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'Life at the Limit' by Sid Watkins - Kindle review // An incredible insight into F1's more dangerous decades

Published by Christine

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Professor Sid Watkins was an incredibly popular and much-loved character in the Formula One paddock, and his passing in 2012 saw tributes pouring in from all forms of motorsport. I was aware of his work on safety, and that he had been the F1 doctor on call for most accidents over the tumultuous and dangerous decades, but my knowledge was mostly from a distance.

This book, the first of three that he wrote, gives an insight into how the Professor got to his position, what kind of activities he got up to during his time in F1, as well as thoughts on various aspects of the sport from a position as a fan, and as a doctor.

Accident prone

A big part of the book is detailing some of the huge accidents that Watkins dealt with, and the aftermath of such. Whether it was a tragic and fatal crash, such as Ratzenberger or Villeneuve, or one that the participant walked away from, Sid talks of them with the same clinical descriptions you’d expect from a doctor.

It's not dispassionate, but there's an ethos there that any personal feelings about the accident are just the start. Learning from each incident was crucial to help the sport evolve and become much safer, but as you might imagine, change was never easy.

Despite the speed of Formula One cars there was obviously a need for a following car with medical support on the first lap. Bernie, Niki, and Jackie Stewart all agreed that this was what we should try to do. There were howls of protest and a great deal of sabotage of our future efforts to achieve this in the next few months...

- Life at the Limit by Sid Watkins

Even though I know that it’s impossible to get agreement in Formula One, and it is like battling the tide, I was still surprised at some of the safety introductions that people didn’t want to know about. Being followed by a medical car shouldn’t have too much effect on anybody, but was clearly not a welcome proposal. I particularly enjoyed the section about their first couple of outings, borrowing racing gear from the actual drivers, and desperately trying to keep up with the pack. It had never occurred to me that the medical car driver might be nervous!

Against the tide

It’s hard reading about the fatalities, or the horrific injuries, that occurred in the 1970s and 80s. Having just watched Rush, that period of time is fresh in my mind, and I am aghast that the sport managed to continue in the face of such tragedy, and with such a resistance to change.

I expressed the view that perhaps Formula One Grand Prix racing was coming to the end of its life as we, the elders, knew it. I felt that, with the sociological changes widely occurring in the world, expectations had so altered that the old panache of Formula One was close to being no longer acceptable.

- Life at the Limit by Sid Watkins

The number of circuits that didn’t want to upgrade, or battled against Sid and his team as they tried to improve is astounding. Particularly considering how outdated they were at the time. Sid’s descriptions are fascinating, tracks with simple tents or converted caravans as a medical centre, or track medical staff relaxing with a beer during the race. If you didn’t already respect those who helped F1 become more safe, you absolutely do after discovering just what they were up against.

Although the book is mostly about what happened on track in F1, there’s also a chapter on Frank Williams and the accident that left him confined to a wheelchair. It felt slightly intrusive to read these paragraphs, but equally, it shone a light on just what a fighter Frank is, and the strength of character he displayed. As Sid sums up: “He was tough and resolute and never once whinged about what had happened to him.”

Personality test

Alongside detailing the difficult times, Sid also shares some of the lighter sides of life in Formula One. He gives a quick review of the top drivers from the 70s, 80s and 90s, with his opinion and how well he got to know them. I hadn’t realised he was quite so close to Senna, and it’s interesting to read who saw a lot of the Prof, and who didn’t need his services at all.

There’s a chapter on the FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre, who I know of only through writing up brief histories of that period in motorsport. Here there was a lot of insight into who he was and what motivated him to do what he did. Likewise with Bernie, who may not be my favourite person in F1, but did a lot to help the cause.

Mario Andretti, who was in his bathing gear, told Bernie he had been offered a thousand dollars to push him in the pool. Bernie put the briefcase down, said, ‘Five hundred dollars each,’ and gently projected himself and Andretti into the water.

- Life at the Limit by Sid Watkins

As well as a round-up of the personalities Watkins encountered, he also runs through his favourite tracks, and those he fears. It must have been very difficult to return to circuits over and over again, knowing that something awful had happened there. He mentions that some particular corners hold memories for him, and that is why he fears them. Monaco too is described as a “prison of barriers”. Sid describes perfectly the sense of relief he would feel when leaving the track on a Sunday after a successful and incident-free weekend of racing.

Summary

Book information
TitleLife at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One
AuthorSid Watkins
PublisherPan
Published7 March 2013
File size2250 KB
ISBN9781447241010
ASINB00BQF6RBO

It’s hard to call this book brilliant, given the subject matter, but it’s such an important and difficult read that it can only be recommended. Watkins writes in a matter-of-fact style, not self-aggrandising or boasting about what was achieved, but simply detailing the methodical and never-ending process of improving safety in motorsport.

In some ways, it’s not a hugely personal book, it has that distance that can only come from training to be a doctor and dealing with horrors every day, but at the same time it transports you to the time and place, so you can see almost through Sid’s eyes.

It’s important to know where Formula One has come from, to know how and why it has evolved the way it has. This book doesn’t whitewash history or paint it in a rosy shade, it’s the stark truth about a difficult time, but one that pushed safety forward. Thank goodness for Sid and Bernie and all those who helped in the fight to get the medical car circling behind the field, and so much more.

Rated: 5 out of 5

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