Martin Donnelly: My horrific smash changed Ayrton Senna
The horrific Las Vegas crash which killed Dan Wheldon brought back memories of the day Ayrton Senna died at Imola.
The carnage, shattered car, the rescue and medical teams fighting to save the lives of the helpless drivers.
It provoked memories, too, of the day in 1990 our Martin Donnelly so nearly died in Spain, his Lotus Lamborghini smashed to pieces against the Armco barriers at Jerez, his seemingly lifeless body lying on the track still attached to the car’s seat.
Against all odds, the Ulsterman, then 26 and just beginning his Formula One career, survived although he was never to race a grand prix car again.
But that crash during qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix has been brought back into focus by the Wheldon tragedy and by the film ‘Senna’ which tracks the life and death of one of motor racing’s most charismatic characters, Ayrton Senna.
Unknown to many people, the Donnelly crash had a huge effect on Senna and in the aftermath, according to the man who did so much to save Donnelly’s life, Professor Sid Watkins, F1’s revered former medical chief, if the maverick triple World champion had followed his head rather than his heart he might still be alive today.
Prof Watkins was a close friend and confidante of Senna and in his book, ‘Life at the Limit’, he revealed that the Brazilian had sought him out the day after and talked about the techniques used to keep Martin alive. He also talked about quitting.
But he didn’t and instead went back on track to set the 50th pole position of his career.
None of this Donnelly knew. He was fighting for his life in a Seville hospital. Later he was flown back to London and remained in a medically-induced coma for six weeks.
But he was to learn about Senna’s responses and reactions as he gradually recovered from his massive injuries although, even today, the limp and the hoarse voice that remain are tangible reminders of that terrible day 21 years ago.
Martin has seen the widely acclaimed film ‘Senna – No Fear. No Limits. No Equal’ and was surprised to find the makers have drawn on his accident to reveal a side of Senna that, perhaps, only Prof Watkins would have known.
“It is a beautiful film and a surprise to find myself featured in it,” said the Belfast man.
“I knew Ayrton from my Van Diemen days when there was a whole group of us based in Norfolk. It was 1983 and back then I was finding my feet in Formula Ford and he was already in F3.
“We would meet up during tests at the Snetterton circuit and later go to Ed’s Cafe for something to eat and play Space Invaders.
“Years later when I got to F1 he was already World champion and I was the new boy on the grid. We didn’t have a great deal of contact on or off the track.
“But after I crashed I learned that he had stopped his car and walked to where the Prof and the medics were working on me.
“The amazing thing for me is that Ayrton watched all of that, saw it all first-hand, holding my crash helmet and possibly watching me die from a crash. He watched all the needles and syringes and the tracheotomy. Then he went back to his garage, put his helmet back on, visor down, and with just 10 minutes left, did the fastest lap of Jerez ever of that track.
“How do you switch off the emotion of what you have just seen that’s in there, in your mind, and then do that kind of job? That takes somebody very special.”
But later that day Senna left the circuit alone and drove the 50 miles to the Seville hospital where Martin was being treated in the intensive care unit. He met Mark Gallagher, Donnelly’s fellow Ulsterman and close friend, then a journalist but later part of the F1 management teams at Jordan, Jaguar and Cosworth. Gallagher directed him to the glass-fronted cubicle were Donnelly was attached to a life-support machine and remembers Senna standing there for a long time, saying nothing, just staring in.
Then he turned and told Gallagher if the Donnelly family needed anything – medical experts, money, a plane, anything – they should tell him.
The following day, after an emotional meeting with Prof Watkins, Senna attended the post-qualifying Press conference and without being asked a question, spoke passionately about life, death, racing and his religious beliefs.
Donnelly believes that observing the aftermath of accidents, was Senna’s way dealing with the realities of racing.
“It wasn’t only me he saw. He stopped at the top of Eau Rouge when Erik Comas crashed at Spa and ran back and was able to help the marshals put him in a recovery position having seen how Prof Watkins and the medical teams had dealt with me and other drivers.
“He stopped, too, at the scene of Rubens Barrichello and Roland Ratzenberger’s accidents on that last weekend at Imola.
“He was always questioning the Prof on the rescue techniques that were being used.
“Maybe that was his way of dealing with it? Maybe he needed a near-death experience to see for himself, to make it feel that it was less likely to happen to him.”
But unfortunately it did, little more than 24 hours after Roland Ratzenberger died at Imola, Senna was dead, too, his Williams being smashed to pieces against the barriers at the Tamburello curve.
“You think of Ayrton and I know I can’t complain. He had his millions, was set for life, had no family dependents. You realise after time that because you are in the F1 paddock, you are cocooned.
“Everything is given to you: clothes, cars, phone, Hugo Boss factory trips – you are not part of the real world.
“Just hours before the accident I had signed a letter of intent to extend my Lotus contract and picked up a 40,000 dollar retainer cheque. I was to lead the team in 1991 with a young Mika Hakkinen as my No2.
“That cheque is framed and hanging on the wall along with my bent steering wheel, reminders you might say, of what might have been.
“Yes, in the months afterwards you desperately want to get back in there, and live that F1 life again, but after a while, when you realise you can’t, there is a life outside F1 to deal with. You still have to pay your mortgage and your bills.
“I don’t feel hard done by and Ayrton’s death was my reality check. It was time to let go of the dream.”
Emotional return to cockpit
Martin Donnelly was given a rapturous reception when he climbed back on board a Lotus Lamborghini at the Goodwood Festival of Speed earlier this year.
Not the same one in which he almost died at Jerez 21 years ago, it was totally destroyed, but the sister car of team-mate Derek Warwick, totally restored and in the same yellow Camel colours.
“It was a bit like meeting up with an old girlfriend you had fallen out with 20 years ago but still kept coming back to bother you,” he explained. “Driving the car again was a magical moment.”
Originally from the Glen Road in west Belfast, he continues to live in Norfolk but keeps his connections to Northern Ireland through the Martin Donnelly Trophy race at Kirkistown, a event which commemorates his late father.
Donnelly remains closely involved with racing, driving Lotus sports cars very successfully, but just for fun now, and has had roles in team management and driver coaching. He travels widely as an ambassador for Lotus Cars and also operates the Donnelly Track Academy, specialising in driver training and Lotus race car hire.
And he has been added to the F1 stewards’ panel, taking his place for the first time at the Korean Grand Prix earlier this month. “It was nice to be asked – but then they probably knew what they were doing. I’ve had plenty of experience of being up in front of them in the past!”
The movie is breathtaking
The cinematic qualities of Ayrton Senna's rise and fall won't come as a surprise to Formula One fans, but for the rest of us this recently released, extraordinary documentary is a revelation.
Constructed entirely of TV and home-movie footage that was shot during the Brazilian champion's glory days, it's a riveting, intensely moving tragedy that beats any Hollywood sports movie for intimate drama and stomach-tightening thrills.
There's no narrator, no contemporary footage and very little on its protagonist's personal life.
Indeed, Asif Kapadia's Senna is one of the most sporting of sports documentaries – but no less gripping for it.
This is a Zidane-like portrait of the driver as an artist – following Senna from karting prodigy to his sparring with French driver Alain Prost, once a team-mate but ultimately a sworn enemy.
Of course, the ‘elephant in the film’ is Senna's fatal Imola crash in 1994. The tension Senna — and, ultimately, the viewer — feels in the run-up to this race is gripping, even more so for those viewers who weren’t familiar with the Brazilian and have no idea how his story ends.
The tension punctuates almost every second leading up to the jaw-dropping sequence in which we follow Senna's final minutes via the in-car camera.
The effect is that of being inside the head of a man with seconds to live. Breathtaking.