“My left leg swivelled so badly on impact it crushed the nerves. There was a stand-up argument between Prof Sid Watkins and the surgeons about whether to keep the leg or take it off”
In 1990 Martin Donnelly’s first steps in F1 were halted by a terrible crash at Jerez. Now policing the grid as a driver steward, he’s heard all the excuses before…
With a burgeoning grand prix career cut short by an accident that wasn’t his fault, Martin Donnelly has every right to feel aggrieved. Yet almost 24 years on, the only indication of that terrible crash is a stiff-legged walk as the Ulsterman bustles cheerfully through whatever opportunities life presents. It is the key to the demeanour of a man who knows he is lucky to be alive, even though wins in every formula up to and including F3000 ought to be the consolation prizes in a career that, by rights, would have included success in F1.
Donnelly will have none of it. His cheeky grin and machine-gun delivery demolish pointless speculation and the anticipation of nding a man who feels sorry for himself. Donnelly is, by his own chirpy denition, a ‘blagger’; a match for Eddie Jordan, a key player in Donnelly’s life. Martin used a streetwise ability – born of a father who worked all hours in Belfast’s vegetable market and shaped by an opportunist’s climb to F1 – to run his own team and now, in the latest phase of his life, to act as an F1 driver steward.
He’s the perfect choice. Because when it comes to racing excuses, Martin Donnelly has heard them all and, in some cases, invented them himself. We’re meeting in Nick’s Diner, a family restaurant with a motorsport theme in the remote village of Deopham in Norfolk. The craic, as we say in Ireland, is bound to be great.
Maurice Hamilton: I said this to Martin Brundle, and now I’m asking you: why on earth would you want to settle here when it’s miles from everywhere in racing except Snetterton? Martin Donnelly: Ralph Firman and Van Diemen. It’s where you had to be when starting out – in my case, in Formula Ford 2000 in 1984. If it was good enough for Ayrton Senna, it was good enough for me! I was working for Ralph and if we needed new parts – gearboxes, engines, whatever – I’d get in the van and head off to places like Chichester or Bath. Miles away. Only parts of the M25 had been built. It would take forever and a day. That was the works deal at the time. And I was glad to have it. MH: This was because you were getting serious, having served your apprenticeship in club racing in Ireland. Had you always been into motorsport? MD: It came through my dad. For him going racing was a hobby, but he had this idea that when I was old enough we’d go racing together. He raced Hillman Imps, Sunbeam Rapiers and so on. After a long week at work in the vegetable market, he’d go to Kirkistown, meet up with his mates and have a few scoops [drinks], with a bit of racing in between. He never missed a day’s work in his life, so this was his excuse to let go.
I was about ten years old. While he was in the marquee drinking with the lads after the racing, I’d drive his MGB with Alan McGarrity. We would drive these cars round and round. So long as there wasn’t too much tyre squealing, nobody gave a damn. But the downside came when my dad and his mates were kicked out of the marquee. They’d go off to the Mermaid
pub in Kircubbin village and get ensconced in the room at the back. I was stuck in the car and they’d send me out an orange juice and a packet of crisps.
One day I got so bored, I found a head gasket and started trying to peel back the layers of aluminium but split my ngers quite badly. I thought: ‘Right! I’ll spread the blood up my arms and over my face and then walk in and tell my dad I’m bleeding badly and he’ll have to take me home.’ He took one look and said to the landlady: “Take him upstairs and get him cleaned up.” Which she did. Then I’m sent back to the car with more orange juice and crisps. My escape plan didn’t work at all. MH: I remember going to Kirkistown and, on the way home, seeing all these racing cars on trailers and saloon cars with competition numbers parked outside the pub. Loads of them. Half the grid had to be in there. MD: Those were the days when you could drink and drive. It was pretty wild when you think about it now, because a lot of them would then race each other home; a handicap race of sorts! MH: Kirkistown was a very basic place, wasn’t it? Cow shit everywhere. MD: You’d go testing and the old guy on the gate would say: “Okay boys, just watch out for goats and cattle. They’re down near Debtors Dip [the rst corner].” So you’d spot them and that would be okay – until suddenly you’d notice they weren’t there anymore. You’d be going at-out and wondering where they’d got to. MH: So, as soon as you got yourself a licence, you went racing? MD: For my rst couple of races, I didn’t have a road licence. We scammed that one. We’d go to scrutineering and my dad would say: “Get your competition licence out, son.” And I would say: “You’ve got it,” and he would say: “No, you’ve got it. I left it on the mantelpiece for you to pick up.” So dad would tell the ofcial this is what happened and he’d tell us to bring it next time. We did that twice, but obviously made sure it was a different ofcial. I was 16 and racing a Formula Ford Crosslé 32F that dad had bought. MH: You turned out to be good enough to catch the eye of a guy called Frank Nolan. You had his name on your crash helmet when I rst met you. What’s the story? MD: Frank was a builder who lived just outside Dublin. He was sponsoring a guy called PJ Fallon in 1981. When Frank realised that PJ was not keen on racing outside Ireland, he was looking for some young kid to go to the UK and kick arse. I had been beating a lot of good people in Ireland, so he gave me a call.
The timing was a bit awkward. My family had paid for me to go to boarding school for seven years to get away from The Troubles in Belfast. Then I was accepted by Queen’s University to study engineering. I had only been there for a fortnight when I got this call from Frank saying he’d like to back me in FF2000 in England. My mum was really very unhappy about the whole situation. She said to me, “You’re just like your dad. You’re going off to England to piss away seven years of boarding school and now you’re starting university, with all the costs for books and so on.” But I knew it was an opportunity that was unlikely to come along again. I spoke to the dean at Queens. He said: “Okay. I understand the opportunity is great, so go off, ll your boots for a year and, if it doesn’t work out, come back and pick up where you left off.” I never did go back.
By January 1984, I’d packed my bags and was living in England with Ralph and Angie Firman. I did that for a couple of months before nding lodgings with a lady called, would you believe it, Mrs Happybreeze. She was 80 years of age and
she became a sort of surrogate mother to me. She’d cook my supper, darn my socks, screen my phone calls… she really was marvellous. I stayed with her for four years – I had a lovely comfortable bed and paid just £25 per week. Happy days! MH: Meanwhile, Frank Nolan was as good as his word, but I seem to remember that came to a very sad and unexpected end. MD: He had a massive coronary at his daughter’s 18th birthday party on 13 April 1986. There were three people – three Irish people – who were very inuential in my life when it came to getting into F1. My dad got me started; Frank Nolan took me to the UK; and then there was EJ [Eddie Jordan]. I can say, hand on heart, that if Frank hadn’t died so unexpectedly, I wouldn’t have got together with EJ. MH: You were into F3, driving a Ralt with Frank paying half of the £160,000 bill. You won at Macau and, by then, the F1 teams were taking a close look at you. Where did EJ t into this? MD: EJ had offered me a free F3 deal for ’87 using his Spiess engine. I said no because the Spiess engine would never work. He gave that deal to Johnny Herbert, who then became British F3 champion. By 1988, EJ was in F3000 and one of his drivers, Thomas Danielsson, had to stand down due to an eye problem. EJ wanted £30,000 to put me in the car for the last ve rounds. He thought I had the money from Frank’s estate, but Frank hadn’t left a will and his assets had been frozen. I signed, knowing I could never afford to pay. Underneath this contract – surprise, surprise – was another one from EJ; a management contract. He wanted 50 per cent of everything I earned, which at the time was about 50 pence. He wasn’t going to get 50 per cent unless I was earning, so I signed. Job done. I thought: ‘I’ll drive the car and let that do the talking. I’ll play EJ at his own game.’ MH: And the message came through loud and clear: you were quick. You got on the podium a few times then Johnny had an accident in the other Jordan at Brands Hatch and you took your rst F3000 win. Did EJ ever get his £30,000? MD: He stopped asking because he realised that it wasn’t coming. But he had me completely tied up in a management contract. It was like he was my pimp. He had me driving sportscars in Japan and all over the place – anywhere he could make money. But I was getting results, and it launched my name on the international scene; Martin Donnelly was hot property. And then, of course, Lotus came calling. MH: How did that work with EJ when you got a contract as reserve for Lotus in 1989? MD: It all started to happen when Derek Warwick hurt himself in a charity kart race. EJ was on the phone like a shot to Jackie Oliver of Arrows, offering me as a replacement based on some quick times I’d done in the Lotus during testing. I made my F1 debut in the 1989 French GP. There was a big shunt at the rst corner and I must have hit some debris; a wishbone was bent. I took over the spare Arrows for the restart but it was set up for Eddie Cheever; very difcult to drive with massive oversteer. I nished 12th. MH: And you got a Lotus contract for 1990. You were starting to make progress by the time you got to the Spanish GP at Jerez in September. I’ve got your lap times from that qualifying session and you were absolutely on it when the front suspension broke. The lap until that point had been an absolute blinder, hadn’t it? MD: A stonker, yeah. The rst two sectors were quick; they said it was going to be P5. MH: Which, for that Lotus-Lamborghini, would have been like a Caterham being in the top ten. MD: The tub was from the previous year. When they got the Lamborghini V12 for 1990, all they did was redesign the back end of the car. It was a heavy engine, so they made the tub lighter to save weight. When the car struck the barrier, it just disintegrated. MH: Ironic, isn’t it, that the chassis disintegrating actually saved your life. You were thrown out of the car with the seat still attached to your back. Not that you knew any of that at the time. I’m sure you’ve been lled in since on the extraordinary work Professor Sid Watkins had to do, just to get you stabilised. MD: My left leg swivelled so badly in impact, it actually crushed the nerves. The surgeons in the hospital in Seville wanted to amputate because they couldn’t control the blood; the arteries had been damaged badly at the top of my thigh. But Sid had grabbed a young guy from the circuit and asked if he spoke English. When he said yes, Sid dragged him to the hospital, right into the operating theatre, to translate what they were saying. The surgeons wanted this guy thrown out
and there was major aggro; a stand-up argument between Sid and the surgeons about whether to keep the leg or take it off. MH: And Sid had to ght all over again when you got to the London Hospital and the artery burst. MD: That’s right. His colleagues wanted to amputate. Then there were the jump starts he had to deal with when my heart stopped twice. Your body only has a certain amount of elasticity to it. Your neck will go so far and your innards will go so far. I hit the barrier at 42G but, according to Sid, I went with the inertia when I came out of the car.
Sid knew that bones heal. But he said with a body going through that amount of G-force, all the internals go into shock and fail. He gave me one of those injections that paralysed every muscle in my body for the ight back to his hospital in Whitechapel. The very next day,
“Hand on heart, if Frank Nolan hadn’t died so unexpectedly, I wouldn’t have got together with EJ”
what he predicted happened. All my internal organs just shut down. My kidneys, my lungs; everything stopped. I was on a respirator for six weeks and kidney dialysis for a month. MH: I went to see you in ICU. It was hot; there was a lot of ticking and whirring and clanking, tubes going in all directions. You were lying there, one eye shut, the other open. Your mouth was open; I could see the llings in your teeth. You were a translucent grey. Your ancée, Diane, having been through it with other people coming to visit, was looking for the signs. At one point, she grabbed me by the arm and said: “I think you’d probably like to leave now.” I was on the point of passing out. MD: Derek Warwick is a hard man, as you know. Diane had primed Derek before he came in, telling him he was about to see someone he knew but might not recognise, so to be prepared. He took one look at me – and collapsed. MH: You weren’t a pretty sight, Martin. But you were absolutely determined to walk down the aisle for your wedding. It was quite an emotional moment. That was the rst time I’d been to
a wedding where the congregation applauded as the couple walked by. But you were still in a very wobbly state, weren’t you? MD: My weight was down to about 58 or 59 kilos. I’d badgered Sid. I had these pins in my leg; four at the top, four at the bottom. I had them taken out because I was going to Willi Dungl’s place in Austria. I had it in my mind that Willi had got Niki Lauda driving again after six weeks in 1976; he’d got Gerhard Berger back again after his burns at Imola in 1989. He was the guru at the time. I thought I’d go to Willi’s, he’d wave his magic wand and, in two or three months’ time, I’d be back behind the wheel. That’s what I honestly believed. I didn’t appreciate the extent of my injuries.
There were two plastic casts on my leg with a hinge at the kneecap. If you moved the leg even 4mm, I was in absolute agony; it was horrendous. For the journey out there, I had to be carried up the steps to the plane in a wheelchair, down the aisle, onto the seat, and people would bang into the leg. I don’t know how many times I was in tears going to Willi Dungl’s.
They took the wheelchair away when I got there and I was given crutches. I was so weak, I could hardly move an inch. All the muscle had gone. The rst couple of weeks, I was learning to walk again. Then we realised the muscle was stuck to the femur. Willi was saying there was nothing more he could do unless I went back to England and had an operation.
We took the cast off the leg and, obviously, your skin dies when it’s been under a cast for some time. They ran me this hot bath with special chemicals to soak in and just to freshen up. As I stood up in the bath to dry myself, I put some weight on the left leg and, from the knee down, it just bent like an S-bend. It wasn’t hurting because I’d no nerve down there. The guy at Dungl’s said, “Oh God, that’s not right!” The doctor arrived and said: “That’s still not xed. Back to hospital.”
I told everyone I was getting married and that I had to walk down the aisle. We made a plastic splint, starting under the foot, over the back of the leg with four Velcro straps. I wore that under my trousers to give the leg the support I needed to walk. I’d made a promise. Job done! MH: And the problem remains with that muscle fused to the thigh. Is it difcult getting yourself mobile in the morning? MD: I guess it is, but I don’t notice any more. It’s not that I don’t think about it. I’m reminded when it comes to slopes because I can’t bend the leg. If there are banisters either side, I can be as quick as anybody going up or down because my biceps are strong. The kids [from his second marriage to Julie] can’t get over it; I’m down the stairs like a ferret. The nervous system feeds your muscle. If the nerves don’t operate the muscles, the toes retract. The sole of your foot is basically one big muscle but, because it’s not been fed, it wastes away. So, over time, the bone in your foot becomes more and more exposed on the surface. You end up walking on bone and because my foot got mangled, the heel is now underneath the foot. So you go to the hospital and they atten off the bone so you can walk. My left shoe is built up by an inch and ve-eighths because of the amount of bone I lost. MH: Do you have to have an automatic car? MD: No, I drive with a manual gearbox but, instead of being able to ex my foot and stretch the left leg, I have to push from the hip. I’ve developed a technique – which I refer to as ‘River Dance’. If my left foot is off the clutch pedal for some time on a motorway, I haven’t got the mobility or the exibility to get it back onto the clutch pedal. So, I take my foot off the throttle, dip the clutch pedal with the right foot then ick the left foot onto the clutch. I don’t even notice it now. Anyone sitting in the back seat would have no idea what’s going on. It’s very smooth. MH: You always were! The one major handicap from a racing point of view was that the leg stopped you from evacuating the cockpit in ve seconds. Without that, could you have driven a Formula 1 car again? Could you left-foot brake? You’ve got to hit the pedal really hard these days. MD: I probably couldn’t manage that. When I walk, I can’t feel the pressure on my left foot or leg. So if I stood up now, I couldn’t tell you if it was 100 per cent or 10 per cent. MH: I could forgive you for feeling bitter about a car failure taking away a bright future, but you seem incredibly stoical about it all… MD: Maurice, driving F1 cars is a former life. And that’s it. I’m lucky to be alive. Listen, the only grief I have in life is that I wish I was more nancially secure. On the day of my accident, I had contracts on the table from Jordan, Tyrrell and Lotus. I had signed a £1.2 million deal with Lotus; £200,000 for 1990, £400,000 for 1991 and £600,000 for 1992. MH: So was that null and void after the accident? MD: All null and void. They paid me £200,000 and £200,000 medical costs. The insurance paid out, thankfully, but by the time we got to the last couple of operations, the money was spent; it was all gone. The BRDC paid for the last two operations. That was good of them; wonderful. MH: With driving no longer possible, you ran Martin Donnelly Racing and were quite successful. Why don’t you do that now? MD: We won races in every class we raced in. The big result for us was the British Grand Prix F3 support race. Back in those days, there were ve teams in British F3 that could offer drivers cheap deals. So, anybody left in the market either had money but no results, or talent but no money. It was becoming more and more difcult. Then Johnny Lewis approached me. He was setting up his new World Series by
“I stood up and put some weight on the left leg and, from the knee down, it just bent like an S-bend”
Renault team in 2006 and he asked me to work for him. He was offering three times what I was paying myself, and it was basically a role as operations manager and driver coach. It wasn’t rocket science, so I wrapped up my company and worked there until 2009. Sometimes it was seven days a week. So you work during the week, travel, race the weekends, then you’re back in again. I’d got a young family, and I thought: ‘Well, they don’t stay young very long.’ I’d been pulled in by the Lotus Academy to run their thing and give private tuition, which meant I could spend my weekdays at home, and work weekends as and when I wanted to. I am now the chief driving instructor for the Lotus Drivers’ Academy, FIA driver steward and I do some personal coaching as well.
I was very fortuitous in meeting Paul Golding, a good guy and a very good friend. He runs four championships, all of them oversubscribed two months before the rst race. They had a Lotus Elise S1. I asked if I could use their car as a marketing tool; Paul wasn’t bothered at all. I approached ID systems, a bi-fold door specialist in Norwich. With their support, my son Stefan and I are racing together this year. MH: You talked about being a race steward; do you enjoy that? MD: I do. You go there basically to make yourself unpopular, a bit like it was when I was doing F3 and F3000. If you win, you’re unpopular, and if you’re going to do a steward’s job and make a few calls, you’re unpopular. So it’s nothing new to me. Obviously there’s more technology involved than before, but it beats working. I do
enjoy it. MH: Do you enjoy listening to the drivers coming up with their stories? It must make you smile because you’ve been there. MD: They try to be so clever, I think: ‘Well you must believe I’m some muppet.’ It’s great craic! MH: Although you’re younger than me, I’d describe you as being more old school than new school. When you see the start of a grand prix and the guy on pole is slightly slow to get away, he immediately pulls across to block the driver on the outside of the front row and almost has him against the pitwall. I know you’re allowed to defend but, to my way of thinking, that’s not right. What do you think? What worries me is the youngsters watching that sort of thing. MD: Maurice, we’ve all done it. You make a bad start then try to defend as best you can. If someone has more momentum, they’ll be in there and they’ll get past, but you won’t give up that position until the last moment. That’s racing. MH: What’s the difference between what Rosberg did from pole in Bahrain when he tried to squeeze out Hamilton, and when Schumacher had Barrichello almost into the wall during the race in Hungary in 2010? MD: One’s the start when everybody is pumped up and psyched, and some guys get a good launch and some get bad launches. But what Michael did to Rubens was really stupid. It was at quite high speed. Michael pushed his luck; he wasn’t giving Rubens the width of a fag packet. MH: Are we talking about the difference between what’s permissible and what’s dangerous? MD: Yes, that was dangerous. What Nico did to Lewis is racing. These guys have a sixth sense when it comes to how much space to give. Johnny Herbert and I had a moment at Snetterton in ’87. He was driving EJ’s F3 Reynard and I was following through Russell, when it was at. Johnny got a twitch on as we went into the pit straight and I went inside. The mechanics were yanking back their pit boards! But Johnny didn’t put me into the wall; there was just enough room and no more. You make it as hard as possible but know how much space you can leave. MH: It’s all about opportunities, isn’t it? You had yours and grabbed them. MD: I never had any money to pay for drives, but where there were opportunities I got results. And now I get you paying for dinner! Life goes on. Thanks, Maurice. MH: Not at all. It’s been a pleasure to have dinner with an old blagger.
“Before my accident, I signed a £1.2 million deal with Lotus. Afterwards it was null and void”
Left: Donnelly competing in Formula Ford in Ireland in the early days, sponsorship courtesy of his dad’s fruit and veg business. Above: Racing for Frank Nolan at Thruxton in 1985 in a Van Diemen RF85
Donnelly takes his first win in F3000 at Brands Hatch in 1988, for Jordan Racing
In 1988, Donnelly signed an F3000 contract, entitling EJ to 50 per cent of his earnings
Making his F1 debut with Arrows at the 1989 French GP, where he finished 12th in the spare car
The remains of Donnelly’s written-off Lotus 102 are removed from the track at Jerez after his horrifying 140mph crash
Professor Sid Watkins was on the scene at Jerez and fought to preserve Donnelly’s damaged leg
After his accident, Donnelly set up Martin Donnelly Racing, which enjoyed success in different classes