Don’t let that ‘Captain Nice’ nickname fool you – ‘Dark Monohue’, as he came to be known, was one tough cookie, relentless in seeking any advantage, ‘unfair’ or otherwise.
An Ivy Leaguer with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, he rewrote racing’s rules of engagement in conjunction with long-time collaborator Roger Penske – ‘The Captain’ – and regularly polished off what few breathless stragglers remained with élan in the cockpit that was ruthless verging on gleeful. They steamrollered IMSA, IROC and Can-Am, won in NASCAR (on the Riverside road course) – and helped trigger a huge spike in speed at Indianapolis in 1971 before winning it in 1972; he had been its Rookie of the Year in 1969 and finished second in 1970.
It was in 1971 that Donohue made his Grand Prix debut in a hired McLaren M19A, the set-up of which had flummoxed racers of vast experience: he sorted it – though not entirely to his fastidious liking – and finished third in the rain at Canada’s Mosport. Despite that auspicious beginning, Formula 1 would remain the one summit beyond his reach.
[Relatively easily] persuaded by Penske to end a very short retirement in order to oversee/guide/drive his eponymous F1 project, Donohue struggled to unlock the problematic PC1 during 1975 and by midseason had switched to a customer March: pragmatism was the underpinning to all the smarts that had gone before. He promptly finished fifth – albeit in the fencing at Stowe, where he was far from alone! – in a British GP rendered madcap by a cloudburst.
The week before the Austrian GP, he set a new closed-course lap record at Talladega – 221.16mph – in his keynote car: the Porsche 917-30 with which he had monstered Can-Am – to the point of extinction – in 1973. Despite aerodynamic and suspension modifications, and boosted beyond 1200bhp for the occasion, it proved twitchy in an alien environment; this baby-faced, well-mannered son of a lawyer did not want for moxie. In 1972, his 917-10 had flipped and snapped, leaving his unprotected legs dangling. Ten weeks later Donohue was back, in pain and on pole.
His crash during morning warm-up at the Österreichring was also far from routine – a burst tyre sending the March into the catch-fencing, which balled underneath and lifted it beyond the barrier, debris striking onlookers, killing one and seriously injuring another – but Donohue, knocked out briefly, looked set to shrug it off. That headache wouldn’t go, however, and he lost consciousness again in the helicopter whisking him to hospital for a check-up. He underwent emergency brain surgery – but died on the Tuesday night. He was 38.
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His legacy was powerful and lasting as a fundamental force in the increasing application of science to going quickly. There were more natural drivers, but Donohue’s willingness and ability to adapt to a car’s dynamics, the parameters of which he had set, was a sea change unappreciated – mistakenly so – by some rivals.
He likened exiting a corner at the limit to walking a tightrope. Entry speed was where the lap-time was at, however, and that, he said, was akin to jumping onto a tightrope. While blindfolded. His comprehensive and erudite explanation of his methods, in and out of the car, to co-author Paul Van Valkenburgh ensured that The Unfair Advantage remains the seminal work for those with an open mind about the ‘modern art’ of motor racing.
Donohue is the influential driver/engineer to the groundbreaking engineer/drivers of the calibre of Colin Chapman and Rudi Uhlenhaut.