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.
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.
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.
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.
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.