The Formula One community is today mourning the loss of the legendary Professor Sid Watkins.
The driving force behind so many of the safety improvements in the sport and the man affectionately known as Prof has passed away after a long battle with cancer, according to The Telegraph.
Watkins was brought into F1 in 1978 by his friend Bernie Ecclestone to fight the rising tide of driver fatalities that was gripping the sport.
Within weeks of his arrival on the circuit, the death of Ronnie Peterson became the catalyst for the first of many changes after Italian police had refused Watkins access to the injured driver for 18 minutes until an ambulance arrived to take the mortally wounded Swede to hospital.
Immediately, Watkins demanded of Ecclestone that upgraded on-track medical facilities be available at every track along with an anaesthetist, medevac helicopter and medical chase cars.
He got his way.
Watkins instituted the practice of the medical car following the field for the first lap that persists to this day.
Grandprix.com reported on the day that Watkins' immediate intervention dramatically saved the life of Mika Hakkinen in 1995 after the Fin crashed heavily during practice in Adelaide. Watkins performed an emergency tracheotomy and twice restarted Hakkinen’s heart.
He was also there when tragedy struck and was on the scene with Gilles Villeneuve, Ricardo Paletti and Roland Ratzenberger when their lives were lost in the pursuit of speed.
Possibly the most poignant story of Watkin’s career revolved around the terrible weekend at Imola in 1994. Watkins was worried about the mental state of his friend Ayrton Senna following the serious accident to compatriot Rubens Barrichello and the terrible death of Ratzenberger.
Senna was visible distressed and distracted on the day of the race, and Watkins wrote in his book Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One that he tried to talk Senna out of racing on that day, suggesting that they instead go fishing.
History tells us that the Brazilian legend did what he was compelled to do, and the rest, sadly, became one of the watershed moments in Formula One racing.
Watkins was at Senna’s side very soon after the impact and was immediately aware that the injuries were not survivable.
His book told of the horrible scene:
He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am not religious, I felt his spirit depart at that moment.
Senna was the last man to die in an F1 race. His legacy—shared inextricably with Watkins—is a sport that is immeasurably safer than it was that fateful day, May 1, 1994.
While the number of lives Watkins has directly saved through medical intervention is a matter of record, we may never know the number of drivers whose lives are owed to the persistence, persuasiveness and tenacity of a man with the singular focus of keeping racing drivers alive and safe.
Even though Watkins left the sport in 2005, his influence will live on into the future, and so, thankfully, will many drivers.
Rest in peace, Prof.
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