“Martin Donnelly lied like a mangled puppet in the middle of the track. With eight minutes of Friday’s qualifying session left to run, his Lotus had collided with a barrier behind the paddock at 170 miles per hour. His car had split in half and the Ulsterman had been thrown clear, the remains of his seat still strapped to his back.”
Martin Donnelly remembers nothing about the crash that should’ve killed him.
It happened at Jerez in southwest Spain, a lifetime ago.There are minor details that stick in the memory about that weekend but nothing more. He remembers the type of car he hired at the airport. He remembers the few days spent relaxing at a villa in Obra. He remembers ten-pin bowling with a friend. And then there’s just black.
“I don’t remember driving the car at all”, he says.
“I don’t remember signing the option letter or the contract on the morning of the race. When I was in hospital, I had a lot of journalists who came to see me months after the crash happened and we had a wee chat. But I didn’t remember it happening because there was no memory retention until Christmas of 1990.”
Just a month before the accident, the cover of AUTOSPORT magazine pondered whether the then-26-year-old from Belfast was the future of Formula 1.
‘Is Donnelly the next Mansell’? they asked.
He had steadily impressed in the late-1980s, shining for Eddie Jordan Racing as a team-mate of Jean Alesi’s in Formula 3000. Still, his performances weren’t just catching the eye of motor journalists and in July 1989, he received a call from the Arrows-Ford F1 team, making his debut as a stand-in at the French Grand Prix.
It was enough for Lotus, who he had already tested for, to bring him in for the 1990 season. But the team struggled – engine trouble forcing Donnelly to retire from a litany of races. Regardless, he was a young man in his debut F1 season, learning more with each passing race. But there were other reasons to be happy. As he prepared for the Spanish Grand Prix, there was some good news.
“On the morning of the race, three hours before the accident happened, Lotus signed me for $5 million. That was a great period of my life – I had signed to be the number one driver for the team in the 1991 season and I also had three other contracts on my table.”
“I was a bit of a rising star, somebody people wanted to be associated with and do something with. You don’t appreciate it at the time because you just take things for granted.”
On Friday, 28th September 1990, Donnelly’s life changed. But he refuses to distance himself from the events at Jerez. In fact, he’s reminded of them every day.
“I have a frame in my office with three items in it. The first item is a PR card from Lotus for the race with what Derek Warwick thought about the circuit, what I thought about the circuit and what our chances were and a little map of the track. Next to that is the actual option letter that was signed by Lotus and myself on the morning of the accident and under it is a residual cheque for $40,000 which was my retainer fee.”
There was eight minutes of the qualifying session remaining when Donnelly’s front-suspension failed at a fast right-hand turn and he collided, head-on, with the barrier.
“I hit the barrier at 167 miles per hour and the impact went through 42 G (to put it in context, the force experienced by someone during the opening of a parachute is about 6G). Thankfully for me, the tub was lightweight because we had a massive V12 Lamborghini engine and the tub had to be modified because we couldn’t get into it. So the fact it was light, when it hit the barrier it shattered and I went with the inertia – that’s what saved my life.”
The car was crushed, broken in half by the impact. Donnelly was flung through the air, landing 40 metres further up the track.As he lay motionless on the ground, the TV cameras focused and zoomed in.The pictures were disturbing. Beneath him, one of his legs stuck out at a disgusting angle. It was impossible to figure out what leg it was. He was a mangled mess, slumped in a heap. The footage was tough to stomach – it was made worse by the fact that Donnelly’s seat was still attached to him.
Everyone thought Donnelly was dead, including F1 driver Roberto Moreno who was watching qualifying from the very corner where the crash occurred.What added to the immediate concerns was the delay in track-side doctor and F1 chief medic Sid Watkins reaching the scene.
“They lifted my visor and could see I was asphyxiated and had gone a pale shade of blue. He stuck two tubes up my nose, down my throat and into my airway. He got me resuscitated that way. Then he cut the straps of my helmet and took it off but all of these things had to be done very slowly, very carefully. There was a lot of blood because my bone had come through the top of my femur and it burst an artery so not only was Sid trying to keep me stabilised but he was trying to stem the blood.”
The extent of his injuries weren’t known until he was in a Seville hospital. And as the medical team began to understand the severity of the trauma, they knew the worst was still to come.
“Sid Watkins knew my body would go into shock so they had given me a massive injection that froze every muscle in my body so that I wouldn’t move. They strapped me to the back of a stretcher, put me in the back of an air ambulance and flew me out to the airport and off to a London hospital. And then, just as he’d predicted, my lungs, my kidneys, all my internal organs just went into shutdown. I was on a respirator for six weeks and on kidney dialysis for a month – every day for three hours. And the machine that they used – the button wasn’t working – so my father had to stand there for three hours with his finger on that button to keep the machine working, every single day.”
While at the Royal London Hospital, Donnelly was in a medically-induced coma for weeks. Twice, his heart stopped. For a long time, it was touch and go whether he’d survive.
“The doctor told my mother that if she wanted to say her goodbyes to me, then that was the right time to do it. So, she went and got the hospital priest to come in and give me the last rites.”
There was also concern that Donnelly’s injuries weren’t just physical.
“There was a time afterwards, when I came out of the coma, that I was looking at people with my eyes open but not talking and they weren’t sure if there was some brain damage because of the lack of oxygen to the brain.”
Slowly, as he showed signs of improvement, other drivers arrived at the hospital to see him. But Donnelly looked like a different person – attached to so many machines and unable to properly communicate, he had also lost a massive amount of weight.
Donnelly had been immersed in racing from infancy. And the lure of doing it for a living was too good to turn down, even after he had secured a place at Queens University to study mechanical engineering.
“I got a call from a guy called Frank Nolan saying he ‘wanted to take some young Irish buck to England and kick some Tommy ass’. But it was a hard call for me. I didn’t want to give up my future career – but after meeting the Dean at Queens, he allowed me to take a year out and keep my place and that gave my the confidence to head off to England, knowing that if it didn’t happen for me, I could come back and pick up where I left off.”
It was the early-1980s when Donnelly arrived in Norfolk and cut his teeth in British Formula Three. From there, it was rapid progress.Soon, he met the acquaintance of a young Brazilian called Ayrton Senna da Silva, who had arrived in the UK to race in Formula Ford.
“He and I used to go out for dinner all the time and we got to know each other by doing a few bits and pieces together. We used to have the craic with each other, to stave off the boredom, really – we used to go out and fly his remote-controlled planes at Snetterton (a circuit in Norfolk). Anytime we met up, we always had time for each other.”
Years later, when both had made it, near-death would reunite them.In Asif Kapadia’s brilliant 2010 documentary, ‘Senna’, the iconic driver is in the pits when he watches his friend crash on the live TV feed. “Practice was stopped”, he said afterwards.
“I heard from different people that the accident with Donnelly was bad, was too bad, a disaster. And then I decided to go to the place to see myself.”
Donnelly picks up the story.
“Ayrton jumped the fence, went across onto the circuit and watched Sid Watkins revive a young man who he had an association with. I wasn’t a stranger to him, he knew who I was. When Sid cut the straps off the helmet, he offered it to Ayrton to hold. I have pictures of Ayrton standing there, holding my helmet while Sid is trying to revive me.”
Despite the shock of seeing a friend close to death, Senna went back to the pits, got in his McLaren and promptly recorded the fastest ever time at Jerez for a Friday qualifying session.
“It shows you the kind of man he was”, says Donnelly.