LONDON – Sid Watkins, the former Formula One medical chief credited with saving the lives of several race drivers and introducing major safety improvements in the series, has died. He was 84.
Team officials and Watkins' family said the English neurosurgeon died on Wednesday, with an F1 statement describing him as a "safety pioneer."
Watkins, who tended to Ayrton Senna after the three-time champion's fatal crash at Imola in 1994, was at the forefront of F1 safety for 26 years and served as medical delegate from 1978 to 2004.
"Many drivers and ex-drivers owe their lives to his careful and expert work, which resulted in the massive advances in safety levels that today's drivers possibly take for granted," McLaren chairman Ron Dennis said.
"No, he wasn't a driver. No, he wasn't an engineer. No, he wasn't a designer. He was a doctor and it's probably fair to say that he did more than anyone, over many years, to make Formula One as safe as it is today."
As a trackside doctor, the man known as "The Prof" was credited with helping save the lives of Finland's two-time F1 champion Mika Hakkinen, Austrian Gerhard Berger and Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, among others, after crashes.
"It was Sid Watkins that saved my life in Imola 94. great guy to be with, always happy...tks for everything u have done for us drivers. RIP," Barrichello tweeted.
Senna was the last F1 driver to die during a race, with Watkins' tireless safety campaigning and push to improve the standard of medical facilities widely regarded as the main factor behind the improved measures since then. There are now universal standards in medical centers at circuits and a medical helicopter is mandatory at all F1 races.
"RIP Prof. Sid Watkins," Senna's nephew, Bruno, who races for Williams, tweeted. "Sad news for us who stay behind."
Watkins became a professor of neurosurgery at London Hospital in 1970.
After his F1 medical career, Watkins retired in 2005 but continued to campaign for safety improvements in motorsport through his role as the first president of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety.
He stepped down from that post in 2011 and retained an honorary role.
The FIA said Watkins made a "unique contribution to motor sport."
"This is a truly sad day for the FIA family and the entire motor-sport community," FIA president Jean Todt said. "We will always be grateful for the safety legacy that he has left our sport."