Martin Donnelly on the crash that almost killed him

F1 history

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.

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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.

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.

Martin Donnelly and the Lotus 102 – pictures

Martin Donnelly’s crash – video

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26 comments on Martin Donnelly on the crash that almost killed him

  1. scott joslin said on 16th January 2010, 18:10

    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. sato113 said on 16th January 2010, 18:24

    ‘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.

  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. David said on 16th January 2010, 19:17

    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.

  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 said on 16th January 2010, 21:13

    Could’ve been the greatest Irish F1 Driver ever.

  8. Is it him Alan Donelly´s relative?

  9. José Baudaier said on 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. Danny said on 17th January 2010, 0:43


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

  11. Macca said on 17th January 2010, 5:52

    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.

    • The Limit said on 17th January 2010, 21:07

      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.

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