For Brain Surgeon Sidney Watkins Each Grand Prix Is a Tense Race Against Injury and Death

updated 06/06/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When the racers roar off the starting line at next week's Detroit Grand Prix, it's uncertain who'll take the lead. But there's no question who'll be at the back of the pack: British neurosurgeon Prof. Sidney Watkins, in a chauffered Renault Fuego. As chief medic for the Grand Prix circuit, Watkins, 54, has spent the last three years trying to cure a medical program that was at best uneven and at worst shockingly inadequate. Personally following drivers for the first lap—always the most accident-ridden—is typical of his dedication. Before Watkins, says Grand Prix champion Niki Lauda, "Each track was trying to arrange things on its own, and that could make a bloody big difference from country to country. Some standards were a joke."

Lauda should know. In 1976 he barely survived a fiery crack-up at Nürburgring, West Germany, only to fall into the hands, he says, of an inept medical team. Lauda claims they provided the wrong first aid for his burns, failed to insert a breathing tube, and in the days that followed shuttled him to three different hospitals in search of specialized care. In another startling incident, at Watkins Glen, N.Y. in 1976, an ambulance carrying driver Jacky Ickx had to stop for gas. Worldwide, the situation was so unpredictable that three-time world champion Jackie Stewart took to flying his own doctor to races. Drivers were haunted by the fear, says Lauda, that treatment would be "late, insufficient or altogether wrong."

Dr. Watkins set out to make it right when he became chairman of the International Medical Commission of the Fédération Internationale de I' Automobile—which runs the 13-country Grand Prix circuit—in 1980. "The basic principle is to resuscitate and stabilize the patient while he is still in his car on the track, and only then evacuate him to a hospital," says the soft-spoken Watkins, who lobbied to get new on-site medical facilities built at seven tracks in Britain, Germany, Italy, Austria, France and Brazil. He also helped draw up precise emergency plans—incorporating trained personnel and clear evacuation lanes or helicopters—for each of the 16 or more Grand Prix events, and made known he would delay the start of any race until all equipment was checked and in place. His commitment extends to diving into smoldering wrecks, as he did twice last year in vain attempts to save the lives of Riccardo Paletti and Gilles Villeneuve. (In six races so far this season there have been no serious injuries.) He knows he can't make racing safe, only safer, and he believes that his surgical experience has given him the right philosophical attitude toward his work. "It is easier for me to live with the risks of sport because I know of such risks from neurosurgery," says Watkins. Besides, he adds, "The risks in normal life, like being struck down by disease or accident, are higher than most people realize."

Cars were a preoccupation of Watkins' family. The son of a Liverpool garage mechanic, he grew up surrounded by engines and motor oil. "We lived over the shop," he recalls. "I served petrol and did whatever else I was assigned. I got no pay, just tips." Growing up in the Depression and during wartime air raids, he says, gave him "a certain degree of imperturbability that was to prove valuable both as a surgeon and in racing."

After graduating with a medical degree from the University of Liverpool in 1952, he was drafted and sent to Nigeria to study the effects of heat stress on soldiers. Afterward he studied neurosurgery for five years in England, moved to the U.S. to teach at New York State University Medical Center at Syracuse, and returned home in 1970 as professor of neurosurgery at the London Hospital. Always interested in cars—he owns a Porsche that he has pushed to 140 mph—he gradually became involved in racing through the Royal Automobile Club and as an adviser to Formula One builders.

Away from the track, Watkins has for many years specialized in delicate stereotaxic surgery—performed with electrode-tipped needles inserted through holes drilled in the skull—for such traditionally inoperable disorders as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. He also performs more routine surgery on other neurological problems. As head of neurosurgery, he's able to arrange his schedule to be free during races, which suits the drivers just fine. "Watkins isn't just a brilliant doctor," says Byerck Ongaro, a Formula One official. "He has a feel for what's going on in the pits and on the track." For Grand Prix drivers, that's just what the doctor ordered.

From Our Partners