My own goal; Robin Donovan

The 39-year-old former national sports car champion, who last year finished sixth at Le Mans with Derek Warwick, next weekend competes in his 10th consecutive 24-hour race. He is hoping that some of the disasters of earlier years will not be repeated
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LE MANS is not a motor race with many amusing moments. You drive night and day through all weathers on what are mainly ordinary roads at speeds of over 200mph. The first time I went there I remember that Richard Jones and I drove round the circuit in a hired Renault 5. Because he was much more experienced than me he pointed out things like a bump on the Mulsanne Straight just before what seems like only a kink when you're driving an ordinary car but at 200mph is more like a proper bend. He told me that after hitting the bump I should count to three and then turn to get round the corner. When I hit the bump during my first practice in the dark the kink seemed miles away, but I counted to three anyway and screamed. Somehow I came out the other side.

It is a frightening race, but I got used to doing over 200mph in the dark and blinding rain. In that first race I was flagged to stop racing because there were sparks coming off the car on the Mulsanne when I had only about three laps to go. I ignored the flags because I was on the last stint and nothing was going to stop me in my first Le Mans. When we finished we found out that the battery had fallen out of the car and was brushing the track. I got used to things like the headlights going out at 200mph and, in 1990, the seat mountings breaking at 160. I couldn't understand why the car was going forwards and I was going backwards.

One of the curious things about Le Mans is that the weather at one point on the circuit can be very different to that on another. In 1992 my unnecessary weather report back to the pits caused real problems. It was pouring with rain and I was radioing in. There's a button on the steering wheel to allow you to speak to the pits, and what you tend to do when the adrenalin is flowing is to start to speak before you've pressed it. Then you carry on talking after you've taken your finger off the button.

The result was that they were getting a very blurred message back at the pits. That year the problem was accentuated by the fact that I was driving for the Kremer team, which is German. I was doing a double stint and went into the pits to refuel and change tyres. But when I stopped the entire German team, who were rolling out a new gearbox, came rushing up to me and tore the rear end off the bodywork.

They were saying: "What is wrong with fourth gear?" I didn't know what they were talking about and replied: "Nothing is wrong with fourth gear." But they insisted: "On the radio you said there was something wrong with fourth gear." "No," I countered, "what I said was: 'It's foggy out here'."

I suppose it was Derek Bell who scored the best own goal affecting my career. When I was a kid my dad introduced me to him. He took me motor racing at Crystal Palace when he was driving Formula 2 and to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Later I wrote to him when I was still at school saying I wanted to become a racing driver. He told me to go to college and once I had a career behind me to think about going motor racing but that he wasn't particularly for it. It was 15 years later that I met him in Malaysia when we were both doing the World Sports Car Championship and he came up and said "What the hell are you doing here?" and I said: "I'm racing against you, Derek." I just hope I can do his sort of times when I'm 53.