DONNELLY’S BIG GAMBLE
HIS BRITISH F3 TITLE HOPES ON THE WANE, MARTIN DONNELLY GAMBLED ON A MID-SEASON MOVE TO FORMULA 3000 THAT TURNED HIM INTO THE UK’S NEW GREAT HOPE. THIRTY YEARS ON FROM HIS REMARKABLE 1988 EXPLOITS, HE TOLD JAMES NEWBOLD THE STORY
Thirty years ago, a half-season in International F3000 shot Martin Donnelly into the limelight
Whenever Martin Donnelly is discussed, it’s difficult to avoid the accident that ended his top-flight career while qualifying for the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, when the front suspension on his Lotus-lamborghini failed at more than 140mph. As the affable Northern Irishman admits, it’s what he’s best known for.
But two years earlier, Donnelly came within a whisker of making the Formula 3000 paddock look very silly indeed in a half-season campaign that, 30 years on, stands as a timely reminder of what Formula 1 missed.
Making an instant impression when joining a championship late in the season is the mark of a driver who can rapidly adapt to new conditions – car, team, circuits and new rivals to boot. But despite contesting just five races with Eddie Jordan Racing, Donnelly ended the year third in the standings, with two victories and a brace of seconds. Had it not been for a gearbox failure while leading from pole at Zolder, he would have finished three points behind eventual champion Roberto Moreno.
Now 54, Donnelly looks back with satisfaction on a year that had threatened to become a story of underachievement in his third season of British Formula 3 and ended with a Team Lotus testing contract in his back pocket.
“I was just riding a wave,” says Donnelly, now an instructor at the Lotus Driving Academy. “When you consider that the guys we were up against were quick guys in their second or third year, I just got into a very unusual and fortuitous situation where the team had a competitive car. It was never easy. “That was a massive gamble because it could have gone pear-shaped and not been competitive, not getting in the top six. But you’ve got to grab every opportunity with both hands and if you put time in and get the job done, you will win respect. I was a bit cheeky coming forward as well – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
Third as an F3 rookie in 1986 behind secondyear men Andy Wallace and Maurizio Sandro Sala with Swallow Racing, Donnelly was offered a free drive by Eddie Jordan for ’87, but turned it down due to concerns over the competitiveness of the Speiss Volkswagen engine. But while Johnny Herbert took the vacant seat and waltzed to the title, Donnelly suffered as Swallow struggled to coax speed from its new Reynard and only hit form after joining Glenn Waters’s Intersport squad, winning twice to end the year third once more.
Victory in the Macau Grand Prix and an impressive run on his first experience of F3000 in the Marlboro selection test at Donington confirmed Donnelly as a talent to watch, so he was disappointed to be back in F3 for a third year in 1988. His Intersport Ralt-toyota lagged 21 points behind JJ Lehto in a Mugen-powered Pacific Reynard when Jordan came calling at Snetterton in August, after crash-prone Thomas Danielsson’s licence had been temporarily revoked amid concerns over his eyesight.
“EJ quoted me £30,000 to do the last five races with a bit of testing,” Donnelly says. “If he had come when I was leading the championship, I still would have gone because what was [F3] going to do for me? I had proved I could win races – here was a chance to take the next step of the ladder.
“I had a contract with Cellnet, so I went grovelling to [sales and marketing director] Peter Waller and left having got his permission; there was no animosity at all. I went straight from there to meet [Jordan’s legal man] Fred Rodgers to sign this contract and more or less everything EJ had said was in there. But underneath the contract was another piece of paper, the Sports EJ contract. It meant EJ was going to manage my career and would take 15% of everything that I earned. At the time I wasn’t earning big money, so I signed.”
A messy divorce with Intersport backer
Cellnet followed. Donnelly’s verbal approval from Waller to pursue the F3000 dream was retracted when F3 team-mate Damon Hill also sought to be released from his contract to pursue the EJR seat, but Jordan got his man and Donnelly lined up for his debut at round seven, Brands Hatch, paired with engineer Paul Crosby.
“That was a massive gamble because it could have gone pear-shaped”
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