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:
“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.
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.
“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.