The luckiest man in the world: Ayrton Senna’s recollection
“Ayrton saw it all first-hand, holding my crash helmet and possibly watching me die on the track. Then he went back to his garage, put his helmet back on, visor down, and went and did the fastest lap of Jerez ever at the time.”
We’ve heard of Martin Donnelly’s crash from the man himself, his unlikely survival, and his recovery in parts one, two and three but there was a final twist to the story that weekend at Jerez in September 1990. Two words: Ayrton Senna.
I was a journalist working for Autosport at the time and have spent a lot of time trying to find my personal recording of Senna’s press conference from that weekend, because I knew it was special. When I found it 21 years on, it still made the hairs on the back on my neck stand up. It’s a tape Donnelly hasn’t heard until now.
“One of the things that has amazed me since the crash was Ayrton that weekend,” says Donnelly today. “To me he was a distant friend. Obviously I knew him from my Van Diemen days, and we had friends in common. I was finding my feet back then in Formula Ford, and he was already in F3 in ’83. I was coming backwards and forwards from Ireland that year, but in ’84 I moved to England. It was a new home for both me and Ayrton.”
Donnelly was racing for Lotus in F1 by 1990, and Senna – already a world champion – was again a title contender for McLaren, and would ultimately win his second crown that year. His performance in Spain that weekend was astonishing. Not his race, which ended with engine failure, but his qualifying runs which even today Donnelly finds staggering having seen it on video since.
“That is the amazing thing for me. Ayrton watched all of that, saw it all first-hand, holding my crash helmet and possibly watching me die from a crash. He watched all the needles and syringes and the tracheotomy. Then he went back to his garage, put his helmet back on, visor down, and with just 10 minutes left, did the fastest lap of Jerez ever of that track.”
That lap included a huge flat-out broadside slide at the corner where Donnelly had just crashed about an hour before.
“How do you switch off the emotion of what you have just seen that’s in there – in your mind – and then do that kind of job?” Donnelly asks. “That takes somebody very special.”
The following day, Senna went faster again because “somebody (for that read arch-rival and team-mate Alain Prost) might go faster”. It turned out his Friday time was already fast enough for pole, to earn the 50th of his career, and a record-breaking moment in the Brazilian’s career. Senna holds the record for the two fastest qualifying laps of Jerez the way it was from that 1990 weekend. Ironically his first pole, in 1985, was behind the wheel of a Lotus…
His pole lap also included a potentially tragic incident of its own as he came across Olivier Grouillard and another driver side-by-side waving insults at each other at slow speed. Senna arrived at full pelt, barely lifted, swerved around them, and carried on. When you see it, it’s almost like a Playstation game clip. Senna was not happy afterwards. That lap though, just shows the Brazilian’s utter commitment, and a brilliant lap.
In those days the post-qualifying press conference was held in the journalists room, while we tapped away on their keyboards on newspaper deadlines, and the photographers took their pictures. Nothing like the organization they have today. Back then it was a free-for-all
The Brazilian came in, sat down as we were working, and without a single question being asked, he talked. What happened next over the next seven minutes or so was absorbing.
Donnelly eventually read about what Ayrton had said that day, and how deep his thoughts had been. “Unfortunately for him, the British tabloids jumped on it and said ‘he’s a Bible basher, he believes in God’,” says Martin today, “just because he couldn’t explain the experiences he felt, and no one would understand. That’s why Ayrton started to distance himself from the press. He had his own beliefs, and he ended up with his own small group that he would speak to in the press – those that took him seriously as a driver – and the rest he wouldn’t give the time of day for.”
Then Donnelly adds his own, considered, thoughts to Ayrton’s rationale.
“It wasn’t only me he saw. He stopped with Comas, and Zanardi, and at Imola went to see Rubens and Roland when they had their big accidents that weekend in ’94,” he says. “Maybe that was Ayrton’s way of dealing with it? Maybe he needed a near-death experience to see for himself, to make it feel that it was less likely to happen to him?”
While Martin Donnelly did not become the Grand Prix star he should so easily have been, he is alive, against all odds. That’s a thought that also isn’t lost on the Northern Irishman.
“I can’t complain,” he says. “You think of Ayrton. He had his millions, was set for life, had no family dependents… You realise after time that because you are in the F1 paddock, you are cocooned. Everything is given to you: clothes, cars, phone, Hugo Boss factory trips – you are not part of the real world. You desperately want to get back in there, and live that F1 life.
“After a while, though, when you realise you can’t get back there, there is a life outside F1 to deal with. You still have to pay your mortgage and your bills.”
I must extend a special thanks to Martin Donnelly for the hours of chat we had for this series, his honesty and above all his humour. Also for the pictures in this piece, thanks to Sutton Images. Visit their site www.sutton-images.com.
Read part one here
Read part two here
Read part three here