Donnelly relives journey to Hell and back

BRITISH GRAND PRIX ; David Tremayne talks to a former F1 driver who beat a death sentence

He was once a headline winner, a tough and aggressive Ulsterman who beat team-mates such as Damon Hill and Jean Alesi. Today, mention of them brings immediate comment from Martin Donnelly. "Damon Hill? He once got me the sack!"

The voice has a husky, almost breathless timbre, a legacy of the day in Spain six years ago when he came as close to death as it is possible to come without making the transition permanent. His comment does not preface yet another tedious declamation by a disaffected rival. Instead, laughter tears his voice, rendering it huskier still.

"Remember the Scottish Superprix at Knockhill?" They raced there as Formula Three team-mates, lining up together at the front for what should have been a demonstration race. But such was their rivalry that, after Hill had made the better start, Donnelly pressured him into sliding off the road at the first corner, appropriately called Duffus Dip. Donnelly won, but recalled: "We were both sacked after that. The boss said he thought he had hired two professional racing drivers, our conduct was totally unacceptable, and we were out. We were reinstated after a lot of grovelling."

Both seemed destined to rise in Formula One, but on the afternoon of Friday 28 September 1990, long before Hill graduated, Donnelly's Lotus broke its front suspension entering a 90-degree right-hand corner on the Jerez circuit in Spain's sherry region. At 150mph the yellow car smacked into the barriers with a hollow sound that still sickens when dragged from the memory six years on. The impact blew the Lotus into shards. Donnelly lay helpless and exposed in the middle of the track, the back of the seat adhered to him like a tattered rucksack, legs bent at horrible angles.

Twenty-eight months of pain, disappointment and dogged rehabilitation followed, and then Donnelly climbed aboard an F1 Jordan at Silverstone. The muscle on his left leg still attached steadfastly on the bone, preventing him from bending the limb fully. But when he sped by the pits, totally committed, more than one observer turned away so companions could not see the tears. The fairytale ended there. The car malfunctioned, and he never stepped aboard one again.

"It wasn't easy putting myself back into an F1 situation," he said, "but it would not have been easy living with myself if I didn't know. But now I can say that I did it." He admits that those early days were hard. "You don't really think too much when you're watching a grand prix. It's only afterwards when you see guys like Damon or Jean on the podium or in the press room, and you think what may have been and what may not have been. Damon has done well at Williams, and I wish him well. He got there through sheer determination. He's not an absolutely blinding driver, like Senna. But he kept knocking on doors and making the most of opportunities, and he got there. Jean and I were never as buddy-buddy as myself and Damon were when we shared hotels or played golf together. But myself and Damon were also at each other's throats a lot."

After all the months of operations and physiotherapy, Donnelly was finally informed by the doctor who tended West Ham players that he sometimes had to tell footballers their professional days were over. Now he said the same thing to him. "It was then that I realised that if people like that couldn't do anything with my leg, well, Formula One wasn't gonna happen.

"I drove the Jordan out of a perverse wish to show people I could drive an F1 car, but I couldn't race one because of the stupid regulation that said you had to get out of the cockpit within five seconds, with the steering wheel attached. Which annoys me, because in the Senna and Ratzenberger accidents the first thing the marshals did was take off the steering wheels to pull the drivers out.

"The last straw for me was that Imola weekend. I'd started up my team, Martin Donnelly Racing, in Formula Vauxhall. I had a good deal with my sponsor, Talking Pages. I'd got married and I had a family. Senna was a better man than me, businesswise and driverwise. And he was dead. He'd had his millions, he'd been on the crest of a wave, but he couldn't take it with him. I'd got something. And when you put that into perspective, I can't complain."

As he looked back, Donnelly's comments were philosophical and completely without rancour. He paused, then added: "You've got Christopher Reeve, who fell off a horse and is paralysed from the neck down. Compare that to what I went through, and it just makes you realise how lucky I am to be here. And good luck to Damon. I've got no right to complain."

News
people
News
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
news
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£20000 - £21000 per annum: The Jenrick Group: This high quality manufacturer o...

The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

£30000 - £35000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical ...

Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'