There’s no shortage of metaphors available when seeking to describe the arrival at Thruxton of erstwhile Formula One driver, Martin Donnelly.
Donnelly, now 51, and permanently affected by the injuries sustained during that horrific crash in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix some 25 years ago, is the unexpected replacement of Richard Hawken in the Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing BTCC team, who has been removed following his debut at Donington last month.
His arrival at Paras Racing is about as sudden as his rise through the junior ranks back in the mid 1980s, yet despite the obviousness of his talent, the challenges of the British Touring Car Championship are not lost on him.
Mission Improbable for Donnelly
“I have to start by saying that this is a momentous day for me personally,” says Donnelly. “But let’s cut to the chase, I’m here to do two things; to support the Paras and to do a good job for Infiniti. And this means one very simple thing, getting to the chequered flag three times on Sunday.”
Thruxton, of course, is not only the fastest circuit on the BTCC calendar, it’s also one of high attrition. Cars, engines, tyres and drivers are all pushed beyond the limits of normal adhesion, and as we speak, not only has Donnelly not yet taken the car out on track, he hasn’t even sat in it.
What of Infiniti?
The introduction of Martin Donnelly to the Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing squad isn’t necessarily going to shake things-up at the front-end of the grid, but it certainly tells us that Infiniti are finally taking their BTCC entry seriously.
Up until now, our focus has been the remarkable job undertaken by the crew of injured former paras, but with deference and doff to all those based at Mallory Park, this box has now been ticked. The men who stood on the front line have rapidly redeployed their skills, and under Derek Palmer’s leadership, are as a capable in the pit lane as those around them. Moreover, it’s clear that despite early teething problems, especially with the power-steering system, they’ve built a really good car. The Q50 is simmering, straining to be unleashed, and every time it returns from a competitive run it’s clear that progress has been made.
So Infiniti were presented with an unexpected problem. Committed to working with the team, they had always stressed that it was an independent effort, aimed at building awareness of the need to support injured former service personnel, and to raise much needed funds for the Support Our Paras charity. But there is also a need to build awareness of their own brand within the UK, a statement which might seem remarkable, considering the association with the Infiniti Red Bull Racing F1 team. Nevertheless, it remains true. Now, suddenly, their presence in the British Touring Car Championship has promoted the perception of the Q50 from overweight corporate daily to a sleek, sporting thrill-seeker; a fact that many might envy, but clearly now needs to be exploited. Martin Donnelly will be key to this.
Behind the scenes, the technical development of the Paras’ Q50 is being driven by engineer Craig Porley, a man who commands as much respect as the crew he works with, yet his ability to take the team forward is limited by two factors; the combination of the drivers’ data and feedback, and quite plainly, morale within the team. Donnelly can deliver on both. His team mate, Derek Palmer (Jnr), is a talented and intelligent young driver, and will thrive by working alongside a seasoned professional. Donnelly will push Palmer, and Palmer will push him back. Together they can take the team and Infiniti further up the grid.
Yesterday, I asked the BTCC’s Series Director, Alan Gow, for his thoughts on what Donnelly could bring to both Infiniti and the grid. With characteristic aplomb, he informed me that this was the 94th driver from Formula One to join the championship. There was no need to say anything else. The BTCC is now firmly established as one of the greatest race series’ there is. It’s possible that Donnelly had never quite imagined himself in this position, but neither did he have to be asked twice. So to answer my own question, Infiniti now have their own man within the team, and they’re clearly committed to the team. There’s still much to do, but at least everybody is leading with the right foot.
“The plan for today couldn’t be simpler, I’ve just got to get as many laps in as possible and keep the car on the black stuff. I’ve seen how the Q50 handles and that’s what attracted me to Infiniti in the first place. You know, there are two ways of going about this, you can either push, push, push, but then you’re never going to really learn anything, or you can just relax, enjoy the car and explore the car.”
“I’m here to work with the team and Derek (Palmer) to develop the Q50 and build our performance towards being able to challenge for points finishes. We’re not going to do this overnight but from what I’ve already seen, we’re certainly headed in the right direction.”
Those are sound words. Donnelly knows that results will come from not only his own efforts but more so from those around him.At heart, he’s a fighter, and he’s not afraid of putting himself out there, but he recognises the need to find his way within the team first and not just out on track. So does this mean that the man who built his reputation at Lotus might just be about to change his hashtag?
“If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly. So I’m here now and I’ll be here for the rest of season. Beyond that, let’s see, but I don’t intend this chapter to be titled ‘Unfinished Business’.”
You can watch the British Touring Car Championship from Thruxton this Sunday, live on ITV4 and online.