The Prof: Making a difference

September 24, 2012

Apologies for the lapse in posts over the last few months, the publish or perish world of Universities rather got the better of me, I had to attend to some academic pieces which take around three years to finally get accepted and another year or so before they are published, hardly contemporaneous, but that’s the world of academic journals, don’t think we’ll ever see a peer reviewed journal on F1. Anyway thanks for your forbearance and particularly those who enquired as to when they would see some activity on the blog, it was good to know some of you are out there.

The passing of the great (and I do not use the word lightly) Professor Sid Watkins caused me some reflection, which seemed to be an appropriate way to re-launch my musings on F1. Much has already been said about Sid – his deep knowledge and expertise in the world of neurosurgery, his kindness, his sense of humour, his commitment to safety and his role as family doctor to all those within the F1 circus as they moved from continent to continent. But as I look back over his time in F1 it is clear that he drove the most incredible paradigm shift in a global sport that went beyond Formula 1. Peter Hamlyn, his colleague at UCL, who described him as a cross between the mischievous Mr Toad, Winston Churchill, Henry V, Romeo and an encyclopedia, noted that..’when the IOC came to inspect our London 2012 Olympic bid they asked us if “the medical facilities would reach Formula One standards”.’ To imagine such a question in the 1960s or 1970s was pretty much impossible, and it is a testament to Sid that F1 is now the benchmark for safety technology. Of course, like other leaders who create seismic levels of change he did not do it alone. The pioneering work of Sir Jackie Stewart, the total support of Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the commitment of volunteer medical staff across the world, the expertise in FIA institute, were all part of the story, but Sid became the talisman of all that was new about safety in Formula 1. It was his clear focus on creating a different way of thinking about safety and the medical infrastructure to deliver it that was so impressive. The whole notion of the medical car and the two air ambulances required at every F1 race were about ensuring that should an incident occur the very best care was available almost immediately, it was in these critical minutes that most could be done to save lives, and there’s no question that he saved many.

An impressive character on every level, Sid also produced, in my view, one of the best books ever on Formula 1. Ritualistic driver autobiographies are generally a rather lack luster collection aimed at fully exploiting fame before it fades away (although Niki Lauda’s are the exception). Sid’s book is a combination of many things, funny, moving, insightful, full of rich (in both meanings) characters it also gives a detailed account of how to change the paradigm of a global sport – essential reading, I would have thought, for anyone interested in really making a difference.


Peter Hamlyn’s piece in the Telegraph:

Sid Watkins’ biography:

Watkins, S. (1997). Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula 1. Pan Books.


One Response to “The Prof: Making a difference”

  1. Romero Says:

    One of this year’s saddest headlines I’v read was about the passing of Professor Sid Watkins. He was respected by many drivers and he also meant a lot for them. He helped to save the lives of many former F1 drivers including Mika Häkkinen, Gerhard Berger and Rubens Barrichello, but he was unable to save the life of his good friend and one of my childhood heroes Ayrton Senna. I hope that they’ve been reunited now at a peaceful place…

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