1969 Formula 3
The Brazilian claimed the MCD Lombard title with the support of a young Ralph Firman as his mechanic on the strength of a half-season’s effort, with funding from Jim Russell after impressing in a self-prepared Merlyn in Formula Ford.
1993 British Touring
The Andy Rouse-built Mondeo only arrived for Pembrey in June, but Radisich made up for lost time by claiming third in points and winning three times, before adding the Touring Car World Cup at Monza.
2002 Formula Renault
Dovetailed an impressive maiden campaign in the UK to finish fifth in the ultracompetitive Eurocup, beating the likes of Robert Kubica with three podiums in five rounds, including a win at Donington.
ANTONIO FELIX DA COSTA
2012 Formula Renault 3.5 Parachuted into Ardencaterham by Red Bull alongside his GP3 commitments, da Costa closed the year with four wins in five races, becoming a thorn in the side of title-chasers Robin Frijns and Jules Bianchi.
Crosby’s drivers include Nigel Mansell, Jean Alesi, Allan Mcnish, David Coulthard and Gil de Ferran, but he rates Donnelly “in the top three or four of all the drivers I’ve ever worked with”. He was instantly taken by Donnelly’s ability to get quickly on the pace in a pre-event test at Oulton Park, which he followed up by qualifying two tenths off poleman and new EJR team-mate Herbert on the outside of the front row.
“It was a two-way thing. He said that the 88D was the best-balanced car he’d ever driven, and he was one of the easiest drivers I ever worked with, so you put those two together and you get some fantastic results,” remembers Crosby. “I knew a bit about Martin when he joined and he’d got some good results in F3. The first test we did, it didn’t take him any time to get up to speed – he was on it straight away.
“The Reynard was certainly better than the March, which had just had its day; it was aerodynamically superior to the others at that stage and was easier to drive. But you’ve still got to drive it and get the best from it – that’s not easy.”
The events of Brands 1988 are well-known, as Herbert suffered terrible injuries to his ankles and feet in a multi-car pile-up that ruled him out for the rest of the season. But what is often forgotten is that Donnelly escaped the mayhem by acing the second start – Moreno’s accident at Paddock Hill Bend having brought out the first red flags – and controlled the field on the third start to claim a win on his debut. Out of respect for Herbert, he didn’t open the champagne.
Without a team-mate for his Birmingham Superprix debut one week later, Donnelly qualified seventh and came through to second behind Moreno in another eventful race that required three attempts at starting. Crosby reckoned under the circumstances that it was even better than his performance to qualify on the front row at Brands.
“Martin took it all in his stride, that’s the amazing thing,” says Crosby. “He was very laid back – he didn’t seem to suffer from any pressures that were around.”
Donnelly’s cool demeanour was remarkable given that the pressure on him was not just that of a rookie finding his feet. Jordan was anxious to be paid the agreed sum and Donnelly had no way of meeting it, as mentor and benefactor Frank Nolan had died in 1986 without leaving a will.
Donnelly had bet the farm on making a success of F3000 – if he failed and Jordan pulled the seat, the strained relationship with Cellnet meant there would be no fallback in F3.
“There was pressure to perform because I was putting it on the line, EJ was down my neck big-time looking for money,” says Donnelly. “If EJ
“I was putting it on the line, EJ was down my neck big-time”
said, ‘You’re three grand behind payments, I’ve got a driver going to pay 40 grand for the next three races’, what are you going to do? There’s no 3000 drive, no Cellnet drive, because Peter
Kox was filling my boots. It was a massive risk, like playing the bluff at poker – how soon should you fold your hand?
“After Brands Hatch and Birmingham, EJ realised the money wasn’t coming through, so he did a deal whereby I drove Richard Lloyd’s Porsche 962 at Spa and did a few trips over to Japan [in F3000]; that way EJ got his money back.”
Donnelly’s red-hot form continued on his first visit to Le Mans, following home hero Olivier Grouillard to claim another second place, before stones on the road at Zolder caused him to skate off into the gravel. Although he got out again, the gearbox was beyond help – but Donnelly made up for it by winning the season finale at Dijon after Moreno’s engine gave up. The best that Herbert’s replacement Paolo Barilla – a third-year category veteran – could muster was seventh at Dijon.
“Thankfully, those two drives in 1988 at
Brands Hatch and Birmingham carried me through for the last five races,” says Donnelly. “After that, Lotus came knocking for the following year and EJ got big money from Nissan for Le Mans. He was going, ‘kerching, kerching!’
“Four months later from when we were negotiating at Snetterton, EJ’S offering me 50 grand to drive for him [in 1989]. It’s funny how things just turn so quickly.”
After switching from Crosby to Trevor Foster, with whom he had worked at Swallow in F3, Donnelly had a disappointing 1989. Another victory at Brands aside, he only scored once more with third in Birmingham, as Crosby engineered new EJR team-mate Alesi to three wins and the title.
The die was cast when Donnelly was disqualified from victory in round two at Vallelunga after it was discovered his new nosecone had not been crash-tested. Having already suffered a Mugen engine failure at Silverstone, he then crashed while chasing Alesi at Pau, had two punctures at Jerez and tangled with Alesi at the first corner at Enna-pergusa, arriving at Brands with no points once again.
Still, his name was hot property. Donnelly had made his F1 debut at Paul Ricard for Arrows subbing for the injured Derek Warwick (“If EJ was doing his job right, he should be on the phone to Jackie Oliver for Jean Alesi – French Grand Prix, French driver – but he didn’t”) having two weeks earlier been dubbed the
‘next Mansell’ on the cover of Autosport following a strong test showing for Lotus.
Had Jordan instead pushed Alesi on Arrows and Donnelly landed the Tyrrell seat that became vacant shortly afterwards – and which formed the launchpad for Alesi’s F1 career – the story might have been very different. But Donnelly can always look back on that remarkable 1988 half-season as the time he showed his ability on the international scene. Yer man’s ultimate gamble had paid off.
Second on the grid for F3000 debut came after minor changes to the steering Donnelly didn’t celebrate after debut win Second in Birmingham came after passing Mark Blundell (left)
…and arranged his GP debut in an Arrows in 1989
Jordan played a vital role in Donnelly’s rise…