Friday favourite: The Kent happy hunting ground that demands drivers' respect
Martin Donnelly's 100% International Formula 3000 record at Brands Hatch is one reason for him picking the famous Grand Prix circuit as his favourite track. But the Ulsterman also relishes its fast and challenging corners, which rewards thinking drivers just as much as bravery
The scenario facing Martin Donnelly when he arrived at Brands Hatch for the 1989 International Formula 3000 round wasn’t too dissimilar to the one he’d been presented with the previous year. As in 1988, when he was readying for his debut in the Formula 1 feeder series with Eddie Jordan Racing, the Ulsterman had no points to his name after a series of mishaps had blighted his expected 1989 title challenge.
But just as he had done on that nightmarish weekend in 1988, blighted by violent accidents that left Michel Trolle and Johnny Herbert seriously injured, Donnelly made Brands Hatch a happy hunting ground and came away with victory by 13.3s over team-mate Jean Alesi.
It was his third in as many years on the GP loop where he’d also won in British Formula 3 in 1987, after passing Intersport team-mate Damon Hill. Once clear of Alesi he was, Autosport’s correspondent outlined, “in a different league”. So in picking the Brands Grand Prix loop as his favourite track, Donnelly isn’t wrong when he says: “I just have a sweet-spot for the circuit.”
“It’s a fast, dangerous circuit, with not a lot of run-off area around the back,” he explains behind the main stage at the Autosport International Show, after considering Snetterton alongside the ever-popular choices of Spa and Suzuka. “The back part of the circuit is more of a challenge. It’s higher speed, and higher corner speeds. I have good memories from there. It’s been the kindest to me.”
Brands Hatch Grand Prix requires commitment in spades, and Donnelly reckons “in places, it’s like the old Nurburgring because you have a lot of trees, a lot of grass and a very narrow track”. As such, he says it’s a circuit that requires a healthy respect and meant he always tried to build up to the pace.
“I wouldn’t go out there within 10 laps and go ‘bang’ – you work your way into it,” Donnelly states. “You respect the circuit, you get the brakes warm and the tyres warm and when you know you’re in that groove is then you start to push the envelope.”
But it’s not all about bravery. And Donnelly notes that there are “little knacks that you’ve got to take into account” which can give thinking drivers an edge.
Donnelly made his F3000 debut at Brands in 1988, but was quickly on the pace and secured a front row grid slot before going on to win
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“If you stand at Hawthorns at the apex and walk up it, it’s like a mini-Monza,” says Donnelly, who reckons fast tracks were “definitely not” the ones that most suited his skill-set as he “always excelled at chicanes, hairpins where I could use the trail-braking to good effect”.
“There’s a lot of camber there and, the thing is, that camber is grip. People don’t realise it, they don’t go out and walk it to see how much camber there is.
“The problem with that corner, as you exit it very quickly drops off and they’re not ready for it. The back end of the car steps out because you lose that grip all of a sudden. So you’re always prepared to, at the very end, put lots of lock on.
“Surtees, Hawthorns and Westfields are ones where you get to use a different technique, you have to psychologically prepare yourself to go in there faster because all of a sudden your car has got more grip [with the camber].”
"You can’t do it every week and month, so to get onto it is pretty special. And if you get a good dry day there, nice and dry, it’s perfect" Martin Donnelly
Noise restrictions mean access to the full GP loop is limited, but this only adds to its allure, reckons Donnelly. He’s been a regular competitor at the circuit in Lotus machinery in recent years after his top-flight career was curtailed by a Formula 1 qualifying crash at Jerez in 1990.
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“You can’t do it every week and month, so to get onto it is pretty special,” he says. “And if you get a good dry day there, nice and dry, it’s perfect. If you get a wet, nasty day, it’s ‘I’ll just sit here and drink coffee’ because once your back end steps out and you’re on the grass out there, it’s a big accident.”
When Donnelly took to the circuit for the first time aboard the Reynard 88D in F3000, he was in confident mood after impressing in a pre-event test at Oulton Park.
“I thought, ‘If I can do Oulton Park quickly, Brands Hatch is not as bumpy, it shouldn’t be as difficult,’” he recalls. “So I had confidence, I just knew if I didn’t throw the car down the road and worked my way into it, that I could get there.
EJR team-mates Donnelly and poleman Herbert compare notes at the 1988 Brands event - which will forever be remembered for Herbert's violent crash in the race
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“Into the likes of Paddock Hill Bend, you can go later on the brakes, you can go in faster because you’ve got more downforce on. So you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself.”
Donnelly topped his qualifying group to line up on the front row alongside poleman Herbert, who had a raft of development parts at his disposal.
“To qualify two tenths off Johnny in the slower group said a lot,” he says. “And I think the team realised that. EJ was living the dream!”
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Donnelly tracked Herbert in the opening phase of the race until red flags flew following Roberto Moreno’s crash at Paddock Hill Bend. Donnelly got away well at the restart, but Herbert had too much wheelspin, and then tangled with Gregor Foitek over the brow of the hill approaching Hawthorns. Following the lengthy red flag delay, Donnelly took a hollow win at the third time of asking and refrained from spraying champagne on the podium, but his 1989 victory was a different story.
Given his form at the end of 1988 – he’d finished third in the standings after just five races – he was a title favourite for 1989. But to say his season hadn’t gone to plan would have been a gross understatement.
An engine failure on his new Mugen engine curtailed a likely podium at Silverstone, before victory at Vallelunga was taken away after it was determined that his Eddie Jordan Racing Reynard’s new nosecone hadn’t been crash-tested. He was chasing eventual winner Alesi when he clipped the barriers at Pau, suffered two punctures at Jerez while in the points and clashed with Thomas Danielsson at Enna after first corner contact with Alesi demoted him to the back of the field. The return to Brands Hatch therefore came at an opportune time.
Qualifying had been a DAMS Lola benefit, with Erik Comas and Eric Bernard locking out the front row. But at the start, as Alesi blasted between them, Donnelly took the high line around the outside to sweep into second.
“Myself and Jean put in two cracker starts and at some stage there was four F3000 cars in that same piece of tarmac,” he says. “It was a very risky move, we got away with it.”
Alesi (4) and Donnelly (3) made blistering starts to jump ahead of the DAMS Lolas off the line
Photo by: Motorsport Images
There was controversy over Donnelly’s move on Alesi, after the Frenchman had run wide into Clearways, as yellow flags were being waved to aid the recovery of Marco Apicella’s stranded machine from the pit straight. But the pass was allowed to stand.
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“Once I got into a rhythm, I wasn’t driving 10 tenths, probably driving about eight and a half or nine tenths but I was starting to pull away,” Donnelly says. “So I just relaxed and made sure I got all my apexes.
“And then at some stage I could see coming out of Druids down the hill, I could see Jean going along the top into Paddock and I thought, ‘If I don’t make any mistakes and don’t abuse the car, striking some kerbs and whatnot, I should have this’ and that’s what happened.”
Donnelly made it back-to-back F3000 wins at Brands in 1989, heading home Alesi and Erik Comas
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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