Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Prof

Old racing drivers like to tell of a time when sex was safe but driving was dangerous. Jackie Stewart has talked of a year when he attended a fellow drivers funeral every month. Those days are gone now, thanks to the effort of a number of people, Stewart included. But perhaps the biggest mover for driver safety wasn't a driver, nor an official. He was a neurosurgeon. Specifically he was Professor Eric Sidney Watkins, OBE, FRCS.

The Prof, as he was most often known, began to take safety seriously when he was working in new York.  He was helping out at Watkins Glen, and was appalled at the standard of care available. He took four of his staff and a quantity of medical equipment to the circuit, and began a life-long campaign for better standards.

In 1978 Bernie Ecclestone asked him to take on the post of Formula One race doctor. This was not a popular move with the race organisers. In his first season in charge, Ronnie Peterson died from injuries received at the Italian grand prix. The police sealed off the scene, preventing medical aid reaching poor Ronnie for eighteen minutes. This was the turning point. The Prof made it known that races would not proceed without proper medical centres, helicopters and a new idea pioneered by the ADAC in Germany. Intervention cars. At the start of a grand prix you will see a car following the race on the first lap. If you watched a grand prix in the 80's and 90's then The Prof would be in the car, together with a trauma specialist. Most serious accidents happen on the first lap so The Prof pioneered the idea that if you get assistance to the scene of an accident while it's still happening you have a better chance of survival. Such was his reputation, and eventually the high esteem in which he was held, that he alone had the final veto on whether a driver was fit to race.

Eventually the governing body, the FIA took notice, and The Prof spent 26 years as head of the medical commission. Over time he also became President of the FIA Institute for Motorsport Safety and President of the FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society.

In 2002 he was awarded an OBE, but never received a knighthood. In his profession, he was one of the top neurosurgeons. Such an honour would be considered normal even without his achievements in motorsport. There can be no doubt that one was offered, and even less doubt that a man with the humility and strength of mind of The Prof turned it down.

The Prof died on 12th September 2012. He was 84 years old.

GĂ©rard Saillant, FIA Institute President, said: "Sid was a true gentleman of our sport and always a pleasure to work with. He will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him, from doctors and drivers to officials and fans. Sid's influence will live on for many years to come." 

1 comment:

Jennysmith said...

Sounded a wonderful man. End of an era.

Hope you're well xx