Two years, four months and seven days after the crash which almost killed him, Donnelly was back, albeit briefly, in a Formula One car.
He does not torment himself with the fantasy of competing once more at this level, acknowledging that is an unrealistic objective, yet he did dare to dream of a day such as this, when he was again in command of a 700 bhp beast, proving to himself and a perhaps sceptical world that he could confront the great unknown of a grand prix circuit.
The 28-year-old Ulsterman held one of his former bosses, Eddie Jordan, to the promise of a drive and was not about to be dissuaded by the damp, foggy environment he encountered at Silverstone yesterday. He lifted his still rigid left leg - which he supports with a padded shoe - into the cockpit and, watched by his pregnant wife, Diane, ushered the Jordan-Hart out of the pits.
He managed little more than a couple of comparatively gentle laps, his progress interrupted by a fuel-pump problem and then curtailed by an oil leak. However, the composure he demonstrated, the buzz of the occasion and above all the sense of fulfilment were worth all the pole positions in the record books.
Donnelly, who was severely injured when his Lotus went into a barrier during practice for the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, said: 'It's been a long time since then, but Eddie made me a promise and that gave me something to aim for.
'This sport almost took my life, though I knew nothing about it. I didn't know if something of that day would come back to me, whether I'd have the bottle to go into the corners, whether something would go. But I couldn't have lived with myself if I hadn't gone through with it.
'I can now say I've done it and I'm sure that on a better day I could have given it more of a go. I've got to be happy and content with what I've done, though. I've had several operations to reach this goal quicker, but you can't cheat nature. Time is the best healer.'
Donnelly's inability to climb out of a cockpit, without removing the steering wheel, in five seconds precludes him from competing in Formula One. He is examining the potential of further surgery, in the United States, although a return to grand prix racing is not his priority in life.
He said: 'Physically I am able to drive a Formula One car, the trouble is it takes me 35 seconds to get out of one with the steering wheel in place.
'It's unlikely there's a future for me now in Formula One, but more than anything I would like to be able to walk normally. After that, motor racing is a bonus.'
France's Formula One future will be decided next week. Jean- Marie Balestre, the French Federation president, said guarantees demanded by the world body, Fisa, over a ban on tobacco advertising had been given. The 4 July race was struck off because of a tobacco promotion ban and legal threats against teams whose main sponsors were tobacco firms.
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