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Martin Donnelly: Ex-F1 ace on day medic saved his life as he was seconds from death on track

Belfast man Martin Donnelly suffered horrific injuries in high speed smash

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Martin Donnelly on the tarmac at Jerez in 1990

Martin Donnelly on the tarmac at Jerez in 1990

Martin Donnelly

Martin Donnelly

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Martin Donnelly on the tarmac at Jerez in 1990

Belfast-born ex-Formula One driver Martin Donnelly was just 30 seconds away from death after the horror smash that cost him his career.

The race ace said he “would have been six feet under” if it had not been for the quick thinking of F1 medic Syd Watkins.

Donnelly crashed into barriers at 160mph while trying to qualify for the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez in 1990.

On top of a string of injuries, including brain and lung contusions and severe leg fractures, he swallowed his tongue.

“The doctor told me later that when he got to me I had about 30 seconds to live,” the 58-year-old said.

“I was suffocating and dying. He had to act sharpish to free my tongue by going in through my nostrils.

“Syd pulled me back from the brink when it looked that I was wrecked and a goner.

“I am glad I was knocked out and didn’t know what the hell was happening.

“But every day since then when I look at my gammy leg and croak out my sentences, I am reminded how lucky I was.

“When I look back and see pictures or videos of me on the tarmac, looking as if I was dead, I can’t believe my eyes... until I see the colours of my helmet.

“Syd, genius that he was, quickly worked out just what was wrong with me. Those 30 seconds were crucial. I would’ve been six feet under without his fantastic work.

“He had a big problem getting to me because the rescue car had to go all around the track and he reckoned it was not fast enough.

“He argued a fierce case later for a quicker rescue car on race days.

“I was hurried to hospital and underwent a series of emergency operations. If anything useful arose from my crash, it was a revitalising and speeding up of rescue teams.”

Donnelly, who still walks with a limp, was forced to quit racing aged 34 but kept his hand in with racing, owning his own team at one stage before working as an adviser.

His brush with death was also recounted by his retired sports reporter friend Ted Macauley in his new memoir Raring To Go.

He said: “Martin Donnelly had just half a minute to live, 30 seconds. Look at your watch. Count out the time. It passes quickly, doesn’t it? Scarily so.

“His grotesquely twisted and broken body, his innards a jumbled jigsaw, his mind spinning, he lay sprawled, helplessly closer to death than life after a horrifying headlong crash into the unforgiving barriers at 160mph when he was striving all-out to qualify for the Spanish Grand Prix.

“Unconsciously, his instinct drove him to fight for breath without an inkling he was quickly edging out of this world.

“That he is still around to tell the tale is testimony not only to his fighting spirit and courage but, crucially, to the exceptional life-saving, on-the-spot skills of the then Formula One neurosurgeon Syd Watkins.

“The doctor despaired when he knelt beside Donnelly’s cruelly battered body. He thought Martin was already dead.

“He could see that he had been thrown onto the track, still belted in his seat, and with one of his legs hooked over his shoulder.

“The safety harness marks were imprinted like a tattoo into his flesh as his car exploded on impact. And he had swallowed his tongue.”


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