Features - Interview

JULY 1, 1990

Martin Donnelly


British race fans like to have a hero to cheer. After James Hunt there was John Watson and then along came Nigel Mansell. With 'Our Nige' retiring at the end of the year Martin Donnelly is the obvious candidate to replace Mansell as Britain's new racing star and the object of the public's affection...

British race fans like to have a hero to cheer. After James Hunt there was John Watson and then along came Nigel Mansell. With 'Our Nige' retiring at the end of the year Martin Donnelly is the obvious candidate to replace Mansell as Britain's new racing star and the object of the public's affection...

Derek Warwick is there, but he is still looking for the all-important break and, sad though it is, time is running out. Johnny Herbert, Jonathan Palmer and Julian Bailey have all been and gone. Martin Brundle is hovering on the sidelines and the next generation is still shaping up: Allan McNish, Mark Blundell, Eddie Irvine, Damon Hill and Andrew Gilbert-Scott are all jockeying for position. Donnelly is already part of the Formula 1 scene, and he has time on his side...

Martin admits to being completely mad about racing. "If I'm not racing on a weekend," he explained, "I'm either watching it on television, reading about it or I may be at one of the races back home. I just cannot get enough of it..."

Martin is a member of a very exclusive group of Formula 3000 graduates who arrived in Formula 1 fulltime in 1990 and, while Jean Alesi and Eric Bernard have been stealing the headlines, Martin has been quietly going about his business -- matching Derek Warwick, his Lotus team mate, at every turn.

By nature, Martin is a quiet man, where Mansell has a much more mercurial character. This quietness is often mistaken for dullness, but that isn't fair.

Does he have what it takes? It isn't an easy question to answer and Martin paused for a long time before replying. "This game is a very fickle one," he said finally. "You don't know where you are from one year to the next. You can quickly be forgotten.

"Ivan Capelli did not suddenly become two seconds slower after 1988. He was probably driving harder than ever, but just not getting anywhere. Now the Leyton House team has latched onto something and has got it right, suddenly Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin are two seconds quicker again.

"I honestly believe that in F1 -- more than in any of the other formulae -- you are only as good as the equipment available to your team. In F3000, if a Reynard-Mugen is winning you go out and buy one -- if you've got the finance. But you cannot go out and buy a McLaren, you have to make the best of what you have.

"I look at F1 like a football league. You have division three, division two amd division one. The guys in division three look to try to get into division two. I feel very much that Lotus is in the middle.

"You always try to position yourself in a better situation where your performance can gain. I would like to try to help the team to move forward -- or I must look somewhere else."

Martin had his first F1 race at Paul Ricard last year. Ironically, he was standing in at Arrows for Derek Warwick, who had injured himself in a karting accident.

On the same day Alesi made his Grand Prix debut with Tyrrell. Since then Jean's career has taken off in spectacular fashion, while Martin's has kept on an even keel.

"There are always crossroads in life," said Martin, with a smile. "Do you turn right or do you turn left? Jean and I are both managed to a certain extent by Eddie Jordan. The Arrows thing developed first. EJ pushed me towards Arrows and I signed a deal. Apparently, Jean got quite upset with Eddie about that, because it was the French GP -- his home race -- and he felt he should have had priority and EJ should have pushed him to Arrows.

"And then the Tyrrell thing came along. Apparently, I was first on Ken Tyrrell's shopping list -- but he didn't realise that I had signed for Arrows a couple of days before. So EJ told Ken: 'We've got this guy Jean Alesi' and Ken decided to give him a shot. I think there was 48 hours in it.

"Fair play to Jean, he has made it work for him. He deserves the success and recognition he is getting at the moment -- but I don't envy the pressure he is under with the press and the decisions he has to make.

"Last year there wasn't much to separate the pair of us in F3000, so it is up to me not to let him get too far ahead."

Alesi has been in the right place at the right time and, in comparison, Martin seems almost unlucky. Martin doesn't see it that way at all.

"I have to admit I was very lucky, I couldn't complain," he explained. "The Lotus team is strong, but obviously we've had our ups and downs.

"Our pre-season testing just didn't happen because of the oil tank problems we had at Estoril. We had a new engine, new gearbox, new chassis and, to a certain extent, new drivers and we had never run it together as a package and we had a lot of problems. Everyone panicked a bit about the V12 engine and said: 'We've got this big heavy lump in the back we must get all the weight off the car.' I think they had a 5% saving across the board and, in Phoenix, stupid things just broke.

"Between Phoenix and Brazil you cannot really do a lot because the cars are in transit, but then we had that seven week gap and we had a good couple of sessions at Imola and we finished seventh and eighth there. We had the reliability and the car had been beefed up. From there on in we were qualifying 11th and 12th on a regular basis."

Monaco was a very special race for Martin. His racing mentor Frank Nolan had always talked of his ambition to sit in Casino Square and watch Martin driving through. Sadly, Nolan died in 1986 when Donnelly was just starting out in British F3.

"Frank was the main guy who set me on the road," said Martin, "and I asked his wife to come across to be there in Casino Square. She did, and going through Casino Square on the recognition laps before the race, it got to me inside, you know."

Nolan was also responsible for Martin's orange and blue helmet design. "The first guy who Frank sponsored was a guy called PJ Fallon," explained Martin. "He walked up to Frank one day and asked for sponsorship. Frank said OK. PJ asked what colours he wanted and Frank thought: 'Which is the most successful football team?' At that time it was Brazil -- that was 1980-81.

"Well, obviously, you couldn't paint the car gold and blue so he painted it orange and blue. They became Frank's colours and, if you notice, I still have the Frank Nolan sticker on the helmet. It gets more and more difficult every year to keep that space. It was difficult with Lotus because that was space that they could sell -- but I wanted it there."

Since Monaco Lotus has been struggling to make the 102 chassis competitive. "We've got to a bit of a plateau at the moment which we are trying to overcome," explained Martin. "If we had got in the mileage over the winter a lot of our problems, even now, would have been sorted. We would have been more reliable and so on. We cannot hit the problem on the head and it's something we are struggling to sort out."

Martin has the experienced Warwick alongside him and he admits that Derek has been a great help. "I have to say that I couldn't really wish for a better team mate," he said. "The information between the two of us goes very freely. I can look at his sheets and I believe what he tells me and vice-versa.

"It's good for the team because in the past you could never tell whether Nelson was having a particularly brilliant day or having a bad day because Satoru was always that little bit away. With myself and Derek it's been a matter of hundredths. Prior to Silverstone you couldn't split us in qualifying. If you added up all the rces it wouldn't have come to more than a tenth.

"That's good. I push my engineer and Derek pushes his, and it's competitive in the team. I believe that this gets the best result for the team. It's constructive, not like Prost and Senna last year. That was destructive. Derek and I have a laugh and a joke. He has a lot of experience and he passes that experience on. It's been fantastic."

Warwick apart, Martin has found F1 to be a pretty unfriendly place. "The drivers don't welcome you with open arms," said Martin. "The only person who said: 'Welcome to the club' or 'Welcome to F1' was Philippe Alliot.

"I enjoy driving the cars -- I enjoy it when I am out there and I very much like qualifying, but I don't enjoy the atmosphere of F1. F3000 was a lot friendlier. You could go into anyone's motorhome and have a bit of a banter. You don't get that in F1.

"There's a barrier and you have to make the effort to cross that to get to know them -- and let them know you. Then they will come and find out who Martin Donnelly is. It's the same with the wives and girlfriends, Diane has found that."

But who is Martin Donnelly? Martin paused again -- this time for a long thoughtful moment. "I am very quiet and shy," he said. "I'm not very outgoing. I think sometimes this puts people off. They probably think it's arrogance. I just feel awkward.

"I don't jump up and down and scream at people, but, at the same time, I don't let people walk all over me. I tell them what I think in a quiet way. Sometimes I might be too honest for my own good, but at least people know where they stand. In this game I cannot afford to go around upsetting the apple cart. People are waiting to see a weak point or to pick fault with anything, and obviously you can do without that in your first year."

The other thing that strikes new F1 drivers is the amount of travelling involved and the strain that puts on those involved. "My previous experience was in European F3000," said Martin. "If you had the race in Italy or Germany, you could be there with half a day of travelling. It doesn't work like that in F1. You have to allow a week in advance and a week to get back.

"There was a period when we did Montreal, went out a week early to adjust. Then, straight after Montreal, I went to Le Mans for the Group C and then went back out to Mexico. Two days after the Mexican race I was testing at Silverstone. I tell you, the body clock just didn't know where it was.

"It's also been a steep learning curve. You go to places like Montreal and Mexico. What I generally have to do is to circulate.

"Derek can arrive, try two different set-ups and then he can decide what he wants. He knows the circuits and he can fine-tune the car. I have to persevere and I'm playing catch-up all weekend. A lot of my set-up work is guesswork because I don't get to try it. At times that can be very frustrating."

At present Martin has very little pressure on him from the media, but with Mansell's retirement that is sure to increase as British interest switches away from Nigel to the new generation.

"With F1 there's a lot more PR and media work attached to it," said Martin. "It can be a strain, but at the same time it can be a good thing. In March, I did the Driving Force programme in Australia. There was myself Barry Sheene, Peter Brock, Dennis Lillee and others, and that was fun. That was like a holiday. That bit of the media/PR I could get used to.

"I think that success breeds success. Obviously, if I am further up in the races my name gets a few more plugs.

"At Silverstone I had all the family over because there have been a lot of people responsible for getting me to F1 and I may not have a chance to say thank you again. You don't know if you have a future or not in F1 at this early stage. I brought all of them over and looked after them.

"Because it was the British GP there were more press and it was a hassle. This is my first year of it, and I'd say after three or four years, if you started to get some success and be more in the spotlight, it could start to become a real pain."

Fame, however, has not really interrupted Martin's life as yet.

"I'm like everyone else away from racing," he explained. "I live in Norfolk and I like it up there. I hate and detest going anywhere near London. Where I live they let you walk off the kerb without taking your life in your hands and they'll stop and have a chat with you in the corner shop. Norfolk is one pace behind the rest of the country and it's a very nice way of life. It's not expensive. I enjoy it.

"Martin Donnelly doesn't think he leads a very exciting life...