A promising career cut short
- Mattijs Diepraam, Felix Muelas
- 8W June 2001 issue
- 1989 French GP - Five debuts in one race, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Johnny Herbert - If it hadn't been for that day at Brands, by Mattijs Diepraam
Rhône-Poulenc GP de France (9 July 1989)
Although he lacked the charisma of an international motorsport superstar Droopy-faced Ulsterman Martin Donnelly usually did the business on-track. Not a smooth talker like former F3000 team mates Johnny Herbert or Jean Alesi, he nevertheless was on their pace most of the time and his graduation to F1 was taken for granted in very the much the same way Johnny and Jean were welcomed to the top class of motor racing.
Coming from F Ford 2000 Martin was an immediate hit in British F3, taking four wins and third in the 1986 championship. In 1987 Donnelly made a mid-season switch to the Cellnet-backed Intersport team to return to the winner's circle. Re-signing with Intersport for 1988 he was on his way to F3000 halfway through the season, much to the dismay of Intersport. Joining Eddie Jordan Racing, the Ulsterman quickly found his feet with the Irishman's team, replacing Alessandro Santin in EJR's Reynard 88D-003. In fact, debuting at Brands, he and Johnny Herbert swept the front row, Johnny ahead of Martin. But whereas Johnny got involved in the infamous multi-car pile-up that not only eliminated Grouillard, Spence, Evans, Wallace, Suzuki, Foitek, Langes and Moreno but also determined Herbert's future GP career, Martin Donnelly easily strolled home to a win by 28 seconds over Pierluigi Martini.
With Herbert out for the rest of the season, Martin was promoted to team leader and he certainly made the most of it. At the Birmingham Superprix he finished a close second to later champion Roberto Moreno and repeated the feat at Le Mans Bugatti, this time following home Olivier Grouillard. At Zolder, having started from pole he scored his first F3000 zero, retiring on lap 22 with gearbox trouble, handing Grouillard his second consecutive win. At the season-closer at Dijon, however, he fought a tremendous battle with Grouillard, Mark Blundell, Moreno, and French young gun Eric Bernard, who had joined Roberto Moreno mid-season to expand Bromley Motorsport's effort to two cars. In the end, Martin narrowly beat Bernard after Blundell and Moreno had dropped by the wayside.
It had been a magnificent half-season for Martin: two wins and two second places out of five starts, vaulting him to third overall in the championship, just four points short of title runner-up Grouillard, with Roberto Moreno just 13 points clear as the champion.
Naturally, Eddie Jordan did not hesitate to sign Martin for a full 1989 campaign, as he also secured the backing of tobacco giant Camel. To counter the DAMS Lola effort that Jordan feared to be very competitive with its strong pairing of Erik Comas and Eric Bernard the team signed their own French F3 hotshoe, Jean Alesi.
At the opening race of the season, the 41st International Trophy at Silverstone, Martin had the upper hand, as was to be expected. Lining up fourth on the grid, following Philippe Favre, Bernard and surprising Swede Thomas Danielsson (whatever happened to him?), and beating Eddie Irvine and his team mate, Martin looked good for the race but saw his engine expire on lap 28. Jean Alesi took fourth, behind Danielsson, Favre and Blundell. The next race was the Rome GP at Vallelunga (another former non-championship GP event usurped by the F3000 championship) and Martin looked to have things sealed with a dominant win from pole, only to be disqualified to conveniently give way to home boy Fabrizio Giovanardi. As it was, the nosecone of his Reynard hadn't been subjected to the mandatory FIA crash test. It was a bitter blow for Martin as the car wasn't illegal per se. It's just that the team overlooked a vital procedure which leaves no room for error. You can't miss a crash test by the allowed 5-day margin... They missed it, period.
Meanwhile, team mate Alesi was getting the hang of this F3000 thing. While at Vallelunga he had qualified a sorry 18th, he now was ahead of Martin on the grid at car-wrecking Pau, and from third at the start he took a comfortable win ahead of Apicella, while contenders Bernard and Donnelly were among the many to make the classic mistake at Foch corner, sliding their cars in the barriers. Jerez became a DAMS walkover, Bernard leading Comas, while Alesi took another two useful points. Martin was still without points, and what looked to have been a championship challenge from the onset was now in serious danger.
So the GP deal for Paul Ricard came as a God-sent gift, as several F1 teams were planning a mid-season driver reshuffle. Arrows were looking for a temporary replacement for Derek Warwick, who had injured himself in a karting event, and with the cream of the F3000 field being snapped up for Ricard, Martin seemed a good deal for the Footwork-backed team.
Along with Donnelly, no less than three others took the seats of several 1989 regulars. First of all, Michele Alboreto was let go by Tyrrell, as the Marlboro-supported Italian veteran wasn't allowed to race for a Tyrrell team that had just done a Camel deal - the fashion in late-80s, early-90s GP racing being to align yourself with either Marlboro or Camel. The logical man to fill the void was Jean Alesi of the Camel-backed EJR team. Having said that, Ken Tyrrell asked for Donnelly's services first but Eddie Jordan had to inform Ken that Martin had already been snapped up by Arrows. "But don't worry, Ken. I have this other guy in my team. I know, he's French and he's got this Italian attitude but he knows the track so I suppose he will do for Ricard." So that's how old Ken got his reputation for talent-spotting...
Meanwhile in another Camel-aligned team Eric Bernard - touted by many as the new Prost - took over from Dalmas at Larrousse to make his well-earned GP debut, as Yannick had yet to fully recover from his sudden bout of Legionnaires disease. In the French team no-one seemed to be bothered that Bernard was racing for the Marlboro-backed DAMS team in F3000, leading to speculation that Michele's departure had nothing to do with sponsorship clashes.
And finally, Johnny Herbert's suspect performance at Benetton following his fantastic 4th place at Jacarepagua meant that the Italians replaced him with Emanuele Pirro. So it happened that the 1989 French GP saw the most mid-season debutants of all events in modern GP racing.
In qualifying Martin was brilliant, as he was not only the best of the new boys, one place ahead of Bernard, two ahead of Alesi, but also a full eight positions ahead of his experienced team mate Cheever, while Pirro lingered in 25th. Except for the three first rows it was a strange grid, with Bernard's team mate Alliot producing one of his qualifying blinders to line up 7th, while the two prequalifying Onyxes ended up 11th and 13th - Gachot's surprise 11th meaning that he was the fifth GP debutant of the race. Having failed to prequalify until Ricard, the Gallo-Belgo-Luxemburgian European had been entering events since the start of the season but this would be his genuine race debut. At Lotus, an uninspired Nelson Piquet was down in 20th position, outqualified by Satoru Nakajima.
In the race Donnelly did a steady job to bring the car home in 12th position but the fact is that he had to recover lost ground from the start, having become a victim of the monumental start accident which had Mauricio Gugelmin's March flipping over. It meant that Martin had to start from the pitlane in the spare car set up for Cheever. Fighting the car he once went up the escape road at the end of the Mistral straight, so yet more time was lost.
Through all this, Martin's thunder was seriously stolen by his EJR team mate Jean Alesi who stormed through the decimated field to finish fourth, at one time having run in second place. And this was after Tyrrell team leader Jonathan Palmer had thought he had this French upstart covered by himself taking 9th on the grid. After the race the doctor admitted he was flabbergasted. As the season wore on his astonishment over Alesi's performances - or his disappointment over his own lack of pace - grew even bigger.
For Martin, the Arrows seat at Ricard had been a one-off all along but Ken Tyrrell wasted no time in signing Alesi for the rest of the season and beyond. The French Sicilian had to honour his EJR contract, of course, plus he was still aiming at lifting the F3000 title in his first try. Benetton outcast Johnny Herbert was recruited to replace him at conflicting GP dates.
As the F3000 season continued, the Mediterreanean GP at the dusty Enna-Pergusa track inflicted even more harm to the title contenders as a race of attrition saw Andrea Chiesa win ahead of just four other cars - although Martin did take fastest lap of the race before crashing out.
Then the F3000 circus returned to Brands Hatch, the scene of Martin's triumphant debut the year before. In a sudden reversal of fortunes the EJR team took a dominant one-two, Martin leading home Jean by 14 seconds, their Reynards turning around their qualifying form as they beat the DAMS duo, who had monopolised the front row but now had to console themselves with third and fourth - precisely the grid positions of the two EJR cars.
It was just the win Martin needed in order to show that he had not lost his trade, but all the same the momentum was clearly with Jean Alesi now. After his huge French GP success Jean was definitely on a high. Brimming with confidence he had taken pole at Enna and a close second to Donnelly at Brands but starting at Birmingham Alesi really set the ball rolling, Jean stamping his authority on the next two F3000 races. In the Superprix he beat longshot title rival Apicella while at Spa he proved too big a meal for main opponent Erik Comas, Erik's pole and fastest lap notwithstanding. The Le Mans Bugatti race was another whitewash for the DAMS homeboys, Erik taking one back on a podium full of Eri(k/c)s, while Jean could not do better than 6th, in front of Martin. Still, that one point was enough for Jean, even if the Dijon race would be another DAMS one-two (which it would be). Meanwhile, Martin's season slipped away with a lowly 17th, 2 laps down.
By that time Donnelly had done a deal to join Lotus for a full season of F1, joining Derek Warwick, the man he replaced at Paul Ricard. Having done a deal for Lamborghini engines, the Peter Warr-led outfit were looking for an improvement in form after a disastrous post-Honda season which left ex-champ Piquet seriously disinterested and Nakajima looking for a Japanese manufacturer-backed ride. Having said that, the Lambo engines were almost guaranteed to prevent the team climbing further up the field than halfway along the grid. And so, in fact, after a slow start in the away races at Phoenix and Interlagos where Donnelly outqualified Warwick big time, the cars were steady midfield performers, qualifying between 10th and 20th spot.
During the season Warwick and Donnelly were usually evenly matched, Warwick the faster driver in practice, while Donnelly showed better pace during the race (with a second fastest race lap in France as the highlight of the season). Still the experienced Warwick delivered the beleaguered team three points, whereas Donnelly missed out on one at the Hungaroring.
Then came Jerez.
Formula 1 had not seen any life-threatening accidents for some time now and was living in a cocoon of self-believed safety. That is, until Martin Donnelly's Lotus violently hit the Armco at the ultra-fast right-hander before the hairpin leading onto the pit straight. Our man Felix Muelas was present on the spot and the aftermath of the accident was enough to make him rethink his marshalling career. He quit right on the spot.
"28th September 1990. The day I became sick at heart and the day that I decided to quit my marshalling activities. For good. Forever.
Long gone were the days at Jarama, where we would traditionally spend Wednesday to Sunday on the track, first within the flags team, that would traditionally involve cleaning the track, jumping to help drivers, extinguishers ready, cooking ourselves under the sun and basically being part of the races at all levels. Then came the days were some of us would be taught the basics of the technical marshalling, being subject of examinations to get us prepared - it was tough in my case, not naturally gifted to the obvious rules of physics and measurements - and many more years and races after, finally a member of the "Tecs".
That "upgrade" meant that many things would remain the same (it was an unpaid job, of course) whilst other things would involve a very serious degree of responsibility on our shoulders.
And, of course, there were politics... but that was not a big surprise, really. We had almost "lived" politics since we were kids, and I'm talking about the infamous Jarama scandals here... The early eighties meant that our weekends were basically spent on rallies, and I have to say I hated the job at the time. So we thought it might look like a good idea to try and take over control at the Federación, and we went to the elections to see if we could modify a couple of things from the inside. We were beaten fair and square. End of politics, period.
The opening of Jerez meant, amongst other things, that we were suddenly needed again. All the Jarama-based marshals... Big celebrations, back to school, back to long hours of learning and discussing the FIA Yellow Book... and back to the track. The Jerez years were extraordinary, we were older and maybe wiser, and the weekends when international races were held were few... almost a luxury. Not that we would not attend any national races but after all those years the real challenge was to do a decent and not quite so polemic job once or twice a year.
In the meantime, the drivers had suffered from a metamorphosis. Suddenly they were less easy with us, they would complain or simply ignore our queries to inspect their helmets or their fireproof overalls. What had happened to our heroes? I remember having those thoughts at the end of the eighties. On Sundays after the races, when we had to take care of the "parc fermé" being exactly that in order to make our scrutineering right, we had the sensation that times were running faster than us...
And then came that 28th September. If you remember the Jerez track, the entry to the pitlane was made so that the final corner before the main straight was cut short, and drivers had to pass - or stop - by us. We had the place located just at the entry so that we could see cars coming and then, when stopped, help the mechanics push them back to the pitlane.
The first abnormal thing that left us speechless was the noise. A horrendous bang so close that instants after that it seemed like all the noise surrounding us had stopped. We looked at each other (I cannot remember whether we were working on a car at the moment) and started running. It was obvious that an accident had happened, and it had happened quite near to us. We saw the track marshals running too (they were wearing their bright green overalls) on the exterior of the track - we were on the inside, running on the grass and on the track itself. There was a cloud of smoke up there, at the exit of the Enzo Ferrari corner, a flat-in-sixth 160mph leading onto the small straight downhill where we were. We got there in something like a minute, and the sight was appalling.
Carlos was shouting "Don't touch him!" - as he knew the ambulance would be arriving any moment - and I was paralysed. A body was lying on the track, motionless - I was convinced he was dead - with the seatbelts attached to a piece of the car, the bulkhead, and he had one twisted leg protruding at an angle. Of the car, well, there were bits and pieces everywhere distracting us for a moment - one of our duties had been for years to reconstruct the accidents on the track - so I remember that this algorithm took over our minds for a couple of seconds. But as soon as the answer came out of the brain - "What the hell happened here?" - we were back to poor Martin Donnelly.
I stood there watching whilst the body was being taken care of by the medical team, and later we heard with relief that, although very seriously injured, Donnelly was alive. But I had made a decision, and I have not regretted it since. It was time to quit. Not that I was not aware of the risks, I had been living with them for years, but up to that day it always seemed like if, come the moment, we could help. Not that day. I was so paralysed in front of what I was convinced was Donnelly's final moment in life and felt so stupid not being able to know what to do that I just concluded my time was over.
For years after, in some of my nightmares, that Lotus disintegrates and Donnelly is left on the track, alone. I don't understand the accident, the sun disappears and it starts raining. And then, after a couple of seconds, he makes a weird movement with his leg to put it in place, stands up, starts walking over to me and says with an Irish accent, "Thanks, mate. I'll be walking to the pits myself, don't worry. I know the way."
The good news is that Martin Donnelly survived, and that he is alive and well. I'm alive and well too, and although Donnelly never came to know about my nightmares - and probably wouldn't have cared much, I see his point - his accident sent me back to the library from where maybe, just maybe, I should never have left."
F1 would be safe for a couple of years before a new lull in safety awareness set in, leading to the dramatic events at Imola in 1994. That was before Martin Donnelly could even think of a comeback to racing. Martin's rehabilition became a slow and painful process and eventually took several years of his life. Even after his full recovery Martin's return to the tracks has been limited to just a handful of historic outings, as all of his attention has been devoted to running his own F Vauxhall team, which graduated to F3 in 1997, entering Dallara-Opels for Mario Haberfeld and Mark Shaw. The Brazilian delivered by giving the team two wins in its debut year, finishing a distant third to title contenders Nicolas Minassian and Jonny Kane, the latter winning by virtue of consistency rather than race wins.
In 1998 a choice for Sodemo-tuned Renault engines seemed a wise decision, as Minassian had rattled off the wins in the previous season. But while 'works' driver Enrique Bernoldi continued where Haberfeld had left off, bringing in victory after victory for Promatecme, MDR's Jamie Spence and Warren Hughes of Portman Arrows were suffering from the lack of attention given to the secondary teams. Indeed, Donnelly decided to ditch the Renault in favour of the ubiquitous Mugen-Honda engine but Spence remained a midfield runner. In the meantime ex-MDR man Haberfeld took a last-gasp title in the plum Stewart seat Jonny Kane had vacated.
The rough and tumble of F3 racing proved too much for MDR and the outfit packed up at the end of 1998. In 1999 the Renault still proved to be a potent powersource, powering one Jenson Button to third in the championship. That year Donnelly, his team having pulled out of competitive national racing, made his last racing appearance at the wheel of a McLaren M8D. In the International Supersports race at Silverstone the man from Belfast, now older and wiser, showed he still had what it takes. He won.
Reader's Why by Josh Lintz
When I woke up in the morning of the French GP, I checked the newspaper for the list of qualifying times. At the top were Prost, Senna, and the usual suspects of the 1989 championship trail. But as I looked down the list, a few unfamiliar names were present: Martin Donnelly, Emanuele Pirro, Eric Bernard, Bertrand Gachot, and Jean Alesi. Did the local paper make a mistake and accidentally merge the list of an F3000 race instead? (It was not uncommon to find NASCAR, Indycar, and F1 drivers "mixing it up" due to typographical errors in the daily Sun-Sentinel...) The names were vaguely familiar to me (reading the back pages of Autocourse helped me identify them), so this would be an interesting race!
It turned out that Derek Warwick had injured himself in a charity karting event, and on the advice of a doctor, was recuperating for the weekend. Johnny Herbert was "rested" after failing to qualify at Canada three weeks earlier, so he was replaced by Pirro. Bernard was replacing Dalmas who had not recovered fully from his bout of Legionnaire's Disease in 1988. Gachot had finally qualified the second Onyx, and Jean Alesi had a weekend off from Eddie Jordan's F3000 team; he was replacing Alboreto, who had a contract dispute due to Tyrrell's new Camel livery. Michele had Marlboro as a personal sponsor, and it just so happened that Jordan's F3000 cars were painted yellow...
Donnelly drove a clean race, although halfway through he left his braking late for the first turn, and went up the escape road. He rejoined and finished in 12th place. Alesi was the star of the race, Bernard had almost finished in 6th (his engine exploded on the last lap), Pirro was 11th, and Gachot was 13th after running in 6th when his battery died. Donnelly had impressed.
Quiet and introspective away from a racing car, the young Ulsterman was an outstanding performer having won the prestigious 1988 Cellnet award as Britain's most promising driver. He had finished third in the British F3 Championship that season, but switched to drive 4 races for Eddie Jordan in F3000. He didn't fail to impress: 2 wins and a pair of second places were more than Eddie could ask for. He partnered Alesi at Jordan in 1989 (winning at Vallelunga and Brands Hatch), before getting the call for the French GP. Although the Frenchman generally outpaced him, he was chosen to partner Derek Warwick at Lotus the following year.
Alas, Lotus was in trouble since Senna had left. The team was using the unreliable, thirsty, and heavy Lamborghini V12 engines. The cars were a clean design, but had nothing innovative about them. To make matters worse, about halfway through the year, Camel was winding down their support of the team. Few results had come their way, and it appeared the team was going to be sold (it did indeed after the 1990 season). When Warwick was asked how to make the racing closer in F1, he had suggested to ESPN's television announcer that drivers should drive for a different team at each meeting: somebody like Senna should drive for Life or Lotus! Donnelly never complained though; he drove well, and kept the car on the road as long as it was still running. His best finish was a 7th at Hungary. Warwick had managed to score a few points, though. Still, Donnelly was tipped to stay at Lotus for all his hard work during 1990, but then came the Spanish GP at Jerez.
There are motor racing crashes, and then there are those accidents you never wish to see happen to your worst enemy. This was the latter type. In practice for the race, his car speared straight off at the fast bend before the final hairpin, striking the wall with unimaginable force. The strength of carbon fibre was put to the test, and the wall won. The front half of the car had totally disintegrated, and Donnelly was pitched out onto the road still attached to his seat. It was one of the worst accidents I had ever seen before or since, and amazingly, he escaped with his life! He sustained multiple injuries, but after a long recovery, he was able to walk again. He now runs his own Formula Vauxhall team.