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'I was asphyxiated & had gone a pale shade of blue': Martin Donnelly on staying alive

25 years ago exactly, Irish Formula 1 driver Martin Donnelly should’ve died but miraculously clung to life and survived.

This article contains graphic video footage and descriptions that some readers may find disturbing. 

“Martin Donnelly lied like a mangled puppet in the middle of the track. With eight minutes of Friday’s qualifying session left to run, his Lotus had collided with a barrier behind the paddock at 170 miles per hour. His car had split in half and the Ulsterman had been thrown clear, the remains of his seat still strapped to his back.”         

Chapter 1: Crash

MARTIN DONNELLY REMEMBERS nothing about the crash that should’ve killed him. It happened at Jerez in southwest Spain, a lifetime ago.

There are minor details that stick in the memory about that weekend but nothing more.

He remembers the type of car he hired at the airport. He remembers the few days spent relaxing at a villa in Obra. He remembers ten-pin bowling with a friend. And then there’s just black.

“I don’t remember driving the car at all”, he says.

“I don’t remember signing the option letter or the contract on the morning of the race. When I was in hospital, I had a lot of journalists who came to see me months after the crash happened and we had a wee chat. But I didn’t remember it happening because there was no memory retention until Christmas of 1990.”

AUTOSPORT

Just a month before the accident, the cover of AUTOSPORT magazine pondered whether the then-26-year-old from Belfast was the future of Formula 1.

‘Is Donnelly the next Mansell’? they asked.

He had steadily impressed in the late-1980s, shining for Eddie Jordan Racing as a team-mate of Jean Alesi’s in Formula 3000.

Still, his performances weren’t just catching the eye of motor journalists and in July 1989, he received a call from the Arrows-Ford F1 team, making his debut as a stand-in at the French Grand Prix.

MOTOR RACING GRAND PRIX FORMULA ONE Martin Donnelly pictured in May 1990 - months before his life-changing crash. Source: Neal Simpson/EMPICS Sport

It was enough for Lotus, who he had already tested for, to bring him in for the 1990 season. But the team struggled – engine trouble forcing Donnelly to retire from a litany of races.

Regardless, he was a young man in his debut F1 season, learning more with each passing race. But there were other reasons to be happy. As he prepared for the Spanish Grand Prix, there was some good news.

On the morning of the race, three hours before the accident happened, Lotus signed me for $5 million. That was a great period of my life – I had signed to be the number one driver for the team in the 1991 season and I also had three other contracts on my table.

“I was a bit of a rising star, somebody people wanted to be associated with and do something with. You don’t appreciate it at the time because you just take things for granted.”

On Friday, 28th September 1990, Donnelly’s life changed. But he refuses to distance himself from the events at Jerez. In fact, he’s reminded of them every day.

“I have a frame in my office with three items in it. The first item is a PR card from Lotus for the race with what Derek Warwick thought about the circuit, what I thought about the circuit and what our chances were and a little map of the track. Next to that is the actual option letter that was signed by Lotus and myself on the morning of the accident and under it is a residual cheque for $40,000 which was my retainer fee.”

Source: Raplapeno60/YouTube

There was eight minutes of the qualifying session remaining when Donnelly’s front-suspension failed at a fast right-hand turn and he collided, head-on, with the barrier.

I hit the barrier at 167 miles per hour and the impact went through 42 G (to put it in context, the force experienced by someone during the opening of a parachute is about 6G). Thankfully for me, the tub was lightweight because we had a massive V12 Lamborghini engine and the tub had to be modified because we couldn’t get into it. So the fact it was light, when it hit the barrier it shattered and I went with the inertia – that’s what saved my life.”

The car was crushed, broken in half by the impact. Donnelly was flung through the air, landing 40 metres further up the track.

As he lay motionless on the ground, the TV cameras focused and zoomed in.

The pictures were disturbing.

Beneath him, one of his legs stuck out at a disgusting angle. It was impossible to figure out what leg it was. He was a mangled mess, slumped in a heap. The footage was tough to stomach – it was made worse by the fact that Donnelly’s seat was still attached to him.

Chapter 2: Injuries

Everyone thought Donnelly was dead, including F1 driver Roberto Moreno who was watching qualifying from the very corner where the crash occurred.

What added to the immediate concerns was the delay in track-side doctor and F1 chief medic Sid Watkins reaching the scene.

Formula One Motor Racing - Spanish Grand Prix Sid Watkins pictured with Eddie Jordan in 2000. Both men played prominent roles in Martin Donnelly's life. Source: John Marsh/EMPICS Sport

“It took Sid Watkins eight and a half minutes to get to me because he was at the pit lane exit and I was at the pit entrance”, says Donnelly.

They lifted my visor and could see I was asphyxiated and had gone a pale shade of blue. He stuck two tubes up my nose, down my throat and into my airway. He got me resuscitated that way. Then he cut the straps of my helmet and took it off but all of these things had to be done very slowly, very carefully. There was a lot of blood because my bone had come through the top of my femur and it burst an artery so not only was Sid trying to keep me stabilised but he was trying to stem the blood.”

The extent of his injuries weren’t known until he was in a Seville hospital. And as the medical team began to understand the severity of the trauma, they knew the worst was still to come.

“Sid Watkins knew my body would go into shock so they had given me a massive injection that froze every muscle in my body so that I wouldn’t move. They strapped me to the back of a stretcher, put me in the back of an air ambulance and flew me out to the airport and off to a London hospital. And then, just as he’d predicted, my lungs, my kidneys, all my internal organs just went into shutdown. I was on a respirator for six weeks and on kidney dialysis for a month – every day for three hours. And the machine that they used – the button wasn’t working – so my father had to stand there for three hours with his finger on that button to keep the machine working, every single day.”

Formula One Motor Racing - British Grand Prix - Silverstone 1990 Donnelly competing in the British Grand Prix for Lotus in July 1990. Source: Steve Etherington/EMPICS Sport

While at the Royal London Hospital, Donnelly was in a medically-induced coma for weeks. Twice, his heart stopped. For a long time, it was touch and go whether he’d survive.

“The doctor told my mother that if she wanted to say her goodbyes to me, then that was the right time to do it. So, she went and got the hospital priest to come in and give me the last rites.”

There was also concern that Donnelly’s injuries weren’t just physical.

“There was a time afterwards, when I came out of the coma, that I was looking at people with my eyes open but not talking and they weren’t sure if there was some brain damage because of the lack of oxygen to the brain.”

Slowly, as he showed signs of improvement, other drivers arrived at the hospital to see him. But Donnelly looked like a different person – attached to so many machines and unable to properly communicate, he had also lost a massive amount of weight.

I was like a skeleton and went down to 53 kilos – not even 8 and a half stone – and my body was pretty transparent. There were tubes attached to my head and I wasn’t able to talk, I didn’t even know people were there. But Derek Warwick wanted to see me so Diane, my fiancee, pulled the curtains back so he could talk to me. Derek took one look, fainted and collapsed to the floor.”

Chapter 3: Senna

Donnelly had been immersed in racing from infancy. And the lure of doing it for a living was too good to turn down, even after he had secured a place at Queens University to study mechanical engineering.

“I got a call from a guy called Frank Nolan saying he ‘wanted to take some young Irish buck to England and kick some Tommy ass’. But it was a hard call for me. I didn’t want to give up my future career – but after meeting the Dean at Queens, he allowed me to take a year out and keep my place and that gave my the confidence to head off to England, knowing that if it didn’t happen for me, I could come back and pick up where I left off.”

It was the early-1980s when Donnelly arrived in Norfolk and cut his teeth in British Formula Three. From there, it was rapid progress.

Motor Racing - British Grand Prix Ayrton Senna, who Donnelly first met in the early 1980s and who raced to the scene of his accident in 1990. Source: Sport and General/S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Soon, he met the acquaintance of a young Brazilian called Ayrton Senna da Silva, who had arrived in the UK to race in Formula Ford.

“He and I used to go out for dinner all the time and we got to know each other by doing a few bits and pieces together. We used to have the craic with each other, to stave off the boredom, really – we used to go out and fly his remote-controlled planes at Snetterton (a circuit in Norfolk). Anytime we met up, we always had time for each other.”

Years later, when both had made it, near-death would reunite them.

Source: Aaron VanPoole/YouTube

In Asif Kapadia’s brilliant 2010 documentary, ‘Senna’, the iconic driver is in the pits when he watches his friend crash on the live TV feed.

“Practice was stopped”, he said afterwards.

“I heard from different people that the accident with Donnelly was bad, was too bad, a disaster. And then I decided to go to the place to see myself.”

Donnelly picks up the story.

“Ayrton jumped the fence, went across onto the circuit and watched Sid Watkins revive a young man who he had an association with. I wasn’t a stranger to him, he knew who I was. When Sid cut the straps off the helmet, he offered it to Ayrton to hold. I have pictures of Ayrton standing there, holding my helmet while Sid is trying to revive me.”

Despite the shock of seeing a friend close to death, Senna went back to the pits, got in his McLaren and promptly recorded the fastest ever time at Jerez for a Friday qualifying session.

“It shows you the kind of man he was”, says Donnelly.

A friend was fighting for his life. He had seen the gory bits but put it to one side and got in the car. At his press conference, he explained why he did what he did. It’s like what people say about falling off a horse and the best thing is to get right back on it – that’s why Ayrton got back in the car. Afterwards, he went and sat with Sid Watkins for two hours, wanting to know what he did when tending to me and why. He wanted to know and learn.”

Chapter 4: Recovery

As his injuries healed, Donnelly still believed he would return to Formula 1. There was widespread damage to the lower half of his body but he looked upon it as just another obstacle to scale. And the work began in earnest to get back to full fitness.

Formula One Motor Racing - British Grand Prix - Silverstone 1990 Donnelly at Silverstone in July 1990. Source: Sport and General/S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

“I shattered the left leg to bejesus. The right leg, I think I fractured. The collarbone is still broken – they never even tried to reset that. There were a lot of internal injuries and because of the amount of wreckage and fractures in the left leg, it’s now an inch and 5/8s shorter than my right. I have a limp because when the artery burst in my knee I couldn’t bend it and the blood effectively forms a glue and it glued the muscle to my femur. So, I’ve had two unsuccessful quadriplasties done to try and clean the bone and get the movement back.”

Donnelly spent almost five months in hospital. On February 14th 1991, he discharged himself, against the wishes of Sid Watkins.

He headed for Austria and Willi Dungl’s special bio-training clinic.

Dungl was regarded as a miracle-worker in F1 circles and Donnelly believed his rehabilitation would be fast-tracked once the veteran medic got his hands on him.

“When Niki Lauda had his accident, Dungl had him back behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car in six weeks. When Gerhard Berger had his fire at Imola in 1989, Dungl had him back in a week.

Niki Lauda Niki Lauda had Willi Dungl to thank for getting him back in a Formula 1 car six weeks after his near-fatal accident. Donnelly believed Dungl could conjure a similar miracle for him. Source: AP/Press Association Images

I thought that I’d get to Dungl, he’d wave his magic wand and in two or three months, I’d be back in F1. And that was my naivety. I didn’t realise the extent of my injuries. When I got to Dungl’s, I couldn’t walk. There was a wheelchair and I couldn’t even get out of it. The first thing they did was to try and get my strength built up and teach me how to walk again. I was at Dungl’s for thirteen weeks – just over three months. That was physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, magnetic therapy – seven hours every day, including Saturdays and Sundays.”

But despite the toil and sweat, Donnelly’s rehab continued. It was never-ending. And the years began to slip away.

“I came back to the UK to have my first quadriplasty done and then went back to Dungl’s. After that, it was off to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital – about twelve miles from my house – and I did physiotherapy every day for a year. Then, I had a couple of more operations on the kneecap. In all, I’d say the physiotherapy and the operations stopped about four years ago.”

Snetterton/Hague Donnelly (right) pictured in 1997 at Snetterton Race Track in Norfolk. Source: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

In 1993, in a cold room in Harley Street, the then-chief surgeon told Donnelly that he’d never race a Formula 1 car again.

For the first time in his life, he burst into tears.

“That was the lowest point”, he remembers.

“Because all the physiotherapy you’ve gone through, all the pain, all the operations, all the pushing, for someone to come into you and say it was all for no reason and no gain…”

His voice trails off.

Within weeks, Donnelly was at Silverstone driving a Jordan car. Just to prove a point.

“That was basically to give the finger to that surgeon. I never got the chance to say to him face-to-face: ‘You may be the chief surgeon at Harley Street but you’ve never come across a guy called Martin Donnelly who has the resolve and determination to prove you wrong.”

Chapter 5: Reflection

In 1994, his old friend Senna died in a crash at Imola. And Donnelly finally began to face up to reality.

The final nail for me was Ayrton’s death. He had his millions in Brazil. He had no family to leave it to.”

“I’m still involved in sport, I have a fantastic family and sometimes you just have to say ‘Let it go’. The reason I had the quadriplasties done wasn’t so much to try and get back into F1 or into racing but to be able to kick a football or go for a bike ride with a young family – just to have a bit more normality to my life.”

There had been an inevitable frustration throughout his recovery and it was hard not to feel bitter as he watched former colleagues, friends of his, go on to bigger and better things.

Damon Hill/Marble Arch Damon Hill, who won the World Championship in 1996, had been a team-mate of Donnelly's years before. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“You’re there pushing and trying to make it happen. When I saw Damon Hill get into a competitive Williams car and become world champion…I knew I had the legs on him from when he was my team-mate years before. And that was frustrating. But then there was Ayrton’s accident and that was the big reality check.”

Donnelly still has a close relationship with Lotus and remains heavily involved with British motorsport. In the last number of years, he’s also been a driver steward at various Formula 1 races in Korea, Canada and Abu Dhabi.

He has more reason than most to feel aggrieved, to feel depressed, to feel angry. But he doesn’t. The last twenty years have provided plenty of perspective.

“If you sit down and think about what could’ve been – the money, the houses, the lifestyle – it would drive you crazy. I’ve got a family, I work in sport, I still race and life’s good. A few million in the bank account I wouldn’t say no to but you can’t have everything in life.”

But Donnelly has his life and that’s a miracle in itself.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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