Where does the time go? It’s nearly 30 years since Martin Donnelly survived an ‘unsurvivable’ accident, as his Lotus 102 disintegrated on impact with a barrier during Friday qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Donnelly’s body was left crumpled in the middle of the track, the seat still strapped to him, his legs pointing at all the wrong angles. Formula 1’s legendary doctor, Professor Sid Watkins, went to work and saved his life, watched closely by Ayrton Senna, who had walked from the pits to understand what had happened to his friend.

What Senna saw shook him to his core. But when qualifying resumed, the Brazilian slid back into his McLaren and immediately set the fastest lap ever recorded at Jerez. Such is the way of this strange breed we call racing drivers.

“Got any dirt and filth?” rasps the familiar Belfast brogue on the phone. Donnelly’s signature greeting is a demand, not a question, just as it was when I used to call him for a gossip during his days as a racing team boss on the junior single-seater scene. He would always be the last call of the day because, if you didn’t have a bit of dirt to trade, he would tell you nothing. At 56, Donnelly remains great company and is still deeply immersed in a colourful racing life.

What if?

Back in 1990, Donnelly was cresting the F1 wave in his first full season with Lotus. Part of the ‘Brat Pack’ generation of British talent, Donnelly had scrapped and clawed his way through the junior ranks beside Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert, Mark Blundell, Julian Bailey and Perry McCarthy. The hard yards seemed behind him when the world went blank at Jerez on 28 September.

“There is no memory retention at all of the accident,” he says, “in fact until after Christmas. The weekend before was the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril, and I have absolutely no memory of that either.

“Off-track, there are bits and pieces. On the morning of the accident, Lotus took up the option to extend my contract for £5.6 million, which I’ve got framed on my office wall, along with the £40,000 cheque that guaranteed my services.

“That’s why my book, which I’m currently working on, is called What If?. There are a lot of questions left unanswered, although no one appreciates life more than me.”

It’s only thanks to Watkins fighting his corner that Donnelly still has two legs; doctors wanted to amputate in the immediate aftermath.