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Chris Meets Professor Sid Watkins

FEATURE BY CHRIS BALFE
05/06/2001

A few years back, while working for Atlas F1, I wrote an article entitled 'Guess who's coming to dinner'. Essentially the piece was about a fictitious Formula One dinner party and the ten living F1 'people' I would invite.

As well as Ken Tyrrell, Nigel Roebuck, Stirling Moss, Bette Hill (Damon's mother, Graham's wife) and my good friend John Lane (Gilles Villeneuve's close friend and sponsor), I was keen to 'invite' Professor Sid Watkins.

For those of you who aren't aware, 'Sid' is the FIA's medical delegate, in other words the official Formula One doctor, and has been for over twenty years. As well as dealing with the minor cuts and bruises that drivers accumulate over a GP weekend, Sid also has to deal with the major incidents such as Melbourne earlier this year, Monza in 2000 and Michael Schumacher's crash at Silverstone in 1999. Sid attends every GP but rarely gets the time to sit back and enjoy the racing. Instead he sits alongside his nominated 'chauffer' in the medical car waiting to spring into action. Next time you watch a GP look out for the car that follows the pack on that all-important first lap - and I don't mean Tarso Marques' Minardi. The passenger in the high-powered saloon car chasing David, Michael, Mika et al will be Prof Watkins. His driver will be a former F1 star determined to keep up with the pack, and hopefully give the Prof a fright or two.

Sid first attended a race meeting in a professional capacity way back in 1961. It was a kart race at Brands Hatch. Seventeen years later he returned to Brands Hatch with the Grand Prix circus, only now he was running the medical side of things, by appointment to Bernie Ecclestone.

Sadly, Sid's first season was marred by the death of Ronnie Peterson who died as a result of injuries incurred in a crash at the start of the Italian GP. Since then the Professor has worked tirelessly, alongside others such as Ecclestone to make the sport safer and to minimise the risk to drivers, officials and spectators. It's a fight that's gradually being won, but as we are all aware we can never take anything for granted. After all, as it says on the back of your race ticket 'motor racing is dangerous.'

In 1996, Sid wrote the best-selling 'Life at the Limit', a book in which he recounted many of his experiences in F1 as well as analysing such things as the physical wear on race drivers and F1 safety since the early sixties.

The book contained dozens of superb, and highly entertaining anecdotes relating to the many F1 personalities Sid has worked with since '78. Let's just put this into context: The 1978 World Champion was Mario Andretti, the following year Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve dominated the championship for Ferrari. Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost! some of the greatest names in our sport's history.

However the man with whom Professor Watkins will always be associated is triple World Champion Ayrton Senna.

Sid and Ayrton had a deep and lasting friendship. A couple of years before writing the Atlas piece I'd visited the Jim Clark Trophy Room at Duns (Scotland). The curator told me of the time when Ayrton Senna had privately visited the room accompanied by Prof. Watkins. The story of Senna's visit changed my whole opinion of Ayrton as a man. Indeed at that time another driver was busy telling the world how proud he was to follow in Clark's shoes as a British World Champion. "Has he ever been here?" I asked "We couldn't afford him" was the instant reply.

Senna spent several hours at the museum... watching videos, looking at Clark's trophies and memorabilia, purchasing souvenirs and even posing for a few private photographs. It was obvious even from the dedications in the visitors book that Ayrton and Sid were close.

The chapter in which Sid describes the death of his friend, at Imola in 1994, is one of the most moving, heart-achingly tragic pieces I have ever read. It's the sort of passion that Hollywood screenwriters would kill for, but this isn't mere writing, it's a man, a professional, laying open his very soul.

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