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

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - 1988 ret­ro­spec­tive

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”

Donnelly won on F3000 de­but af­ter Herbert’s crash

Donnelly re­calls roar­ing suc­cess of F3000 grad­u­a­tion

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