Book of da Week: Life at the Limit by Professor Sid Watkins

Life at the Limit - Sid Watkins
Professor Sid Watkins’ candid account of life in F1.

As it was the fourth anniversary since the death of the legendary neurosurgeon Professor Sid Watkins on the 7th September, we’re paying tribute to him by remembering his seminal work in road car safety and Formula One. He was the sport’s official head doctor for many decades, beginning in the 1970s when fatalities were disturbingly commonplace.

After Imola 1994 (Formula One’s nightmare weekend), Professor Watkins ramped up safety standards with the help of Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley of the FIA, which paved the way for modern vehicles to boast massively improved safety features. Life at the Limit, however, largely acts as a historic record for how the sport went from embarrassingly amateurish, to the ultra-streamlined professionalism of 2016.

Life at the Limit

First off, we should point out you don’t need to be an F1 fan to enjoy this. Consider it like reading some random history book you’ve chosen – a knowledge or appreciation of the sport is superfluous. Watkins’ intelligent, witty, and moving prose is reminiscent of other medical writers such as Dr. Oliver Sacks, but here the reader is provided with detailed insights into F1 and its many luminaries.

It begins with Watkins recounting the events of the race weekend at Imola ’94, during which a series of frightening accidents left several spectators injured, one driver in hospital, and two others dead. One of these included the sport’s superstar – Ayrton Senna. Shellshocked, F1 continued unsteadily on its way, but it was a watershed moment which demanded everyone in Formula One up their game. This is where Mr. Watkins stepped in, although he had already been prevalent in F1 for over a decade.

F1 in the ‘70s

Formula One in the 1970s was a tumultuous arena of regular tragedy. Blindingly fast cars raced on insanely dangerous circuits which rarely adhered to the limited safety expectations of the time. As commentator Murray Walker put it: “Safety was a sick joke, there wasn’t any safety. The drivers were driving what were essentially mobile petrol bombs.”

It wasn’t uncommon for several drivers to be killed each year, with the decade kicking off with a posthumous World Champion in the form of 28 year old Jochen Rindt. Piers Courage was also lost in 1970. Over the coming years, Jo Siffert, Roger Williamson, Francois Cevert, Peter Revson, Helmuth Koinigg, Mark Donohue, Tom Pryce, and Ronnie Peterson followed in violent accidents.

During this time Sir Jackie Stewart attempted to rally some common sense, although his calls for enhanced safety largely fell on deaf ears. Bernie Ecclestone (a team owner in the ’70s, but now one of F1’s head honchos) agreed and drafted in Professor Sid Watkins to act as F1’s official doctor.

In the early days of this arrangement, it did little to stop the carnage. Notably at Monza in 1978, following Ronnie Peterson’s fireball accident at the race start, Watkins attempted to gain access to the Swedish driver but was beaten by baton-wielding police officers.

I detail such chaos as these men are merely statistics in textbooks, unless, of course, you read Sid Watkins’ books. Known lovingly as the Prof, he brought many drivers to life again with detailed analyses of who they were and what made them tick. He also recorded the long process of improving safety standards, which included getting circuits to develop even basic medical facilities and barriers.

F1 in the ‘80s and ‘90s

At the beginning of the ’80s, little changed. Swashbuckling, cigar smoking Frenchman Patrick Depailler was killed at Hockenheim. Then the sport’s spectacular superstar, French-Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, died in 1982 following another appalling accident.

Riccardo Paletti followed him at Montreal later in the year, and Villeneuve’s team-mate, Championship leader Didier Pironi, shattered his legs beyond recognition at Hockenheim whilst leading the World Championship. Charismatic Italian Elio de Angelis would then die in 1986 during testing in what is arguably Formula One’s most shameful incident. It did signal, at the least, a period in which the sport began to gets its act together.

Fatality rates plunged after ’86, which brought in a false sense of security. When Martin Donnelly (barely) survived a mammoth crash at Jerez in 1990, it seemed F1 was invincible and safety standards couldn’t be improved upon. Then came Imola 1994. It was at this point the FIA worked with Watkins to bring about improved vehicle safety across the world. The remarkable innovations this introduced led to zero fatalities in over 20 years, until Jules Bianchi essentially died at Suzuka in 2014 in a freak accident.

Whilst this may seem like a depressing read, it most certainly is not. There’s a great deal of inspiration and humanity in Life at the Limit. Watkins covers all of this in far greater detail and with considerable humour and warmth – he was much loved in the F1 paddock for his sense of humour and compassion, which is more than evident in what is an exceptional piece of documentation on a world of change from 1970 through to the early ’90s. It’s essential reading.

1 – Life on the Limit

If this post has inspired you to learn more, the 2013 documentary 1 – Life on the Limit (narrated by F1 fan and actor Michael Fassbender) is a must-watch . Formula One was a cruel sport in the ’60s and ’70s. By today’s standards, it’s remarkable it wasn’t shut down for gross incompetence, such was the seeming disregard for human life.

The film depicts the safety advances of the sport, whilst detailing the catalogue of tragedy from Jim Clark’s death in 1968 onwards. Particularly unnerving is Jody Schekter’s dazed reaction following dashing Frenchman Francois Cevert’s brutal accident in late 1973 – “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Naturally, this is minus the humour of Watkin’s book, making it a melancholic, but ultimately uplifting, watch. It’s another fine piece of work and includes candid interviews with the often elusive Bernie Ecclestone, amongst many other drivers and insiders.

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