheel. As it happened Mansell was not injured. At that time such an accident resulted in a re-start and drivers could jump into a spare car and start the race as if nothing had happened, so Mansell stayed in his car and jammed his foot on the brake to make sure no-one could move it. As Watkins reached the car Mansell raised his head and said 'It's OK Sid. There is nothing wrong with me' to which the Prof replied 'Yes there is. You are a ****ing idiot.'

Formula One and motor racing in general are better for Sid Watkins' involvement. While people will be sad that he has died they should also be very happy that he lived. Because of the way he lived, TV companies can put racing on television knowing that it is unlikely they are going to show a driver die, racing drivers who would otherwise have died can live normal lives and one boy got to grow up kicking a ball with his father.