My Greatest Race: Martin Donnelly

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Macau Formula Three Grand Prix, 1987

Former Lotus Grand Prix driver Martin Donnelly recalls a drunken week in the Far East when, despite a shocking hangover, he was able to beat a grid full of future F1 stars.

I’d have to say that the best race of my career was probably winning the Macau Formula Three Grand Prix in 1987. Other races were memorable – winning at Pau in F3000, at Brands Hatch twice in the same category, and setting a Mondello Park Formula Ford 2000 lap record which stood for years – but Macau meant more to me.

The night before we left for the airport I went to a party held by a good friend of mine. I wasn’t that keen to go, but my girlfriend convinced me to make the effort. At the party somebody spiked my drinks. I left there at two or three in the morning, and the arrangement was that Glenn Waters – whose Intersport team was me and Damon Hill that year – was going to come to my house and pick me up.

Next thing I knew there was a rap at the bedroom window and it was Glenn. He was going on at me and I said, “20 seconds and I’ll be there”. I rushed back in and got dressed I was packed, all I needed to do was shave and get my washbag and small bits and pieces. I rushed back out of the house and Glenn was gone. I was in a panic.

Then my girlfriend came down the street on her way to work at the local hotel. She hadn’t seen Glenn either, but it turned out he’d gone to pick up my mechanic, who was at the same party. They came back and we set off for Gatwick to get the plane.

All the way across on the plane I was, let’s say, suffering. I couldn’t sleep from nausea – I just had a massive hangover as I landed at Hong Kong. In those days you had two big car sponsors at Macau and right away we had a fair hit of PR to do in Hong Kong.

I got to the hotel, checked in and Julian Bailey was there. He’d hooked up with Thomas Danielsson, a Swede who I’d be racing against in British F3 that year. To cut a long story short Julian, Thomas and I had another major trip on the razz. I think they spiked my drink again. I can remember having to crawl up the steps of the hotel to get to my room.

The next morning we had a big press thing outside a big shopping mall called the New World Centre. There was a Watson’s area roped off, with palm trees. The guy rang me that morning and said, “Mr Donnelly you’re not in reception” and I said, “I’ve got food poisoning – I can’t come”. Eventually I felt guilty, got my overalls on and walked down to the New World Centre.

They had a tombola there where I had to pull out the winner. There were easily 150 people there watching. I had to ask them to wait for a couple of seconds, go back behind the trees and throw up. I got that out of the way, went back to the hotel and no one saw me for two days. I just lay in bed feeling absolutely terrible.

My normal race engineer Paul Jackson hadn’t made the trip to Macau, so I was being engineered by Andy Thorby. I went out for qualifying, came in during the session and he said, “I want to put another set of tyres on”. I said, “That’s not the plan – we wanted to keep them for the second session”. He said, “No – I want to see where we are with the car with this new set”. I went back out and put the car on pole position.

That was despite being sick in my helmet while I was going down the main straight. It was just dehydration and a lack of liquid. Afterwards I remember getting out of the car, running into the toilets and throwing up again.

To top it all we then had a typhoon, which meant that second qualifying was cancelled and I kept my pole position. It also meant that the race had to be run over one extended heat instead of the usual two shorter ones.

Thankfully we had a good set-up on the car and the team worked well. I got a good start and managed to hold off Jan Lammers and Stefano Modena. There was a big first corner pile-up involving Jean Alesi and Joachim Winkelhock, then Emanuele Pirro went off at the second corner. The three of us at the front got away – Lammers was an expert there but I was able to hang on.

One thing that helped me was that I was using a six-speed gearbox which I also used for the other fast tracks at Thruxton and the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit. The TOM’S Toyota engine had no top-end power – it had good torque but it ran out of breath around 6750rpm. The ‘box was heavy, but we gained from keeping the revs in the right power band. When I went for top gear it would fall back to where it was to it was stronger instead of running high revs all the time.

I needed it because the circuit is four miles long, and flat-out for virtually half of it. You’re tempted to run as little wing as possible, but the other half is very bumpy and you need a rhythm to get it quick. There’s a series of blind corners up the hill. You can’t get them flat but you’ve got to get the resonance of the car right as it lands off a bump, not square but at an angle, so that when it takes off again you’re in the right direction for the next corner. You need to be confident because it’s scary – it’s total commitment.

Thanks to winning there I became Formula Three champion of the world and got a test drive with Benetton at Estoril. Then I went straight to the FIA prizegiving in Paris, and there I was among all the other hobnobs of the time.

Macau is fantastic. It’s a real end-of-season festival where everyone has a good time, but it’s also a very important event. That trophy takes pride of possession in my house in the middle of the shelf above the fireplace.

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