Martin Donnelly: The luckiest man alive, part one
Derek Warwick summed it up best in September 1990 at the Spanish GP at Jerez the day after his Lotus teammate Martin Donnelly’s sickening qualifying crash.
“For Martin Donnelly to have survived that accident was an act of God,” said Warwick. “That accident could happen another five million times, and in every one of them he would be dead. To be honest, he should not have survived. The only reason I drove today was that I was happy he was okay.”
I will do this story in parts, because, as Derek said, not only did Martin survive, but being a Northern Irishman, Donnelly tells a good tale about the events in Spain – and beyond.
Personally I have seen some awful things in racing, and lost friends at races I’ve been at. But none of it comes close to Jerez, Spain 1990. There was about 10 minutes to go in first qualifying, and I was walking back to the media centre, trackside. Suddenly there was a huge crash about 40 metres behind me. By the time it had finished, it was right in front of me with bits flying over my head. I was sure at the time I was looking at a dead body.
Donnelly’s Lotus had hit the barrier head on, the front of the car shattered, and he was thrown down the track, with only the seat attached to him. Nothing else. The car was elsewhere, all over the place in fact. The barrier was bent backwards. His legs were obviously very broken, but by then that was the least of concerns.
So let’s look back, 21 years on, what does Martin recall?
“We flew in to Jerez, with my friend Ed Devlin who ran the legendary Ed’s Café at Snetterton and his wife Jenny,” he says. “We picked up a big Citroen hire car – it looked like a bloody hearse! It took all four of us, and our baggage easily. The only other thing I remember is that we met somewhere in town and went ten-pin bowling and Jenny not being able to bend and the ball going three feet up in the air, and then “BANG!” when it landed. We were eating smoked parma ham. That is my entire memory of that weekend in Jerez.”
I will fill in the gaps. A suspected suspension failure pitched him into the barriers at full speed. After the dust settled, it was a horrible sight.
His body just lay in the middle of the track, folded and motionless. Pierluigi Martini, one of the next cars on the scene, parked up across the track to protect the Donnelly from being hit by anyone else. How could anybody have survived that? It was very, very disturbing.
Amazingly Donnelly was still alive, and nobody will ever explain how. Ayrton Senna arrived at the scene. He took in the situation, talked with the doctors, and walked back. Alone, no moped, no golf cart, no helpers. I will come back to the Senna side in one of the next parts of this story, as there are plenty of twists.
Back to Donnelly… He was stabilised at the track by Professor Sid Watkins, although his heart did stop. They gave him a tracheotomy, and took him to the medical centre. Derek Warwick visited him there. “Of course there was nothing I could do,” said Warwick. “He showed signs of recognising me. But all I could do was wish him luck and tell him everyone was thinking about him.”
Donnelly was put into an induced coma to reduce the trauma, which brings it’s own funny – in retrospect – story.
“In those days we had an hour and a half warm up before the qualifying session. I don’t remember any of it,” he says. “Between sessions that morning of my crash, Lotus took me into the motorhome and offered to extend my contract into 1991. I signed the option letter, and I got a cheque for US$40,000 as an option on my services – that was a deal set up the year before by Eddie Jordan…. Good job there Eddie!
“So I did the unofficial practice, had got the cheque, and then in first qualifying, ‘BOOM’ had my crash. When they knew I should likely survive, my fiancé Dyanne went looking for the cheque. No one knew where it was. Well, I wasn’t talking, I was in a f***ing coma!
“She couldn’t find the cheque anywhere – she looked in my overalls, my jacket, my briefcase. And when I came out of my coma six weeks later I still couldn’t talk because I had so many tubes in me. Pretty much the first thing she said to me was: “Where’s the cheque? Don’t die just yet, but where’s the cheque?!”
Donnelly’s recuperation would be long and tough. He was, so the story goes, brought out of the coma in six weeks later in Belfast on Guy Fawkes night. He knew he was in Belfast because the noise of fireworks reminded him of the bombs that went off there regularly at that time.
Having told a couple of more stories that are extremely funny, but sadly unpublishable, he summed that day up: “I’ve got pictures of Prof Sid Watkins there on the track trying to resuscitate me because I had swallowed my tongue. And Ayrton was there, standing by the medics holding my crash helmet, and there is blood all over the place while they are working on me.
“So there I was, a young man, struggling for my life on the track, and nobody knew if I was going to survive. They flew me to the hospital, and my heart stopped, and they gave me the last rites there in the hospital, and told my parents to prepare for the worst.”
Happily, “the worst” didn’t happen – and there are so many more tales to tell, including Roberto Moreno’s account of it, and Ayrton Senna’s press conference the following day which – trust me – is absorbing. It’s also something that Martin Donnelly has heard about, but never actually heard. “So many people have told me about what Ayrton said the next day,” says Donnelly. “But no-one seems to have a copy of it.”
Well, motorsportretro.com does have a copy, so stay tuned in for parts two, three and four, and one of the best qualifying laps you will ever see…
Read part two here
Read part three here
Read part four here