No words necessary

F1’s Martin Donnelly and the Lotus Elise

Car: Lotus Elise 220 Sport

Drive: Circuit Hethel, Norfolk, England (3.52km)

Photos: Lotus Driving Academy, Dawn Green 


Chances are you would remember ‘Senna’, the compelling 2010 doco about the late, great Ayrton Senna.

It shows fellow F1 driver and mate Martin Donnelly, who many thought to be a potential champion of the future, lying motionless in the middle of the track 50 metres away from where his Lotus hit the barrier at 230km/h and completely disintegrated during practice for the 1990 Spanish F1 Grand Prix. 

At the risk of understatement, Donnelly’s injuries were critical. He had bruising to his lungs and brain (the impact was so violent it cracked the crash helmet), severe breaks to both legs, resulting in massive blood loss.

During a long and painful recovery, the Northern Irishman suffered kidney failure and was on dialysis for weeks.

It looked as if his right leg might have to be amputated.

Remarkably, he survived and even went on to race successfully again though the massive injuries spelt the end of his promising F1 career. 

In 2018, Martin Donnelly headed up the Lotus Driving Academy in the UK.

And right now he’s seated alongside, showing me the correct way to lap Lotus’s historic test rack at Hethel.

I’m at the wheel of an Elise 220 Sport, renowned for its subliminal handling and ability to punch well above its weight. 

Like all Lotus racing and road cars, the Elise is a product of marque founder Colin Chapman’s ‘add lightness’ philosophy.

Weighing in at a trim 845kg means it has the wherewithal to thoroughly exploit every skerrick of its supercharged, 1.8-litre Toyota engine’s 162kW of power and 250Nm of torque — evidence a quickfire 0-100km/h time of 4.2 seconds.

But, I’m getting mixed messages. A voice inside my head is urging me to hustle the lithe, little Lotus; ring its neck, stomp on the brakes, pitch it into the corner.

After all, I know from having driven the Sport 220’s predecessor – the Elise S, 10 years ago – how much rollicking, good fun that can be. 

But, hardly audible above the rorty engine note and wind rush, Martin is telling me something different.

“Don’t brake, just lift off the throttle, then back on the throttle,” he urges in his unmistakeable Northern Irish accent, delivered in scattergun fashion. “On, off, on, off…”

He is, of course, right. Lifting off the throttle transfers weight forward to aid front end grip turning into a corner; back on the throttle exiting the corner transfers it over the rear wheels which helps get power to the ground.

Do as he says and the car immediately feels way more composed. More importantly – in the context of driving a racing circuit – it’s the quicker way around.

With Martin’s sage words continuing to ring in my ears, I’m now braking just once a lap – for a tight chicane near the end of the main straight.

Using 3rd gear everywhere except the two straights, where we pull 5th, ensures I’m making full use of the engine’s torque curve. 

His advice to be less aggressive with steering input and throttle application is also paying dividends.

Result? The car fairly flows around the 3.52km track, a technical succession of bends, corners, hairpins and straights that places a premium on handling. Which is right up Lotus territory.

But, more than that, we’re driving in the wheel tracks of legends. 

Hethel is where a multitude of world champions (current, past or future) shook down and developed their Lotus F1 cars that went on to take some 77 grand prix victories.

The various aspects of the track carry their name: Senna Curves, Mansell Main Straight, Rindt Hairpin, Fittipaldi Straight, Clark, Graham Hill and Andretti corners. 

Originally, the site served as an airfield to heavy bomber squadrons of the US 8th Air Force during World War II, which flew daring, dangerous daylight raids over Germany and occupied Europe. 

Group Lotus moved its headquarters to Hethel in 1966 and it has been there ever since. 

Portions of the runways and taxiways were developed to form the test track and the heritage-listed control tower now forms the basis of clubrooms from which the Lotus Driving Academy operates on track days. 

All too soon, the 20-minute ‘Scare Yourself Sensible’ track driving experience – to use its marketing name – is over.

It is, of course, a play on the words of that old saying, ‘scare yourself silly’.

I’m not convinced I did that, though Martin Donnelly might have another opinion.

What I am sure of is that, of the many similar experiences I have enjoyed at various tracks in the UK, Europe, the US and Australia, this is one of the best. 


Lotus Elise 220 Sport

Basic price new: $87,900

Engine: 1.8-litre supercharged DOHC 16v inline 4-cyl

Power: 162kW @ 6800 rpm

Torque:250Nm @ 4600 rpm

Transmission: 6-spd manual

Weight: 845kg

Drive: Rear-wheel

0-100km/h: 4.2 secs


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