Martin Donnelly on the crash that almost killed him

F1 history

Posted on

| Written by

In 1990 the long right-hander around the back of the pits at Jerez was taken in top gear, yet it was bordered by a few metres of grass and an Armco barrier.

So when Martin Donnelly’s Lotus 102 speared off into the barrier at 140mph it exploded into pieces. The chassis tore in two and Donnelly was thrown across the track with his seat still strapped to his back.

But thanks to the quick reactions of F1’s medical team, and months of intensive treatment, 20 years later Donnelly is still around to talk about what happened.

I met Donnelly at Autosport International yesterday and he talked a little about the problems with the car and his crash:

You can see, the cockpit sides are wafer thin, there’s nothing to that. So when I had the accident from there forwards [he points at the seat] all shattered.
Martin Donnelly

Donnelly’s injuries were grave. X-rays showed he had bruising on his lungs and brain – the impact was so violent it cracked his crash helmet. He also had severe breaks to both legs and lost a lot of blood.

After being treated by Professor Sid Watkins at the track Donnelly was transferred to a hospital in Seville. During a long recovery he suffered kidney failure and was on dialysis for weeks. For a while it looked as though his right leg might have to be amputated.

Go ad-free for just £1 per month

>> Find out more and sign up

It wasn’t – and when I met him the only lingering signs of his terrible injuries was a limp in his leg. He was also reasonably positive about the car despite the compromises involved in its development:

The cockpit was designed for [1989 drivers] Satoru Nakajima and Nelson Piquet, who were about five foot six. But when myself and Derek Warwick got involved, because the regulations said the pedal box had to be in front of the axle line, when we got into the car our knees were on the bulkhead.

So we ended up getting cramp in our legs. We fixed it by bonding this thing on top of it here [he points at the V-shape structure on top of the nose] to give us room and ease the buffetting.

Also, because we’d done a deal with Lamborghini, we had to put a big V12 in the back, where they’d had a Judd before. They had to extend the back end.

But when I drove it I was very privileged and honoured to be an F1 driver.
Martin Donnelly

Had it not been for the crash, Donnelly says he would have stayed at Lotus in 1991:

Before I had my accident we’d signed the option for 1991. I was going to be the number one driver with Mika Hakkinen as number two. But we never got that far.
Martin Donnelly

Today improved impact protection on F1 cars have allowed drivers like Robert Kubica to emerge unscathed from accidents as bad as Donnelly’s – or worse. At Jerez, the corner where Donnelly crashes is now a tight, slow chicane.

Some argue that modern F1 has become ‘too safe’. But when you look at the minimal protection offered by earlier F1 cars it’s not hard to see F1 is better for being too safe rather than too unsafe.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Where Donnelly crashed

This is how the corner where Donnelly crashed looks today – you can see both the original route and the modern chicane. The run off area has been extended since Donnelly’s accident.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

F1 history

Browse all history articles

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

30 comments on “Martin Donnelly on the crash that almost killed him”

  1. I saw this car today for the first time, and it just looks wrong from every angle. God knows how martin survived that accident, pictures are horric of him laying on the track. It’s so good to see Martin is doing well. How Derek Wafwick had the balls to race that car the day after I will never know.

  2. ‘the long right-hander around the back of the pits at Jerez’
    that means the map marker is on the wrong corner! needs to be on the one just above it.

    1. The map marker was pointing to the location of the track (its co-ordinates) rather than the corner. I’ve re-done the map so you shouldn’t see the marker now.

      1. ah rite. kl kl.

  3. I started watching F1 in 1991, but I didn’t realise that a crash where a driver was thrown from the car had happened relatively recently in Formula 1.

  4. Great article Keith.
    Only a miracle gave us Martin live after that horrible crash. I think with the safest today cars his injuries would have been much less heavy.
    At Jerez the MotoGP bikes still run without chicane. I think Formula 1 also could avoid to use the tight “S”.

  5. i remember this as a 12 yearold and not being allowed to watch the after footage by my dad. it still gets me.

    it seems unthinkable today that any f1 driver will turn up at a race weekend and never drive an f1 car again due to a accident.

    it should also not be forgotten that ayrton senna faced disciplinary action by the fia for demanding to be driven to the scene whilst martin was being treated by the doctors.

    1. I love Ayrton Senna. He cared so much about everyone and safety, people say he didn’t because of the way he cut people off on corners but he was a racer. It wasn’t his job to make the tracks and cats safe, it was the FIA’s and they failed Ayrton very sadly. Of course the regulations changed dramatically after Ayrton Senna died, but it was too late:

  6. I remember seeing the crash on BBC’s race build up at the time. I was 8 and didn’t quite realize how awful the situation was.

    I remember being astonished even at the time that the Lotus was also the only car where the driver’s shoulders were higher than the sides of the cockpit.

    Quite a few big accidents in 1990 that all turned out pretty well in the end. I still was one of the best seasons of Grand Prix racing anywhere, anytime.

  7. Mike "the bike" Schumacher
    16th January 2010, 21:13

    Could’ve been the greatest Irish F1 Driver ever.

  8. Is it him Alan Donelly´s relative?

    1. I don’t think so – Alan Donnelly’s from the north east of England, Martin Donnelly’s Northern Irish.

    2. Frank Donnelly
      6th February 2013, 10:30

      As far as I am aware we do not have an Alan Donnelly in the family, unless he’s a very distant relation

  9. José Baudaier
    16th January 2010, 22:52

    When I was I child I had a miniature of the Lotus 99T driven by Senna, not the same as the 102, but very close. Wonder what happened to it.

  10. Jose,

    have you looked under your bed? It might be there!

    1. José Baudaier
      18th January 2010, 8:55

      I doubt that almost 20 years later, after I moved 4 times it will be there.

  11. I think in todays environment of F1, we take for granted just how brave these drivers where.

  12. Great to see him ! I heard about the accident, live on the radio and it was really scary…

  13. I didn’t hear that about Senna, Gaz, but I did hear that Senna was pretty much first on the scene, and sensibly parked his Mclaren in front of Donnelly in order to ensure he was shielded from the remaining cars on track.

    1. I read once, but do not know if this is totally true, that Senna was in tears whilst watching the medics work on the injured Donnelly. This aspect to Aryton’s personality was highlighted two years after Donnelly’s crash, when the Brazilian parked his McLaren in order to aid Eric Comas following a huge shunt at Spa. Prof Sid Watkins has always maintained that Senna always showed great interest in the work of the medics, and always showed them the utmost respect.
      Looking at the damage sustained to Donnelly’s Lotus, it amazes me in the lengths that F1 has gone to improve driver safety and the strength of modern F1 cars.
      When Heikki Kovalainer speared the barriers of Barcelona’s Campos corner in 2008, it further proved that F1 has come a very long way in twenty years. The tragic irony, is that it took the deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna to make those changes possible.

  14. Incredible he survived…

  15. I was just watching the recently released documentary “Senna”, showing Ayrton Senna’s life and career. During the 1990 period, they showed Donnelly’s accident, and I was sure that the pilot could not be alive. I wont easily forget one of the medics holding his wrist, and ever so lightly tapping the helmet trying to get a sign of life.
    I had to google this righ away, and feels great to know the pilot survived it. I do wonder whether Senna’s request to see the accident was purely honorable or not, I do not know. I surely hope so, through the footage of the race focused on him, one can tell he’s not having any fun, to the contrary, seemed to be reflecting on his own mortal nature. Thanks a billion for the fantastic article!! And Thanks Mr. Donnelly.

  16. Same here Mario. Just saw Senna doco today and was most moved by Donnelly’s crash – how could that lifeless bundle on the track have survived. What a brave man and what a relief to discover he has survived… Legend.

  17. Second that; thank God Martins still with us. I’ll be honest, I almost cried when I saw him lying on the track, in the Senna video. God was watching over him.

  18. absinthe_boy
    6th June 2012, 11:29

    And to think us ‘old farts’ who had been watching F1 since the 70’s thought that the 1990 cars were safe! Of course they were compared to the 70’s, and the 70’s cars were safe compared to the 50’s.

    A number of accidents shaped F1 as we know it today, Donnely’s being one. I well remember reading magazines (no internet then) to get updates on his recovery and his appearance on Wogan some months later with his leg still in a cast, determined to walk his bride down the aisle. That he achieved, and much more even if a return to top flight motor racing was not possible.

  19. I remember seeing the report of Martin’s crash on ESPN. It was beyond horrific to witness him prone on the race course with people standing there not knowing how to proceed. His body severely twisted and the sight of his legs in such horrific condition. I was amazed to discover he survived and wondered if he would ever have a satisfactory life after such injuries.

    I’m extremely happy that Martin did recover and that he has contributed so much to racing. I wish him all the best.

  20. I met Martin today at an Alfa track day at Thruxton. It was only a couple of laps, and I was far too slow, but many thanks Martin for one of the highlights of the day.

  21. I’ve Just realised that Martin scared the daylights out of me once in launch control in an Alfa 4 C in Derbyshire- Many Thanks Martin- Ive bought that engine now….so it worked! [I Did feel he was Very experienced!]

  22. Ayrton Senna would have prayed for him at the scene. Maybe it’s what saved Donnelly. Senna was a deeply religious man. God rest his beautiful soul.

  23. the crasht hat sacred the life out of me was sennas he died in f1 because one he loved the sport twoo his steering colum faild 😥😥😥😥😫

Comments are closed.