Professor Sid Watkins OBE is one of the most important people in Formula One never to have raced a car or owned a team. One of the world's leading neurosurgeons, Watkins is also a motorsport fan who has dedicated much of his professional life to improving the standard of medical care at race weekends.
Thanks to his concerted efforts since 1978, F1 drivers have had access to trackside medical care, anaesthetists, a medical car, and helicopters for instant evacuation. Dozens of lives have been saved as a direct consequence.
While Prof's first foray into motorsport volunteering came at a karting event in Brands Hatch, he continued his efforts as his burgeoning career in medicine took him around the world. A US posting in the early 1960s saw him volunteer at Watkins Glen, while his return to England in 1970 was marked by an invitation to join the RAC's medical panel.
But it would be 1978 before a meeting with Bernie Ecclestone, then the chief executive of FOCA, led to an offer to apply his talents to the Formula 1 circuit. Watkins' first race was that year's Swedish Grand Prix, and he did not miss a race until his retirement in 2005.
At first, Prof met with opposition from the medical staff at many tracks. Worried that he was there to report on their failings, they actively blocked his efforts to treat injured drivers, not least at the Italian Grand Prix, where a police blockade prevented Watkins from reaching the injured Ronnie Peterson, who would die of his injuries the following day.
Peterson's tragic death would prove to be a catalyst for improving standards in trackside medical care. In the aftermath, Watkins demanded that Ecclestone supply an emergency helicopter, a medical car to follow the cars during the first lap in the event of an incident, improved trackside medical equipment, and a trained anaesthetist at every race. Ecclestone complied, and Watkins' demands have been met at every race since.
Despite Watkins' best efforts, not every driver involved in an accident has survived. The blackest weekend was Imola 1994, when both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died as a result of accidents on track. But it is impossible to prevent every accident, and Watkins' job was to provide the best possible care in the event of the worst happening, a task he completed unfailingly.
Prof was able to save the life of Rubens Barrichello, also injured that weekend in Imola, and the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger led to the creation of the FIA Expert Advisory Safety Committee, which has since been merged with other groups and become the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety. Watkins was elected president, a role he holds to this day.
At the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, Prof's efforts saved the life of Mika Hakkinen, who crashed in practice on Friday afternoon. Watkins twice restarted Hakkinen's heart at the side of the track, and then performed an emergency tracheotomy before sending him to hospital for extensive car. Prof's trackside efforts saved the Finnish driver's life.
Without Watkins' consistent efforts to improve safety in motorsport, the list of drivers killed in action might be much longer than it is. It is no coincidence that since Prof's arrival on the scene in the late 1970s, far fewer drivers have been killed behind the wheel. Of course, safety standards in track design and car construction also began to improve in the same era, but the concerted efforts of the FIA as a whole and Watkins as an individual have saved the lives of many.