Will Gray

Tech Talk: Watkins’ legacy of F1 safety

Will Gray

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Formula One said a sad goodbye to one of its greatest behind-the-scenes heroes when 'the Prof' passed away last week — but Sid Watkins leaves an immense safety legacy that will always be remembered.

Professor Sid Watkins first stepped into Formula One in 1978, when Bernie Ecclestone, who was then head of the Formula One Constructors' Association (FOCA), asked him to take up the previously non-existent position of official F1 race doctor.

Prior to that moment, F1 races were run with on-site medical assistance that on many occasions left a lot to be desired. Watkins brought a whole new professionalism to the medical side of the sport, putting together a team whose expertise travelled the world with the F1 circus and insisting on improved safety equipment, an on-site anaesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter.

Watkins saved many lives at the track over 26 years of service as FIA Formula One Safety and Medical Delegate before handing over to Gary Hartstein, who is now in Watkins' old role.

He saved Gerhard Berger when his Ferrari turned into a fireball at Imola; he saved Martin Donnelly when his Lotus crashed and disintegrated in Jerez; he saved Erik Comas when he suffered a massive crash in Canada; he saved Mika Hakkinen after a high speed accident in Melbourne; he saved Rubens Barrichello at Imola when his car flew over the tyre barriers on the weekend that Ayrton Senna died; and he saved Karl Wendlinger the very next weekend when he crashed at the chicane in Monaco and was left in a coma.

But just as importantly as saving lives at the track, he also provided a unique insight that had a major influence in shaping and developing the future of both cars and circuits.

As a qualified neurosurgeon, Watkins was naturally interested in learning more about the brain and how it reacts to the kinds of incidents experienced in Formula One. As part of his role, he undertook significant amounts of research and the respect he had from everyone in the sport enabled him to have free hand to explore the topic with significant resource.

In 1994, after the tragic race at Imola where Senna and Roland Ratzenberger lost their lives, the governing body set up the FIA Expert Advisory Safety Committee with Watkins as chairman.

A decade later, similar research groups for rally and karting were brought together with that body to form the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, with Watkins again as president in a role he held until he stepped down late last year.

It was the decade after Imola that saw Watkins' involvement really shine through.

In previous years, fatalities were reducing but were still a clear and present part of the sport. Since 1994, however, there have been no further F1 driver deaths and, indeed, serious injuries have also significantly dropped.

The research commission enabled him to use his medical and biophysical knowledge to influence design and that fed through to everything, from identifying danger corners on all the different F1 circuits to influencing the need for improved crash resistance in the cars themselves.

His unique work quickly helped the sport, and the medical world, improve its understanding of the threshold limits for head and brain injury, and often accidents would be replicated in test situations to develop biophysical data on the forces involved with head injuries.

This led to design suggestions such as wider shoulder straps to reduce chest injury as well as higher cockpit sides. And with clear medical proof of their benefit, it was hard for designers — who are notorious for resisting elements that may reduce performance — not to take note.

The introduction of the head restraints in 1996 dramatically reduced concussions. Before they arrived, it was a relatively common occurrence for a driver to be prevented from racing due to concussion suffered in a practice accident. Now, such a situation is rare.

The HANS device took longer to get through - it was tested in 1995 it was not introduced until 2003 - but eventually, the medical evidence was impossible to ignore. The extractable seat, which allows the on-track medical team to extract a driver in his seat rather than risk spinal injury by moving the driver, was another innovation borne out of medical necessity. So too was the development of an improved quality of composite helmets, for which new regulations came in 2004.

So while Watkins will be well remembered for his presence at the track, perhaps his greatest legacy is the work he did away from it.

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