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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."