Sid Watkins

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 24 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7028
  1. Anne Gulland, journalist, London, UK
  1. annecgulland{at}

The Formula One doctor who made racing safer

In his memoir of his career as the Formula One doctor, Sid Watkins describes how he urged the racing driver Ayrton Senna not to drive on the circuit at Imola in Italy, the day after Roland Ratzenburger was killed in practice and two days after another promising young driver, Rubens Barichello, was injured.1

Watkins told Senna: “You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.” Senna replied: “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.” Hours later the charismatic Brazilian was killed on the track.

Senna’s death deeply affected Watkins, a professor of neurosurgery. Manish Pandey, an orthopaedic surgeon and screenwriter who got to know Watkins when researching the film Senna, says that Watkins and the charismatic Brazilian enjoyed a father and son relationship. They stayed at each other’s houses, knew each other’s families, and went fishing together on Senna’s estate in Brazil.

The two became close when Watkins, known on the circuit as “Prof,” treated Senna for Bell’s palsy in 1984. Senna was relatively new to the Grand Prix circuit and didn’t want to miss a race. “Prof gave him steroids and covered for him. He knew that he was fit to race. That’s where the bond started,” Pandey said.

“On that day in Imola, Prof knew Senna was distraught. He regretted that he wasn’t more forceful and hadn’t been able to stop him racing,” said Pandey.

Before Senna’s death Watkins’ main role had been to improve medical facilities on the track, which, when he was appointed Formula One medical delegate by Bernie Ecclestone in 1978, were fairly rudimentary.

In the foreword to Watkins’ book, the racing driver Niki Lauda, who was badly burned in a race in 1976, describes the circuit medical facilities in the 1970s as “haphazard in the extreme; you just crossed your fingers and hoped you would not have an accident at certain tracks.” Watkins told Pandey how, at a track in Argentina in 1978, his first job was to sweep the dead flies from the shed that had been allocated as a medical facility.

By 1994 things had changed beyond all recognition, and today’s race tracks have medical facilities that would shame many NHS hospitals.

“His whole thing was to make sure the facilities were fantastic and to make sure the personnel were top notch. Modern [Formula One] circuits have mini-operating theatres; they have anaesthetists, orthopaedic surgeons, general surgeons,” says Pandey.

Hugh Scully, professor of cardiac surgery at the University of Toronto and a member of the Formula One team of specialists, says Watkins was meticulous in his preparation: “He would do an inspection of the teams positioned around the circuit several times each day over the course of the race to ensure that everything was in place.”

Scully adds: “Michael Schumacher said that when Sid was on the track ‘we all feel safe.’”

Watkins also insisted on tracks having helicopter transport, and at one race in Belgium he ordered that the start of a race be delayed while a problem with a helicopter was fixed. When officials questioned this, Ecclestone reportedly retorted, “What Prof says goes,” says Pandey.

Watkins also had doctors positioned around the circuit so that they could get to accidents within minutes, if not seconds.

After Senna’s death Max Mosley, the recently appointed president of motorsport’s governing body the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, gave Watkins the job of improving safety, and he assembled a team of engineering experts and scientists. The team researched and introduced the collapsible steering column; protective foam around the top of the cockpit; new crash tests for front, rear, and side impacts; and the head and neck support device that must be worn by every driver.

Watkins also recommended changes to the tracks, redesigning them so that they could absorb the energy of a crashing vehicle and made the bends safer. There has not been a death or serious injury in Formula One since Senna’s death at Imola. Watkins’ work also influenced the design of road cars, as the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile worked with the European Commission on improving crash tests and car safety.

Watkins’ love of motorsport dated from his childhood in Liverpool, where his family owned a garage and bike shop. He studied medicine at Liverpool University and then trained as a neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, from where he would visit the Silverstone racing circuit. He was appointed professor of neurosurgery at Syracuse Hospital in New York, where he worked as the track doctor at the Watkins Glen racetrack. In 1970 he was appointed the first professor of neurosurgery at the Royal London Hospital.

One of his colleagues at the Royal London, Alastair Wilson, lead surgeon in emergency medicine, remembers a larger than life character who, with his cigar habitually clamped in his mouth, would be ready with a glass of whisky at the end of a shift.

Watkins campaigned for an air ambulance for London, which the capital finally got in 1990. After an intense bidding war, the Royal London won the right to have the helicopter based there, and its helipad became operational in 1991. It frustrated Watkins that the UK was one of the last countries in western Europe to get an air ambulance, said Wilson.

Wilson said, “He could not be doing with prejudice. He hated people who were inflexible, and he did exactly what he thought was right.”

He leaves a wife, Susan, a playwright and historian; four sons; and two daughters.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7028


  • Eric Sidney Watkins OBE, professor of neurology, (b 1928; q University of Liverpool 1952; FRCS), died from complications of cancer on 12 September 2012 .


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