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. Mark said on 28th August 2011, 5:44

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. absinthe_boy said on 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.

  4. Matt67 said on 1st December 2013, 15:49

    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.

  5. David Smith said on 21st October 2014, 16:29

    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.

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