The luckiest man alive Part III – The missing cheque
We’ve had a lot of feedback at MotorsportRetro.com about the Martin Donnelly crash series, and here is part three. So if you haven’t read parts one and two , you should. The most asked question from our readers so far is: “Did Martin ever find the cheque”?
“That’s also a funny story,” he laughs. “The guys who had got involved with Lotus at that time went backwards and forwards to Prof Sid Watkins to see if I was going to survive or not. If I had not survived, then they wouldn’t have had to pay the next installment of the cheque!
“In the end Prof confirmed I would survive and make a full recovery,” he adds, “although the legs would take time to fix. So they wrote me a new cheque.”
The story isn’t over though…
“Then we found the original cheque! We’d cashed the new one by then, so the original is now framed on my wall, along with the steering wheel from the crash. Today I use them as props for after-dinner speaking.”
While a full recovery was predicted, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. When Donnelly was brought out of the coma, things were far from right.
“I’m not sure the story about the fireworks and Belfast bombs is true, as I really don’t remember much about that time,” he says. “When I came out of the coma, I had F1 journalists that came to see me after the Jordan Formula 1 launch. They brought the press literature with them and some left some presentation stuff and gifts, and by then I was in a better room. In my locker I had beer, vodka, spirits, everything else, right? I still couldn’t really talk, but I still had a sense of humour.
“They came in,” he adds, “and we had a blast like the old days: ‘Great to see you Martin, and you are looking so well.’ They left and two days later I asked Dyanne where all that stuff in my locker came from. There was no memory retention of it at all – nothing. My family was there, my Dad was there for six weeks. I don’t remember any of that at all. It only started to get better when I did a deal with Prof Watkins to go home for that Christmas – he said I could go home for three days – but he insisted I had to have 24 hour medical care.”
“I didn’t realise how hospitalised I’d become,” he says, “and I didn’t like it. It became harder to get out of there. So I promised Dyanne that I would get out of there by Valentine’s Day, and go to Willi Dungel’s clinic in Austria. Obviously he’d been able to get Niki Lauda back in a race car six weeks after his Nurburgring crash – where he’d had the last rites too…
“Through my naivety, I thought ‘he got Lauda there, so he’ll wave his magic wand over me, and it will be all back to normal.’
“Of course I didn’t realise just how tough it would be. I was there 13 weeks doing physiotherapy and hydrotherapy for eight hours a day. I came back to the UK for operations, then went back out to the clinic again. It was bloody hard. They eventually said ‘Martin, we can’t do anything more for your legs’.”
He kept his ties with the Lotus team and went to Formula 1 races in 1991, and spent time with rookie Mika Hakkinen.
Donnelly still believed he would return to F1, and went to races. He was still part of the ‘Brit Pack’. A group of drivers – no, let’s say mates who were drivers – who all aspired to succeed on track and knew how to have a good time together away from it. In Perry McCarthy’s brilliant book, Flat Out and Broke, you can read about the bond these guys had, and there is a great picture from Monaco in 1992 which has Johnny Herbert, Scott Stringfellow, McCarthy, Donnelly, Johnny Dumfries, Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle in. He was still part of the gang as they all ‘relaxed’ after a tough day…
He also took up an offer in 1993 that Eddie Jordan made while he was still in hospital. “When you feel you are fit enough, I’ll provide an F1 car for you to test.” At Silverstone in 1993, Donnelly climbed aboard the Sasol Jordan. It was a remarkable thing to see.
While incredibly he has raced again in sportscars – and won! – the Jerez crash was the end of Martin Donnelly’s Grand Prix career. He still has a big challenge 21 years on.
“Even today it’s an ongoing thing,” he says. “Because of the nerve damage in my legs and feet, my toes have curled under my feet, so I walk on my heels. I have no muscle control down there, and the muscle wastes away. So that’s why as the years go by, more and more bone gets exposed to the surface, which they have to cut away, besides everything else. It’s an ongoing process.
“I go to the chiropodist every three weeks now. I limp in, she spends 25 minutes with the scalpel chipping away at the dead skin, and I walk out of there feeling like I have a new foot!”
Donnelly is now an ambassador for Lotus, and in July 2011 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, he was reunited with a 1990 Lotus-Lamborghini 102 Grand Prix car – the type that almost killed him. For anyone who knew the Martin Donnelly story, it was a moving and emotional moment seeing that orange and blue helmet back in the yellow Camel Lotus. It was a demonstration run, but one well received by his peers there – as well as the sell out crowd which not only cheered him all the way up the hill, but applauded again as he slowly came back down it, having tied his overalls around his waist. It was unusual see an F1 car being driven in a T-shirt. But that F1 car being driven by Martin Donnelly, was a special moment.
Martin Donnelly summed those moments up succinctly. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s closure for me.”
Part four of the Martin Donnelly next week is the final one, and is a quite incredible recount of that terrible day as told by Ayrton Senna the day after the crash, one of the most amazing qualifying laps ever, and Martin’s thoughts on Senna. We don’t think we need to tell you that’s unmissable.
Images: Graham Dalley, LAT
Read part one here
Read part two here
Read part four here