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Exclusive: Watkins on Senna – Part I

Exclusive: Watkins on Senna – Part I
The early years of Senna Vs Prost
22/04/09 17:00

Photo F1-Live.com
Senna and Prost battle heading into turn one...

For many race fans the world over, Sunday 1st May 1994 remains a day that will never be forgotten, the day that Ayrton Senna was killed on what was a horrific Grand Prix weekend at Imola, then the home of the San Marino Grand Prix.

In an exclusive interview with ESPN Racing-Live.com former long-standing Formula One Safety and Medical Delegate Professor Sid Watkins looks back on the life of the triple world champion as well as the safety gains made in what was once an incredibly dangerous sport.

“He was one of the best drivers of all time, if not, the best I think,” Watkins said. “He was extremely aggressive; he was able to overtake people without the slightest hesitation. That’s one of his great skills. And he was very, very, fast. So, putting that together he deserved the accolades he’s had as one of the best of all time."

Watkins grew close to Senna over the years after the pair first met when the Brazilian was forced to visit the medical centre after complaining of neck spasms in his early Toleman days. From that point the two became close with Watkins describing their friendship like ‘a family relationship’.

“I was extremely fond of him and we got on really, really well,” he said. “It’s, It’s a peculiar bond, really that I’ve not had with any other driver. And he became a part of the family, really. He got on well with all of our children, he was very kind to them when they were small and they idolised him. And he stayed with us in Scotland and I stayed with him in Brazil. And it was always interesting when I first would first see him at the circuit and the weekend, for example, and he would suddenly realise I was there [and] he was always very pleased to see me."

While Senna and Watkins enjoyed a close relationship, the Brazilian champion also got on well with many of his F1 rivals, if not his long-time McLaren Honda team-mate Alain Prost.

“He and Gerhard Berger were very close friends,” he continued. “I think he got on well with Damon Hill, and he got on well with Nigel Mansell. They all respected him tremendously. And he was very fair and very nice about most of them.”

“He wasn’t too fond of Prost and later on he wasn’t too fond of Michael Schumacher because both of them were extremely competitive with him. They [Senna and Prost] were really at each other’s throat to win. And of course, they were so highly competitive it was very exciting to watch them on the circuit because they were both so good."

The rivalry within the McLaren team was very much in evidence at Suzuka in 1989. Senna and Prost battled for the lead before the latter closed the door on the Brazilian on the approach to the chicane and the pair collided. Prost was out of the car in seconds while Senna navigated his way down the escape road to rejoin and subsequently win the race.

When Benetton driver Alessandro Nannini took the top step of the podium, it was immediately clear that Senna had been disqualified for effectively taking a short cut through the chicane.

“Senna was very indignant about that and his language was rather bad immediately after the race when he realised that he was being disqualified, because he thought he had won,” Watkins said. “And he did on the ground. But there was a problem with the fact that he didn’t win by following the circuit. He went through a, cut through the corner after the collision with Prost. But I think they were equally responsible for driving into each other. I don’t think it was one person’s fault.
It’s just part of the competition again.

“He was just very indignant that the FIA took away his win and he ultimately had to apologise to the President of the FIA [Jean Marie Balestre] because of the things he said about him. He was pretty angry about it all. You can’t blame him, really..."

The incident was a precursor to more drama at the Japanese Grand Prix the following year. Senna claimed the pole position from Prost, who by then had left McLaren to join Ferrari. Senna was incensed when he was told his starting slot was on the right-hand side of the grid and not the left as he would have preferred.

Prost made a better start, as Senna had feared, and heading towards the first turn the Ferrari edged ahead of the McLaren. Senna didn’t lift at all and took out his rival to claim the championship.

“Well, there again, I think, it was … they wouldn’t give way to each other,” Watkins said. “And Senna managed to get his wheel in between Prost’s wheel and flicked Prost off the track and went off the track himself, but he was out of his car very quickly. As [my medical] car arrived, we saw a huge cloud of dust and when we arrived, Prost was still sitting in his car looking pretty unhappy. Senna was out of the car with his helmet off and had run across the circuit and was running back to the pits in case there was going to be a restart."

As talented as Senna undoubtedly was, this was not one of his finest moments, his rivalry with Prost combined with his ongoing battles with Balestre pushing him past the tipping point. Watkins however does not mention this, but instead opts to focus on his sublime driving skills, amongst the best in the world.

“He was enormously precise in his driving the way that Jimmy Clark was,” he said. “And of course he was tremendously fast. I remember in Japan once [1988] his engine stalled at the start, I think he was in pole or certainly on the front of the grid. My car started behind the last row. And we’re alongside him, he’d let his car roll down the hill and managed to kick start the engine. And so we were alongside each other. In other words, he was No. 29, I guess. You could count us as No. 30. But he went off like a shot and gradually passed everybody and finally, in the rain, passed Prost to win the race."

Tomorrow we have the second part of this article where Professor Watkins looks at the years leading up to Senna’s death, the black day itself and the consequences for the sport.

Click here for Part II of Professor Watkins on Senna.

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post #2 of 3 (permalink) Old 04-23-2009, 11:37 AM Thread Starter
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Exclusive: Watkins on Senna – Part II

Exclusive: Watkins on Senna – Part II
From McLaren to Williams, the fateful day
23/04/09 17:03

Photo F1-Live.com
The tragic side of a sport full of dangers
In the second part of ESPN Racing-Live.com’s exclusive interview with former Formula One Safety and Medical Delegate Professor Sid Watkins, the eminent neurosurgeon looks back on the late Ayrton Senna’s long-awaited Brazilian Grand Prix success, the relatively barren years, the move to Williams Renault at a time of sweeping rule changes in 1994 and the San Marino Grand Prix.

"Oh, very, very exciting, when he won the race or when I picked him up at the end of the race he’d won on one occasion, he couldn’t get himself out of his car which had stalled towards the lake,” Watkins recalls. “It was necessary for us to go and help him out.”

Senna’s 2001 Brazilian victory at Interlagos had been a long time coming and the McLaren star was simply overcome with emotion.

“He’d got weakness in his arms, so he couldn’t push himself out of the car,” Watkins continued. “Anyway, we put him in the medical cart to take him back to the pits. And of course, the applause around the circuit was amazing. And he was trying to raise his arm to wave back. And gradually by the time he got to the pit lane he was waving his arm normally. But it was very interesting to see him trying to wave his weakened limb at that stage, it wouldn’t go all the way up."

The competitive tide was turning in Formula One at that point and while Senna won his third title in 1991, McLaren lost Honda as its engine supplier at the end of the 1992 season and had to rely on a customer Ford contract in 1993. For Senna, this was a problem as the Williams Renault had become the dominant package – as witnessed by Nigel Mansell’s absolute dominance in 1992.

"Well, in 1994, in 1993 he became unhappy with McLaren and I think he changed his contract so that he’d race for McLaren on a race-by-race system,” Watkins said. “He was talking to Frank Williams and the Williams team and he used to talk to me a lot about his wish to move across of course the Williams car at that point was very good. And so he moved across. Ron Dennis was very upset about that because they were very good friends.

“And I pointed out to Ayrton, you know, that all the Formula One teams have the same philosophy. They want to win and if they’re not winning they become very upset, and that dislocates the whole team process. And that’s what happened at McLaren I guess in ’93."

Senna joined the Williams Renault team for the 1994 season alongside future Formula One champion Damon Hill. It was a dream package and Senna was fully expected to continue where Mansell and his former foe Alain Prost had left off.

"Well, I think the car was as good, but Ayrton was very unlucky,” he said. “In (TI) Aida (Japan), for example, at the end of the first like, I think it was, there was a multiple shunt and he was pushed off I think by Hakkinen. So he was upset about that. And in Brazil, I think he’d spun. And so when we went to Imola, I think it was the third race of that year. He was very desperate to get a win. And that was the motivation all weekend for him, he was absolutely desperate. And he was on the front row, I’m not sure whether he was on pole or not, you would probably know (he was). He was very serious about it and then, of course we had the accident on Saturday with Ratzenberger.”

The Saturday qualifying accident claimed the life of Simtek Ford driver Roland Ratzenberger and followed Rubens Barrichello’s lucky escape following a massive accident in his Jordan Hart on Friday.

“We’d had the accident before with Barrichello and he’s pretty upset about those accidents. Barrichello was a protégé of Ayrton and I know that Rubens absolutely worshipped him and he was extremely upset after Senna’s death. And Senna was upset that Barrichello had had such a big accident. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously injured.

“But Senna came to the medical centre on the Friday afternoon to make sure that Rubens was okay. And of course after the Ratzenberger accident, Senna was very, very upset because in the years he’d been racing Formula One, we’d had some accidents and had some injuries, but we hadn’t had a death and that really, really upset him.

"Well, you know he came down to the medical centre to try to see Ratzenberger, and of course we weren’t in a position to let him do that. And they wouldn’t let him in through the normal means, so jumped over the wall to get into the medical-centre compound. And I took him out to the circuit and told him the outcome of the Ratzenberger accident. He became very upset in fact. Wept on my shoulder for a few minutes and I talked to him and said, ‘You’re the fastest guy around, won the world championship three times, why don’t we both quit and go fishing?’ And because we fished together in Brazil and tried to fish in Scotland, except the river was out of condition. Anyway, he thought long and hard about that and he said, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ and he said, ‘I’ve got to go on.’”

Senna went on to line up on his pole position the following day in his Williams Renault.
The first start saw a mid-field shunt forcing the safety car out for a number of lap before the race resumed with Senna being chased hard by then rising star Michael Schumacher in the Benetton Ford.

“When they were released from behind the safety car, Senna went off very, very fast followed by Schumacher and when they completed the first racing lap, Senna’s car went past mine,” he said. “It was very, very unstable and the back end of the car was stepping out a great deal and I had the premonition that there was going to be a big accident.

“I mentioned that to my driver, Mario. And then a few seconds later, the red flags came out, and in then in those days it was automatic for me to go without any order from race control. When the red flag came out, my medical car went to the accident. So we went as quickly as possible and I think it was a very short time, like 16 seconds before, I was at Senna’s car, and of course, Senna’s team of doctors who were nearby were already working on him.

"Well, I sort of knew it was Senna and that’s why I was very, very worried and very upset. Then, of course, examined him and realised that it was going to be a fatal injury, I was very depressed about that, but in those circumstances you just have to control emotions and do the very best you can."

Senna’s Williams Renault had speared off the circuit at the then sweeping flat-out Tamburello left hander hitting the retaining wall with Senna sustaining critical head injuries.

"Well, we finished the race... it seemed like an awfully long race. I sat thinking about Ayrton most of the time. We had no more incidents that day. And as soon as the race was over I went to the medical centre and my, still in my track overalls, and I jumped in the helicopter went to the hospital.

“And there I met the, the intensivist [physician specialising in critically injured patients] who was looking after Senna, and also one of the senior anaesthetists, and by then they had the scans of Ayrton and it was clear from the scans that matched his clinical condition that he could not survive.

“And then [Gerhard] Berger came and wanted to see Senna we let him into the intensive care ward for a couple of minutes and he could see his old mate. And then I thought there was no point in me staying any longer in the hospital. I spoke to his brother, and I spoke to the family on the telephone and they were preparing to fly to Europe and I said there was no need for them to fly to Europe and told them of the outcome. And they accepted that graciously.

“And I left the hospital, then got back to my hotel and at the hotel, I had the television on and of course the announcement was made that he’d actually died. And that was a pretty bad night for me, that night. I didn’t sleep. I was very emotional about it all."

Asked about the results of the autopsy, Watkins revealed that Senna had no other injuries other than the fatal head injury. Formula One was, however, in turmoil and just weeks after the black weekend at Imola, Sauber Mercedes driver Karl Wendlinger crashed heavily at Monte Carlo and went on to spend weeks in a coma.

Change was needed and the then relatively new FIA president Max Mosley was keen act.

“You know, as in war, tragedy often invited progress,” Watkins recalls. “And the response to Senna’s death, Ratzenberger’s death, and then a subsequent serious decerebrating head injury in young Wendlinger led Max Mosley to decide to form an expert advisory group. He asked to be the Chairman and we were given carte blanche to investigate possibilities of improving safety in the car and the circuits and with an unlimited budget which was a remarkably brilliant response.

“Over the years, since 1994, there have been massive improvements in the safety in the car and on the circuits, so it really led to a revolution in thinking about Formula One racing."

Click here for Part I of Professor Watkins on Senna.

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post #3 of 3 (permalink) Old 04-23-2009, 05:20 PM
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