In The News

Man behind advances in Formula 1 racing safety passes away

Man behind advances in Formula 1 racing safety passes away

PROFESSOR Sid Watkins, the man credited with helping to make Formula 1 motor racing safer, has passed away. He was 84.

He was appointed F1 race doctor in 1978 and remained closely involved with the sport until 2011.

Dr. Watkins, who had worked full-time at a top London hospital, was often among the first people to arrive at the scene of crashes and his quick actions helped save the lives of a number of drivers.

Among the competitors to publicly acknowledge the role Dr. Watkins had played in saving their lives was Rubens Barrichello. He crashed at Imola in 1994, while driving for Jordan.

Professor Watkins had rushed to Mr. Barrichello’s aid. Paying tribute to the professor, the former driver said: “It was Sid Watkins who saved my life”.

It was to be the events at the Imola track that year which were to lead Professor Watkins to devote many years to developing and introducing the safety measures which have transformed the sport. 

Mr. Barrichello had crashed during practice for the San Marino Grand Prix on the Friday. The next day Roland Ratzenberger was killed in another practice crash, while in the race itself on the Sunday, the three-time world champion Ayrton Senna died after his car hit a safety barrier.

Following Ratzenberger’s crash, Mr. Senna had broken down and cried on the shoulder of his close friend, Professor Watkins. The doctor recalled telling the driver that they should both retire and go fishing. But the Brazilian said he had to go on. The next day he was dead.

His death had a profound effect on Professor Watkins, who pledged to do everything within his powers to improve safety for grand prix competitors. Later that year, the sport’s governing body, the FIA, appointed him as chairman of its Expert Advisory Safety Committee.

A testament to the work of Professor Watkins, and his colleagues, is that since Ayrton Senna’s death no other driver has lost his life in a grand prix event.

Professor Watkins was made an O.B.E. in 2002.

Among the many to pay tribute was Ron Dennis, chairman and former team boss of McLaren.

He said: “The world of motor racing has lost one of its true greats. He wasn’t a driver, an engineer or a designer, he was a doctor and it’s probably fair to say that he did more than anyone, over the years, to make Formula 1 as safe as it is today.”

Mr. Dennis continued: “Many drivers and ex-drivers owe their lives to his careful and expert work, which resulted in the massive advances in safety levels that today’s drivers possibly take for granted.”

When the documentary film Senna was released in 2010, Professor Watkins was interviewed. To view an excerpt from this interview, click here.


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