Singaporean doctor shares his UK motorsport medical experience

Dr Andy Lim (in red) attending to a driver after a crashBeing on the medical team in motorsports is not something that everyone is familiar with. The two medical specialties that directly provide an applicable skill set are anaesthesia and emergency medicine; however there are roles for various medical specialties of different levels. It is important to get involved early, from a junior doctor level, and volunteer to be on the medical team to gain more experience, as the pre-hospital environment at the track is a lot different from what doctors face in the hospital.

Coming home for the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix every year, UK-based Singaporean anaesthetic Dr Andy Lim has been a medical doctor at circuits in the UK for the last 25 years. Currently one of the FIV doctors at the Formula 1 British Grand Prix, Dr Lim, 50, is listed as one of the contributors for the FIA medical handbook. When he is back in Singapore in September, he spares time to give a lecture to the Singapore GP medical team about dealing with high speed trauma and his other experiences.

Sent to boarding school in 1975 at the age of 13, Dr Lim went to medical school in UK after that. Returning to complete National Service in Singapore, he went back to UK for his first graduate medical training and settled there permanently after that.

Dr Lim dedicates a significant amount of his weekends to volunteer as a medical officer at motor racing events. To get a better understanding of his role in motorsports, Dr Lim shared more about his experiences with me when he was here for the Singapore Grand Prix last month.

Q: What made you want to get involved in motorsports on the medical side?
A:
I've always liked cars and there is a family history of motor racing. My uncle was an Indonesian karter in the sixties and he unfortunately got killed in practice one day. I have a passion for cars and I learnt to service my own cars. I also watch a lot of motorsports but I didn't do any motorsports until after I qualified as a doctor, when I tried one of those track days with car clubs. I've always wanted to involve motorsports in my life and I knew I was not good enough to be a driver. With my profession, the easiest way for me was to be on the medical side.

Q: How did you go about getting involved then?
A:
Some consultants at the hospital I work at used to be chief medical officers at the RAC British Rally so they pointed me in the right direction. It was in 1993 when I met up with the chief medical officer of Castle Combe, a local racing track. That was the year I launched my official motorsports medicine career. In 1994 I started going to Silverstone. As volunteers, we are not tied to particular circuits but we are just like the marshals, and can apply to circuits or race organisers to be part of their team.

Q: Why do you like being involved in motorsports?
A:
I like motorsports and I enjoy teaching. I conduct training on ad hoc basis and I take the young doctors and train them on the job. It's fulfilling to see them start out as medical students and then I work alongside them until they become consultants in their careers.

Q: Describe your journey.
A:
For the last 25 years, I've been a doctor at Castle Combe, Brands Hatch and now Silverstone. I have been doing the British Grand Prix as a doctor for the last 23 years. I started out standing on the banks with the marshals, where I was assigned a sector to cover. The Clerk-of-Course works out the most dangerous points and places the doctors where crashes are most likely to happen. I stood in the banks for 10 years before progressing to the start-finish line then to the pit-lane and now to one of the FIV vehicles.

Q: How much time do you dedicate to motorsports?
A:
At my peak, I was spending about 15 weekends a year at the tracks. Now I do about six race meetings a year.

Q: What are some interesting anecdotes?
A:
Once, I was driving the medical car (a 4WD estate car fully loaded with medical kit) and it was raining very hard. I was going into this 90-degree right-hander off-camber, with excessive loading on the inside and the car slipped. When it rains, a lot of oil and dirt comes up, making the track greasy. I wasn't scared and I was taught very well by professional instructors so I just reacted accordingly.

On another occasion, I was standing on the bank at Castle Combe and that track has a lot of off-camber corners. It was some time back in 1995 or 1996 and I was at a double apex off-camber. This Ferrari F40 was trying to overtake another F40 and ended up running off the road at 90 miles an hour. He went into the banking and went into flames. The driver got out but that was one F40 write-off.

Q: Have you witnessed any fatal incidents on the track?
A:
I've witnessed plenty of fatal tragedies, one too many. Motorsports is dangerous and I've seen parts of the car, such as the tyre bouncing off into the stands at high speed and instantly killing spectators upon impact. In the 20-odd years that I've been involved, I've seen about eight fatalities, both spectators and drivers, including one who had a heart attack in the middle of the race.

In the British Grand Prix, there are always accidents, especially in the support races. The biggest I witnessed in Formula 1 was when Michael Schumacher crashed in 1999 and broke his leg. It was a friend of mine who was in charge of that corner.

Q: What happens when an incident occurs at your corner?
A:
When assigned to the corners, we have to face oncoming traffic at all times and we have to wait till the accident ends. Usually we can predict about 3 to 4 corners ahead, before the accident happens, but we have to wait for it to happen and stop before we can do anything. We have to wait for the marshals to give the go-ahead before we can go over, if they think medical assistance is needed.

Q: What are some of the challenges you face?
A:
Having the ability to make a decision during a critical situation in the heat of things is important, for example, whether the car needs to be cut up or not. All the time you have that responsibility at the back of your mind. There is also the issue of balancing the needs of the race versus the driver. Recommending a call to put out the safety car or to red flag the race is one, but the safety of the driver always comes first.

Q: Do you have any regrets on a decision you have made?
A:
I never had any regrets. Every time we review, there are things that we say we could have done better, like the method chosen to get the driver out. For example, could we avoid cutting the car up. However, our decisions are made based on circumstances at that time and there are no regrets.

Q: What are some skills that motorsport doctors need?
A:
All doctors in the UK are required to take the ATLS (advanced trauma life support) course. As long as you are registered to practise as a doctor, you can approach the local circuits and get in touch with the medical team there. Develop the skills as you go along, as you receive on-the-job training and experience the races.

Q: How long will you keep doing this for?
A:
I will remain active in motorsports as long as I'm registered to practise, maybe another 10 years. I can come back to teach until I am no long current. The world of medicine doesn't stand still and it keeps progressing so after retirement, there will be a limit to when I can keep teaching until.

Q: It was a sad loss for the motorsport world when the great Professor Sid Watkins passed on. Did you ever work with him?
A:
Yes I did. The medical side of motorsports is hardly mentioned, until recently because of Sid's passing. I worked with him for over 10 years at the British Grand Prix. He was larger than life and he has done a lot for motor racing, revolutionising driver safety practices and principles, working to make the sport so much safer.

Q: Although motorsports has become a lot safer over the years, it is still dangerous.
A:
Motorsports is dangerous yes but it's where you draw the line. Motorsports has been so safe that people don't respect it. They push each other off the road and they don't leave enough room for others when they are being overtaken. If you did that before the nineties, you would have killed somebody. That's one school of thought but to a certain extent I have to agree. It is so safe now and tracks have bigger run-off areas. We don't see the kind of incidents we used to see in the past.

Passionate about cars and motorsports, Cheryl Tay is a familiar face in prominent local, regional as well as international automotive titles. More of her at www.cheryl-tay.com.