Professor Sid Watkins, F1’s medical supremo for almost three decades, died this week at the age of 84.
It’s fair to say that he probably contributed more than anybody to advancing the cause of motor racing safety during that time. So when McLaren chairman Ron Dennis said yesterday that Sid’s passing meant that the sport had lost “one of its true greats”, there was not an ounce of exaggeration implicit in those words.
I was first introduced to Sid on a flight from Gatwick to Amsterdam on my way to covering the 1979 Dutch GP at Zandvoort and instantly hit it off with this highly respected international neuro-surgeon who practised at the London Hospital in Whitechapel Road.
He immediately christened me "that fat fool", which was later truncated to "F-squared", and that’s how he cheerily addressed me for ever more. In a sense, that irreverence and light-heartedness was the whole thing about Sid Watkins. Forget the fact that he was numbered in the global elite of the world’s most respected neuro-surgeons; he was primarily a passionate motor racing enthusiast who had been recruited into the sport by powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone, who knew a good man when he saw one.
Not that Sid was in any way cowed or intimidated by Bernie. In fact, he quickly became numbered among the elite who had his unqualified respect. I well remember after Nelson Piquet crashed his Williams-Honda practising for the 1987 San Marino GP at Imola, Bernie asked Sid whether the Brazilian could take part in the race.
“No, Bernie,” said the prof firmly. “And if he does, he’ll be doing it without me because I’ll be going straight back home to spend the weekend in my garden!” Bernie said no more, and Nelson missed the race.
Sid would later become a close friend of Ayrton Senna and was present at the trackside, again at Imola, when the great Brazilian driver died in 1994. Senna’s death had a profound effect on Sid, because although he was not a great sentimentalist, he knew who he liked and he most certainly liked Ayrton’s directness and total commitment.
In so many ways, the two men mirrored each other’s qualities. Sid Watkins was a fine man with many friends and almost no detractors. It was a privilege to have called him a friend.