As he turned in, Martin Donnelly was hot F1 property.Just fractions later, he hit the barrier on the exit and his career was over. Mark Hughes talks to the man many considered to be a better prospect than Damon Hill
A Friday evening in 1981, and the Dundalk boarders settled in for another routine weekend. One pupil, though — with the conspiratorial blind eye of Father Tom Dooley — ran out and scaled the school wall. On the other side sat the boy’s grinning father in a battered Volvo driven down from Belfast, pulling a trailer upon which sat a Formula Ford. Destination: Mondello Park.
The chapter closed at Jerez in 1990 when Martin Donnelly’s contorted and apparently lifeless body lay on the track. Even now he can remember only up to the point of picking up his hire car two days earlier. But if what they say is true about how you perceive things as you hover between this world and whatever follows, he’d have been replaying a wonderful tale. The adventure story of a Belfast boy without a silver spoon who became, fleetingly, one of the most exciting F1 prospects around.
He’d see his father lying through his teeth — ‘Oh well, you see, we left the house in such a hurry we forgot to pick up his competition licence off the kitchen table’ — to get his boy into his first Formula Ford race a few months underage. He’d smile as he recalled the official saying, ‘Don’t worry, bring it with yis the next time.’
He’d remember the second man who’d help shape his life, big Frank Nolan, the millionaire builder in the bomber jacket who looked after him like a son but gave him a harder time than ever his father did.
He’d recall coming to England, the fierce competition, the wins, the blossoming from shy boy to a man with a core of steel.
Then there was Eddie Jordan, the rogue who’d spent too long near the Blarney Stone. But he was okay. He’d remember winding him up over the radio at the Imola F3000 race. There was Martin, right on team-mate Alesi’s gearbox, with Jean needing to stay where he was to clinch the championship for Jordan.
“Trevor [Foster, his race engineer], Trevor, he’s holding me up. I’m much faster than him. Can I pass? Over.”
“Hold position. Do not pass.”
“Say again. Did you say I can pass? Over.”
“Marty. No. Do not pass.”
Then EJ: “Marty for f***’s sake stay where you are!” Oh God, that was funny.
Oh God. Pierluigi Martini was aghast at the sight of that helmeted body in front of him, still attached to the seat, various bits of Lotus wreckage strewn around it. He knew from where the car had gone off— a sixth-gear kink with not enough run-off — there was little chance. He parked his Minardi to shield Donnelly, as Prof Watkins and the medics rushed to the scene.
Remarkably, Martin was alive. After on-track treatment he was airlifted to a hospital in Seville. There, the Prof convinced surgeons not to amputate his left leg, so badly broken it later swelled up enough to crush the nerves inside.
Ayrton Senna visited Donnelly in the circuit medical centre and was deeply distressed. “It makes you realise how fragile we all are,” he said. He then went out and secured his 50th pole. And the world of motor racing continued without Martin Donnelly. Let him fill in the blanks.
“Belfast wasn’t a reputable part of the world. Young kids would be dragged into gangs. My mother quite rightly didn’t want me getting caught up in that sort of carry-on and that’s why I was sent to boarding school.
“My father had bought this Crossle 15F in 1976. I remember going to this guy’s house and Dad bidding for the car. They got down to the last £50 and I was 11 at the time I said: Dad, you know I’ve got £50 in my savings account. You can have that’ I thought he was £50 short That convinced him to buy the car.
“He tested it at Kirkistown but it wasn’t for him. He got this guy Joey Greenan to drive. The idea was they would learn about the cars so, when I came of age, Joey would be my mechanic. Actually, it didn’t turn out that way. Rory McWhirter was my mechanic and later became my father-in-law.”
Five years later, the weekend Dundalk-Mondello runs in the Volvo began in earnest The boy was quick and aggressive. At the end of the year he came over to Brands for the Formula Ford Festival and Frank Nolan -a sponsor of an older Irish driver, P J Fallon -sorted the Donnellys out with somewhere to stay. For the following year he got them a loan of a Van Diemen RF81 and got an engine deal out of Scholar. For 1983, Frank Nolan would sponsor Donnelly.
“I’d just started university when he called,” recalls Martin. “I’d been there two weeks, bought my books, met all my tutors. Frank wanted to give one young guy a chance to come out of Ireland and race on the international scene. There was a whole host of us to choose from at that time- Pat Doherty, Al McGarrity, myself, Paul Bishop. Frank, for whatever reason, chose me.
“I wanted to do the Irish Formula Ford championship and selected rounds of the British RAC. But Frank said, ‘No, I’m a FF2000 man, that’s where I want to be’. This was all at a family conference round the dinner table.”
They cleaned up in Ireland and made occasional raids to the mainland. He won at Cadwell Park in the British series and a European series round at Donington. That he beat Mauricio Gugelmin,Julian Bailey, Tim Davies and Anthony Reid was confirmation that his was a talent too big to be contained in Ireland.
With Nolan’s help, he was on the ladder. But it wasn’t to be taken for granted.
“Frank was a hard taskmaster. I have got letters where he is saying, ‘If you can’t win a poxy non-championship series there’s no point in me supporting you in the following year’s full championship’. I would have to go with my cap in hand to Frank at the end of the year along with the rest of them. It wasn’t easy. I was very shy. It was only when I was about 24 that I came out of my shell. Success gives you a bit more self esteem and confidence.”
Donnelly reels off the date Nolan died from a sudden heart attack: “It was April 13, 1986, just as I’d got to Formula Three.” With sponsorship from Ricoh Copiers, Donnelly climbed the ladder regardless. Generally quicker than his team-mate Damon Hill, he was a regular F3 winner between ’86 and ’88, but often in the wrong machinery.
At the end of 1987 he won a Marlboro F3000 test at Donington, along with Jean Alesi and some other hotshots. The reigning champion Stefano Modena set the bogey time. Not only was Donnelly fastest of the aspirants, he beat Modena’s time by half a second. He didn’t get the drive. Motor racing often works like that Maybe he wasn’t quite the sponsor’s ticket. But Jordan’s Trevor Foster looked on with interest.
When Thomas Danielsson stood down from the Jordan F3000 team midseason, Foster and Jordan thought of Donnelly. Paired with Johnny Herbert at Brands, he qualified alongside him on the front row and took the win after Herbert’s horrific crash. Of the remaining four races, he scored two firsts, a second and retired while leading the other.
“Suddenly, ‘Martin Donnelly’ was hot on the international scene. Everyone wanted a piece. E J did a great job. I did a deal with him on a six-year management contract” There was talk of joining Lotus alongside Piquet for 1989, but the deal stuck on a clause in which Nelson stipulated the number two wasn’t allowed to pass him. But Jordan sorted out a Lotus testing contract and Donnelly was earning proper money from racing for the first time.
Being disqualified from a victory in Vallelunga because of a technicality blunted his F3000 title challenge to team-mate Alesi . But there were days when he had him covered. On his first visit to Pau he outqualified Jean, provoking the Frenchman, who considered himself a track specialist, into one of his tantrums.
Donnelly made his F1 debut that year, in France, as a stand-in for the injured Derek Warwick. lean also had an E J management deal and he had every right to feel a bit cranky with him. It was the French GP, Jean was leading the F3000 championship, yet I got the Arrows drive. E J being E J, once Warwick had injured himself in the charity kart race, got on the phone to Jackie Oliver, put together some sort of dodgy deal, then said, `Right Marty, you’re doing the GP. Get on the plane. I’ve organised your licence.’
“As it ended up, Alesi made his debut that same race. Michele Alboreto had a fall-out with Tyrrell about sponsorship and so E J sprung into action. I’ve got the answer to your problems. He’s leading the F3000 championship, he’s blinding, he’s your man.”
” Donnelly outqualified team-mate Eddie Cheever. Alesi failed to do the same to Jonathan Palmer, but made a big impression in the race. He hasn’t looked back since.
Donnelly was signed by Lotus for 1990 alongside Warwick. He did 13 races, and was slightly ahead of his experienced teammate in qualifying terms. On the morning of his accident he’d sifted through solid 1991 offers from Jordan and Tyrrell. Lotus, however, decided to take up its option on him. He happily signed.
Clinging to life, Donnelly was airlifted from Seville to London. “Sid (Watkins)’s main concern was my body going into shock, so they gave me an injection which froze all my muscles. The next day my body went into shock as Sid had expected. Everything — my lungs, kidneys — closed down. I was in a controlled coma for six weeks. Then I bust an artery in my leg in November and he had to fight to save my leg again.
“They let me go home for three days at Christmas. I realised how hospitalised I’d become, relying on other people, and that spurred me into getting out of hospital earlier than I should have done. I left on February 14 and went straight over to Willi Dungl’s clinic. It was pretty tough. I could move my leg a quarter of an inch, which was absolute agony. Willi pushed me hard. I think he realised more than I did the extent of my injuries
“I thought at this stage that Dungl would do for me what he had done for Niki Lauda, have me back in the car in a matter of weeks, wave his magic wand.”
It wouldn’t be a matter of weeks. One year later he received the message in the starkest possible terms.
“I went to Royal Nuffield for an op, had the muscle scraped from the bone. The blood forms a glue and sticks the muscle to the femur. The guy who did all the ops on my leg, Brian Roper, said: ‘Martin, your career as a driver of F1 cars is finished.’
“It was a crushing blow. It brought tears to my eyes. You’ve been through a lot of pain, countless operations, been in Dungl’s for 15 weeks doing rehabilitation, had to be in hospital four hours every day for a year. It was hard to take that on the chin.
“I can understand why the likes of Derek Warwick and Nigel Mansell came back after saying they’d retired from F1. Talk is cheap. You’ve got to ask what do these guys fill the void in their lives with? When you’re in F1, everyone wants a piece of you — your attention, to be associated with you. You’ve got the lifestyle that goes with it, the profile, the adrenaline pumping through your veins. When someone says sorry you can’t have that any more…”
Donnelly now channels his energies into his racing team, currently running Formula Fords for Michael Conway, Lewis Carter and Ben Clucas. “I’m still involved in the sport I love, but I now know there’s more to life than driving an F1 car. When you’re doing it you think there’s nothing else.”
And Martin’s Dad — happy, as ever, for his son — lives just up the road from him in Norfolk.