Formula 1 fans, and Lotus fans in particular, will remember Martin Donnelly as one of a long list of gifted racing drivers whose promising careers were cut short by tragedies. Mercifully though, Martin was one of a more select list of survivors, overcoming adversity with presumably the same competitive spirit that propelled him to the forefront of motorsport in the first place. We caught up with Martin to ask him about his time in motorsport, with Lotus, and his continued links with Norfolk’s finest.

So, how had he been introduced to the world of racing, was he exposed to exotic cars as part of a wealthy upbringing?

“No it was a very working class childhood; I was brought up in Belfast the son of a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, so long hours were the order of the day, usually up before daybreak, and very hard work. My father was however a keen motor racing enthusiast and we used to go and watch the events over behind the hill at Dundrod, and there was also Newtownards and Kirkistown. My father and I had a best-friend relationship, and he had the idea that when I turned 17 we would go motor racing together. He had raced Sunbeams and MGBs and other things himself before of course, but that was more of an excuse to get together with his mates and have a few beers at the end of the day! A well earned break before an arduous week ahead”. True to his word on Christmas 1980, and in readiness for the 1981 season, Martins dad bought him a Crossley 32F Formula Ford car which he campaigned with success. Also competing in hillclimbs and sprints, anything to gain experience, he became Driver of the Year both North and South of the border.  The next season Ross Ambrose, founder of Norfolk’s Van Diemen outfit, gave him the loan of a year old chassis, and this along with the loan of a more modern engine made him competitive in the Formula Ford series of that year.

After previously being backed by his father, in 1983 Martin attracted a successful Dublin businessman as a sponsor, Frank Nolan, a racing enthusiast whose name still adorns Martin’s racing helmet to this day. With a new R83 Van Diemen chassis and an old furniture removal van as a transporter, Martin flitted between Ireland and England taking in as many of either country’s’ racing series as he could.

“Obviously my father had limited resources and could only take me so far, so without Frank’s support I would never have been able to do anything like that. At this stage I was at boarding school in the South of Ireland in Dundalk, as basically where my family lived was not a very nice part of the province. There were a lot of youth gangs being formed at that time, basically to try and recruit young men into the IRA, and obviously my family did their best to keep me out of all that.” So without the lure of motor racing life could have taken a more sinister turn?

“Quite possibly, it was all around at the time. At the end of 1983 I earned a place at Queens University doing Mechanical Engineering, however I received a phone call from Frank Nolan asking me to race again in Ireland and England. Of course this set alarm bells off with my mother as she still saw motor racing as something my father had done to go out on the beer and act the idiot! However the tutor very kindly said he would keep my place open for me for a year, and if things didn’t work out I could come back. So I joined Van Diemen in ’84, moved to Norfolk the same year, I’ve raced for TOMs GB and Lotus and basically been stuck here ever since!”

His progression through the ranks seemed assured. After success in Formula 3 and Formula 3000, he came to the attention of Peter Warr and Team Lotus in 1989 who duly signed him up for the 1990 Formula 1 season (his F3000 manager Glenn Waters, former Team Lotus mechanic for Mario Andretti, had tipped Martin off that he was “being watched”). Around this time Martin also became good friends with Ayrton Senna.

“Ayrton drove for Ross Ambrose and Van Diemen in ’81 and ’82, West Surrey racing in ’83, and Lotus in ’85. So he kept a flat up in Norwich and Ayrton, Ross and I would all meet up regularly when he was around, usually at the Doric Restaurant in Attleborough. Just as an aside, I went for an F1 test at Imola in 1990, and I took with me a good friend of mine, Ed Devlin, who used to run a transport ‘caff’ on the old A11. Anyone who drove for Van Diemen, Ed used to always feed them for free, Senna, Moreno, Gugelmin, all of them! So Ed was with me and we were walking along the front of the McLaren garage. Ayrton was doing some big interview at the time, but then he spotted Ed and just left the journalist standing while dashed across to throw his arms around him! Then he saw me, and so we spent some time catching up in the hospitaility caravan of McLaren. Ed was part of the scene, and his sons have become involved in the sport too.”

Joining the F1 grid for a full season in 1990, the Lotus team were in decline and had just made the change to Lamborghini V12 engines. Reliability and issues with new technology were always going to conspire against upper table results. However when the cars were running Martin delivered solid results, existing comfortably amongst his seasoned F1 peers. However he never had chance to build upon this as his up and coming contemporaries like Alesi did. Lotus had just decided to take up the option on his contract, and fresh from signing Martin pocketed his retainer cheque the morning of the Spanish GP at Jerez. During qualifying a front suspension failure sent Martin slamming into the wall near the pit lane at 167mph and the Lotus shattered around him. Martin came to rest on the track 50m away from the impact still attached to part of his seat in one of the most disturbing F1 scenes of modern times.

“I was literally only lying 10 yards from pit lane entry. However Sid Watkins was parked at pit lane exit so he had to drive around the full circuit to get to me! The first thing he found when he raised my visor lid was that I had swallowed my tongue and was slowly asphyxiating. He thus sent two tubes up my nostrils to clear my airways and enable me to breathe again, and removed my helmet to put my tongue back in place. Only then could he turn his attention to the bleeding, as a bone had come through the top of my leg. He got me stabilised on track, then after being taken to the circuit medical centre I was airlifted to the hospital in Seville”. One of the most upsetting aspects of the scene surrounding the accident was the apparent inertia of the track marshals after the event; had they assumed from the severity of the impact that the crash was fatal?

“I have pictures of me lying on the ground and there are guys in blue overalls with Doctor graphics standing around looking at each other, but the regulations back then were that no-one was to touch me until Sid Watkins got there. Since then I think the regs are now that every 250m of the circuit there is a doctor on a podium who can perform emergency surgery. This helped Mika Hakkinen after his big accident at Adelaide not long after.”

As the 1980s progressed the design of the cars took on an increasingly cab-forward stance that even to the untrained observer looked risky. If there were positive changes to the regulations and tracks as a result of the crash, what about the design of the cars?

“It’s true the driver was being pushed further and further forward, but at the same time the driver’s feet were not allowed to protrude forward of the front axle line, which meant an ever more cramped cockpit. Also at that time you will see in hairpins our elbows were outside of the car, so we were very much exposed. And we had such a lightweight chassis, which it had to be to compensate for that very heavy lump of a Lamborghini engine. However that fact actually saved me as when the cockpit shattered a lot of the inertia was lost. Had I been subjected to the full 42g that was estimated of the impact I simply wouldn’t be here”. And so began a long recovery and a period of enforced absence from motorsport.  Suddenly he was removed from the rarified world of top flight sport and the cosseting that went with it.

“I think that’s the biggest miss of any driver leaving F1. You are spoilt, looked after, everything is given to you from clothes to cars. I don’t know what it is but people can’t do enough for you. I think that’s one of the reasons why drivers, the likes of Mansell, Prost and now Schumacher, often come back very soon after retirement, the phone just stops. People end up forgetting about you, you don’t know what to do with yourself, and deep down you miss the attention”. Of course in Martin’s case those factors are insignificant compared with the physical traumas and rehabilitation. How long did it take to put his injuries behind him, or does he still live with them?

“Very much so, last year I had an operation on my birthday to separate the thigh muscle from my bone which was fused and didn’t allow me to bend my leg properly. They got the bend in the leg to 90 degrees which was a success, they then went for 120 degrees but ended up adhering the kneecap to my skin, so to some extent I was back to square one. And that’s frustrating because of course I want to enjoy my young family, kick a ball and ride a bike with them”. Martin talks with obvious pride about his family, Stefan (16), Charlotte (8) and Owen (5). Although to others it seems a shame that he should be mostly remembered for his accident, probably at the expense of his achievements to enter F1 and in his personal life since, Martin remain philosophical and upbeat.

“I’ve got no reason to complain, I’m still involved in motorsport in Lotus On Track which is a big series and massively oversubscribed, and I have my own little track day company, Donnelly Track Academy “

Website: Donnelly Track Academy

And then there are always other diversions for drivers, like the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Last year Martin could be seen behind the wheel of Emmerson Fittipaldis car, Mario Andretti’s gorgeous 79, and Ayrton Sennas 98T. Did he wish that he had been born 10 years earlier into this glamorous era? A quite definite “No” based quite clearly upon his own experiences;

“Those cars had 1100hp, they were point and squirt machines with flimsy aluminium tubs. When you see where the dampers and springs are on Ayrton’s car, if you had an accident they have nowhere to go except through your leg.” Quite clearly our racing heroes of that era demand a little more respect. So who were his racing heroes, did he get to meet any? He doesn’t have to think hard; “Ayrton Senna” he replies without hesitation.

Currently Martin is spending his weekdays coaching prospective F2000 talent from all over Europe, plus looking to the future, if all goes to plan a racing venture will mean a hectic schedule and 27 weekends away from home this year.

So still an F1 guy at heart, too busy looking forward to pay much attention to the past.

Thanks to Simon Poole

& Richard Crawford, Anthony Fosh and Tim Morson for photography.

And we wish Martin a happy birthday for the 26th of March!

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