The good doctor of Formula One

BOOK OF THE WEEK Life at the Limit by Professor Sid Watkins (Macmillan, pounds 19.99)
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The Independent Online
Few books have been more eagerly anticipated within the Formula One community - a measure of Professor Sid Watkins' stature and contribution to the sport. That it will leave anyone who knows the man feeling this is only part of the story is also a measure of his stature and contribution to the sport.

The fact is that grand prix motor racing's doctor is infinitely more interesting than most of the drivers and officials he has written about and, although indications of his irreverent wit and his faith in the medicinal powers of Scottish wine, as well as evidence of his brilliance as a neuro- surgeon are here, there ought to have been more.

The "Prof" as he is respectfully and affectionately addressed in the pits and paddocks of the world, was recruited by Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario, 18 years ago to bring fresh momentum to the campaign for improved safety and medical standards on the championship tour. Since those early days, when he had to fight the resistance of intransigent circuit officialdom, he has established an organisation and a network of medical centres that ensure the best possible response and care for drivers and team personnel alike.

Arriving by fast car within seconds of an accident can sometimes confront him with tragedy and the task of coping with a sense of personal loss. These are not anonymous patients, but colleagues and sometimes close friends. Ayrton Senna was a particularly close and cherished friend, and the Prof gives a poignant account of their last conversation, at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. He recalls how, the day before the Brazilian's fatal crash at Imola, he implored Senna to stop racing and go fishing.

"He gave me a very steady look and said: 'Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.' Those were the last words he ever said to me."

At the scene of the accident: "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, though I'm totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment."

There have been many more who survived spectacular crashes, often due in no small part to Prof Watkins' skill, and still more who have found life that little richer for associating with him.

That 1994 season took its toll on all concerned and, on the final flight home, he produced from his bag capsules he suggested would combat my niggling ailment. Having already sampled his more usual remedy I wondered whether the two would mix. "My dear boy," he replied, "I would never prescribe anything that could not be taken with drink."

Derick Allsop