March 22, 2013

Life with a limp

Martin Donnelly's Lotus was torn apart in his crash at Jerez © Getty Images

Considering a Lotus almost killed him, Martin Donnelly is happy to proudly wear the iconic yellow and green insignia in his lapel. You could say that’s because Donnelly earns part of his living as an ambassador for the motor manufacturer but such a cynical judgement completely misrepresents one of the most equitable F1 drivers I’ve ever met.

Martin has every right to feel aggrieved. I may be biased given that we’re from the same part of the world but Donnelly had massive prospects as an F1 driver until they were snuffed out so dramatically during qualifying for the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix. If you’ve seen the film ‘Senna’, you will recall that graphic image as Donnelly lay like a crumpled yellow rag doll in the middle of the Jerez track, the seat torn from the chassis but still attached to his back.

The left-front suspension had failed just as Donnelly flicked his Lotus-Lamborghini into a fast right-hander. With no steering, the car had ploughed straight on and disintegrated against a metal crash barrier mounted close to the edge of the track.

The irony was that the fragmenting chassis allowed Donnelly a means of escape as his body was flung sideways, free of a cockpit that seconds before had fitted him like a glove. The violence of the impact tore the bulkhead, to which the upper seat belt mounting points were attached, clean away from the car, exposing the fuel bag-tanks. The absence of a fire was one miracle. The other was that Donnelly was still alive. But only just.

This being near the end of the lap, it took the medical car the best part of two minutes 30 seconds to reach a scene of devastation so bad that Professor Sid Watkins could not identify the car. In any case, his priority was the inert form lying in a foetal position with the left leg hideously bent. Looking inside the visor, Prof Watkins could see Martin’s face was blue and clearly short of oxygen. With his accompanying Spanish anaesthetist, Watkins put a suction tube down one nostril and an oxygen tube in the other.

The next job was to remove the helmet; never easy to do in the conventional manner when a driver is unconscious. Using a special pair of scissors with a blunt end of one blade to allow access beneath the helmet strap but without penetrating the flesh, Prof sawed his way through the strap, removed the helmet and realised Donnelly was choking on his tongue. Running a finger around Donnelly’s tightly clamped teeth, Prof found a gap that allowed him to pull the tongue forward. The first moment of extreme difficulty had passed.

More would follow as Donnelly suffered kidney failure not long after reaching the London Hospital and, just as threatening four weeks later, a burst artery in his left thigh. The latter came close to forcing amputation. The leg, on the Prof’s insistence, may have been saved but the incident would have a long-term affect when dried blood, coupled with a lengthy period of inactivity, caused Martin’s upper thigh muscle to stick to the bone. While everything else would eventually cure itself to remarkably good effect (a miracle in itself considering, as Prof Watkins told me, ‘we nearly lost him on several occasions’), that snared muscle would cause Donnelly more frustration than anything he had ever known.

Martin’s stock had been rising throughout that debut season in 1990. Split times during the fateful lap showed that, had he completed it, the Ulsterman would have qualified on the third row; his best grid position that year.

He had every intention of making a comeback. But evacuating the cockpit in the required five seconds was made impossible by that recalcitrant thigh muscle.

I was reminded of it on Wednesday as Donnelly expertly manoeuvred the ramrod-straight left leg into the cockpit of a Lotus Evora. We were about to take a run up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed press day. This was a full-house racing version of the Evora and Martin was intent on making good use of it. ‘Understeers a bit through the first right-hander on cold tyres,’ he grinned. ‘So we’ll have to use a fair bit of grass at the apex of the next one.’ Which he did.

We later took a wander among the typically stunning collection of racing machinery, which included a beautiful example of a Lotus 49 in its original green and yellow team colours. Here was a car that achieved great things in F1. Donnelly could easily have made his mark too, but there is not a hint of bitterness when you suggest what might have been. ‘I’m just lucky to be here,’ he simply says in that rasping Belfast accent.

Martin will be back for the Festival of Speed on July 12 -14. You’ll recognise him. He’s the one with the mischievous grin, the Lotus lapel badge and the limp.


Posted by Matthew Brady on 23/03/2013

It is miraculous that he survived such a devastating impact. He truly had such refined talent behind the wheel and the images of him lying prone on the Jerez Circuit were heart breaking. It is a shame we all were robbed of watching him progress and grow as a driver.

Posted by Bill R. on 22/03/2013

I remember seeing this crash in the Senna movie. Simply remarkable he survived! Still glad to know he still has a grin.

Posted by Shaun on 22/03/2013

He & Derek Warwick had a tough 1990 season with exploding Lamborghini's, but for sure his career would have stretched further.

Posted by Rodriguez 917 on 22/03/2013

I met Martin at Goodwood FOS in 1999 when he was sharing the driving of a Lotus 79 with Rubens Barrichello. He was one of the nicest blokes, let alone racing drivers I've ever met. He mentioned to me that the DFV was misfiring but he had enjoyed the experience all the same. I got the impression he was just happy to be there. Later that day I approached Nelson Piquet for an autograph, he pretty much walked straight past me without as much as a glance. Something tells me if Martin had been allowed to achieve what he deserved he still would've stayed the same bloke and not turned into another Piquet!

  Post your comment
Email Address:
characters left
A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live 6. Maurice Hamilton