Martin Donnelly was a racing driver in Formula 3, Formula 3000, and eventually Formula One, until a serious crash ended his racing career.
In 1988, Donnelly was the test driver for the Lotus Formula One racing team. A year later, he substituted for Arrows driver Derek Warwick in the French Grand Prix, impressing many throughout the sport.
In 1990, Lotus brought him on as a fully-fledged race driver. During a practice session at the Jerez circuit, Donnelly suffered an almost-fatal crash, resulting in brain and lung contusions, and severe leg fractures. The car collided with the race barrier at 167 mph, exploding into pieces and sending Martin across the track still attached to his seat. Everyone watching thought Martin had died. The thing that saved him was the lightweight design of the car he’d been driving – modified to accommodate a V12 engine.
He was alive, but barely. Soon after the crash his kidneys and lungs shutdown due to shock. He was kept on a respirator for six weeks, needed dialysis for a month, and was eventually kept in a medically-induced coma.
Once we woke up and was able to move again, Martin was determined to race again. It wouldn’t be easy. After being in hospital for so long, he’d lost a lot of weight, and couldn’t walk. After three years of intensive physiotherapy, he met with a surgeon to discuss the possibility of racing again. That surgeon had to break the news to Martin that he would never race again.
According to Martin, that was one of the hardest moments of his life. The crash wasn’t his fault, the car had suffered suspension failure, yet suddenly he found himself in immense pain, with a worthless contract he’d signed the morning before the crash, and dreams of a career in motorsport in ruins.
However, seeing his friend and racer Aryton Senna die in a similar crash in 1994 made him realise that he was lucky to be alive, and that perhaps he should focus his talents and energy somewhere else. While he is still involved with the sport, Martin is just happy to be alive and able to spend time with his family.
Formula One is much safer today thanks to innovations that came about as a direct result of this crash.
The crash was so severe that it prompted a redesign on the Jerez track. The corner where he suffered his crash was turned into a much slower curve, and tracks are now designed with safety in mind.
Smart car design can save lives, and after the crash designers began to build cars that were first and foremost safe to use.
Luckily, Martin managed to survive and now helps coach drivers as a Racing Instructor with Lotus, and has even raced several times in the years since his crash.
Martin’s crash made those involved with the sport realise things had to change. Now all cars have significantly improved protection, and are made out of materials designed to absorb high levels of impact.
Nowadays cockpits are designed with carbon fibre and Zylon, the same materials used in bullet-proof vests. Over the last thirty year motorsport engineers have worked hard to design new ways to improve safety, and safe lives.
VHR is holding an event with Martin about his legacy in the Formula One.