Neurosurgeon Dr. Sid Watkins, always known as "The Professor" in the Formula One paddock, has died at the age of 84.
Before he became the face and the leader of F1's on-track medical response team and made a massive push to increase safety, Watkins spent nearly two decades in motorsport, including working in the medical facilities at Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen. After meeting F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone at Watkins Glen in 1978, at time when 13 drivers had died on track since 1968, Ecclestone offered him the job of medical delegate for the series. Not long after taking the job, Ronnie Petersen would die in another on-track accident.

Watkins served in the role for 26 years, the first responder to accidents suffered by drivers like JJ Lehto, Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barichello, Martin Donnelly and Gerhard Berger. Watkins was involved in helping Williams team principal, Frank Williams, after a car accident in France.

Following the horror of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, where Roland Ratzenberger and his friend Ayrton Senna both lost their lives, Watkins lead in the creation of the FIA Expert Safety Advisory Committee. The doctor can justifiably be credited for helping to lead the way in increasing the sport's safety overall. Watkins retired as the head of the organization, by then renamed the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, in 2004. He carried on as the first president of the institute until 2011, then took up an honorary position. In 2002, Car and Driver did an in-depth piece on "the doctor to the drivers" and his effect on safety in F1, noting that The Professor's legacy includes zero on-track fatalities since Senna's death in 1994.

Autoblog sends its condolences to the Watkins family.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 10 Comments
      Karl T
      • 2 Years Ago
      Many modern racing drivers, including those outside F1, can thank Dr. Watkins for their increased safety, much improved medical response following an accident, and -perhaps- even for helping save their life. RIP Sid
        mapoftazifosho
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Karl T
        Did his enhancements have any effect on civilian helmet tech? Did his legacy trickle outside of motorsports completely?
          mawhalen53
          • 2 Years Ago
          @mapoftazifosho
          I would imagine that a lot of the tech developed at the top level has made its way through to consumers - probably helmet technology at least with composites and such. This is me firing from the hip though, don't know anything definite.
      jmchladek
      • 2 Years Ago
      Watkins was certainly a pioneer in getting medical support to drivers in quick fashion. If I recall correctly, at practice for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, Rubens Barrichello had a crash and literally swallowed his tongue in the carnage when his car flipped over. The safety crews got to the car quick, but I seem to recall it was Watkins himself who was able to diagnose medically what had happened, reached in and pull Ruben's tongue out of his throat before he choked to death. Otherwise, San Marino would have had three fatalities that weekend. Barrichello continued to race F1 competitively for many more years and is now an Indycar driver. While F1 in years past had been criticised for being behind in medical response, by the late 1990s, they were ahead of other forms of motorsport. They mandated use of the first HANS device, which NASCAR dragged their feet on saying that their safety was already good enough. It took three deaths as I recall (including Dale Earnhardt's infamous fatal 2001 Daytona wreck) before NASCAR decided to rethink that strategy.
        dej
        • 2 Years Ago
        @jmchladek
        Nope. The 'necks in Nascar mandated it in Oct 2001. The Hayseeds in CART also mandated it 2001. The sophisticated F1 bunch didn't care if drivers died until 2003, I guess they thought their safety was good enough. Nascar gave drivers a "CHOICE" between HANS and Hutchens device until 2005. from Wiki: The device was first adopted by the National Hot Rod Association in 1996, following the death of Top Fuel driver Blaine Johnson, but wasn't a mandatory device until 2004, after the death of 2003 Top Fuel Rookie of the Year Darrell Russell, who was killed during the Sears Craftsman Nationals in Madison, Illinois. Since that time, all drivers in all categories, either professional, or sportsman, must wear a HANS device, or risk immediate disqualification from the event. Much like NASCAR, the NHRA authorized the use of both the HANS, and the Hutchens device until 2005, when the HANS became the sole head and neck restraint device used. The major difference between the HANS device used in NASCAR, CART, or Formula 1, and the one used in the NHRA is that the main part of the device is molded from high strength polymers. The NHRA version is also wrapped with seven layers of Nomex fabric, which is the same material as the seven-layer fire suits that all NHRA drivers must wear. This extra precaution prevents the device from melting should an engine fire occur. Formula One mandated HANS devices in 2003 after extensive testing, sharing the results with other FIA affiliates. Using that information, CART made the device compulsory for oval tracks in 2001, later requiring the HANS devices for all circuits. Starting in October, 2001, NASCAR mandated either the HANS or Hutchens device head and neck restraint be used, going with the HANS device exclusively starting in 2005. ARCA followed suit in the wake of a basal skull fracture crash fatality in an ARCA race at Lowe's in October 2001 which claimed the life of Blaise Alexander. The World Rally Championship and Australian V8 Supercar Series made the device compulsory for drivers in the 2005 season.
      Burticus
      • 2 Years Ago
      RIP Doc , you saved countless lives .
      Yvonne Deeley
      • 2 Years Ago
      I was very saddened to hear of the death of Prof. Watkins. My memories of him are of a fantastic neurosurgeon who made my lovely daughter Karen's life more bearable until she died in 1980. She thought the world of him as did I. He had the unique ability to make her feel so special even though she was only one of many patients. He certainly was "One of the Best" Maureen (posted on behalf of mum)