Sid, my friend, 20 years after Imola

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Nürburgring, watching tennis before a session

It’s 1992. Summer, but it’s cool enough in the Ardennes morning to be happy to put on the long underwear and overalls. Now we’re sitting over that first, anticipation-laced coffee:

“Professor?”

“Yes old boy?”

“Do you think it’d be ok if I called you Sid?”

A big grin. “You know, the tramps sleeping under the stairs of my hospital call me Sid. Don’t see why you couldn’t.”

There. That was easy. Only took two years.

Although I was a lifelong fan of Formula 1, I’d never heard of Sid Watkins when the Chief Medical Officer at Spa-Francorchamps decided to make me the “local guy”, riding in the back of Sid’s FIA Medical Car in 1990. I was a 35 year-old anaesthetist, and had been told, by everyone involved, how important, imposing, and difficult the English gent was.

We found some common ground. Not difficult, you’d say, what with motor racing, medicine and cigars as shared starting points. Worked out fine. At least one big accident each weekend too, so we actually WORKED together.

This is the start of my third Grand Prix weekend. As usual, we’ve met at the medical centre, and hitched a ride to the paddock. I’ve screwed up the courage to ask. Cool. From now on it’s “Sid”.

1994. Two years later, twenty years ago, and I’m seeing Sid for the first time since Imola. Don’t know what to say. I know he loved Ayrton. He seems fine. Say nothing? We’d gotten to the medical car a few moments early, and were standing inside “la triangle” of La Source hairpin, which was (and is) our standby position.

“You ok?”

He leans against the door of the car and says, “We ran some fluid in, and got a pulse. Then the clouds moved a bit, and his face was in the sun. That’s when I knew . . .”

And that was it. We didn’t need to talk about medical care, about ambulances and extrications. This brilliant professor, this locomotive of a man, had lost a great friend.

It was remarkable to see, in the coming months and years, how Sid steered the steady, relentless progress of this “second revolution” in safety (the first, I’d say, was from when Sid came on board as FOCA surgeon in 1978 until the mid 80s). And how brilliantly it was all set up.

That’s what Sid was like – extraordinarily multifaceted. Nothing was done half way. Personality? The most charismatic person I’ve ever seen. Sid drew you in and held you there with his stories, his intelligence, and his heart. Intelligence? Just look where he brought our sport! But he also read voraciously – historical biographies were a particular favourite. And of course, a sense of humour that just didn’t stop.

Jerez 1997. In the hotel lobby with a several of Sid’s “kids”, waiting for him so we can leave for dinner. He’s a bit late. That’s unusual. The inevitable round of “You go get him”. “No, YOU go get him.” “Sorry, not gonna happen, YOU go get him.”

I’m the new guy on the block, so I’m elected. I know after this first season with Sid that if he’s been napping he’s likely to be a bit . . . curt. Oh well, here goes. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK. Gulp.

The door flies open. And there he is, huge grin on his face . . . and nothing else on . . . anywhere.

Gulp.

“Hello old boy! Come right in!!! I’ll be ready in a moment.”

I love you Sid, but I think I’ll wait in the lobby, thanks.

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32 thoughts on “Sid, my friend, 20 years after Imola

  1. A terrific read….google Ayrton Senna: The Inside Story of The Formula 1 Legend’s Death At Imola.
    It is by Oliver Brown

  2. With that terrible anniversary coming up in less than a month: I needed this wonderful vignette of 2 great men. I am sitting less than 10 feet from where I was that Sunday of a weekend in hell. I thought of that weekend when Kubica had that brutal crash in Canada, my first thought was “I’ve just watched a man die”, AGAIN in my favorite sport. Thankfully he lived… yeah I know the final (I hope not) chapter. Good to see that both Sid and you share my passion for cigars.
    Thank you.
    And, PLEASE, write that book.

    • Peter, not sure if your “sorry” was meant for me. I have to explain my comment about the blog being about Senna.
      I’ve never been a huge F1 fan. I was in Monte Carlo for a F1 race but my interest has always been more towards Indy cars. Are they bad words here?
      I did not know where Senna was killed. Consequently, Imola, 1 May, 20 years ago and Sid did not ring a bell. I apologize. I since have done quite a bit of research on Senna. He was a great F1 driver, possibly the best of all time. And his death was a real tragedy and a loss to the F1 family as well as his own.

  3. I’m sure no one wants or needs a reminder but there is a video of the Senna crash and also a second by second disection of what happened or what caused the crash if you have not already seen it.
    Honestly, I had no idea this whole blog entry was about Senna.

  4. The quality, content and friendliness of the comments here and in the previous post I find interesting when compared to the stuff we ended up having to wade through when the topic was TBI and Michael.
    I (genuinely) wonder why?
    And isn’t the residual love for Ayrton Senna (quite understandable I might say!) even after all these years amazing. Funny how reputations mellow and change as time passes …. wonder how we/they will see Michael’s legacy in the years to come.
    Great work Gary!

  5. Thank you for the lovely story! I was watching the race with my family in interlagos São Paulo and was 14 at the time. Senna was and still is bigger than any other sports figure to me and most brazilians. It would be lovely to hear a few more medical details about his passing and what perspired that sinister weekend. Staring at the Senna movie poster as I write this. Senna… No words really can describe.
    Brilliant writing and thanks again Dr.

    • If you want medical details of Senna’s death google Death of Ayrton Senna. The article is from Wikipedia. More details than you’ll want.

  6. I love stories of the prof, I really felt for him when Senna was lost, he thought of all the drivers as ” the boys” but from what I can gather he had a real soft spot for Ayrton, can’t imagine a more benevolent character but then we hear the fantastic stories of his cantankerousness which adds even more magic to his story, I wish Ayrton had thrown the towel in and gone fishing with Sid.

  7. Sid always seemed to stand out on tv. He was usually the oldest guy to be seen, and also the tallest! I have read both of his books and they are fascinating and inspiring. Kids today should not idolise footballers and pop stars, but people like Sid who really make a difference in this world.

    And Gary, you really need to write a book….

  8. Hello Dr. Hartstein,

    Indeed a lovely story… just curious that you´ve mentioned his love for historical biographies, ´cause that got me thinking, has anyone ever contacted you to write his? That would a hell of a story, wouldn´t it?

    Greetings from Brazil! Lincon

  9. If you are incredibly lucky in your life you will encounter one of those larger than life people like Sid Watkins. Characters with character. Treasure every minute.

  10. Thank you Doc, this is very moving and at the same time amusing read about one truly remarkable gent. Can’t wait to read some more!
    Take care!
    Andy

  11. First was in 1978? I’m just trying to learn so I get the story straight.

    Was that a continuation of Sir Jackie’s efforts, or was that an entirely different phase?

    I’d love to think that motor sports medicine helped ER meds as much as the engineering helped street car safety and efficiency. In other words, a way to explain to my “green” friends why auto racing is a good thing.

    • You need to find a DVD copy of “1″. Much of what you to know can be found there. A truly excellent doc. I remember most if not all of what is there. Been following the sport since 1968.

  12. My wife and I were in the Tribuna Verde behind Tosa. When I saw Senna’s car leave the track and hit the wall I raised my cameras to use the telephoto lens expecting to see him climb out and wave to the crowd, get in the ambulance and be driven to the medical unit for a checkup. After the race we walked all the way to the train station and in a huge crowd of Italians you could have heard a pin drop.

  13. Wow! I’m loving the view from the “other side” of F1. Takes everyone involved from these people I see on TV, to real people. It is amazing.

  14. Doctor Hartstein,
    Thank you for your wonderful story. Made me want to read Sid’s book “Life at the limit” yet one more time. I also think you should write a book with your stories and memories of those times. Please do it! I’m sure it would please a lot us us!

  15. You’ve managed to capture the essence of an obviously remarkable – and wonderful – man in a few short sentences. Well done Gary!

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