It was rather remiss of us to have overlooked that yesterday was the anniversary of the death of former F1 driver Mark Donohue, who succumbed to injuries sustained in a freak practice accident during the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix at 38 years of age.
Born in New Jersey, Mark graduated as an engineer before he made the rather late move into motorsport in his mid-twenties. Despite his lack of experience, he proved impressive in production sports cars and Formula Junior in the early 1960s, later going on to win the B- and C-Class SCCA championship titles in 1965.
Taken under the mentorship of Walt Hansgen, the pair claimed a second-placed finish in a Ford Mk II sports car at Sebring in 1966, only for his mentor to be killed while testing for the Le Mans 24 Hours just a few months later.
Mark would return to an old association he has formed years earlier with no less a figure than Roger Penske, who would forge the path of Donohue’s career for the next decade.
The marriage quickly worked, with Donohue claiming back-to-back championship crowns in the US Road Racing Championship (1967-8), as well as claiming back-to-back titles in the Trans-Am series in 1968-9.
Penske made its inaugural Indianapolis 500 appearance in 1969, and with Donohue at the wheel he qualified fourth and finished seventh to win the ‘Rookie of the Year’ honour. The following year, Mark finished second in the great race driving a Lola Ford.
Penske continued to expand its motorsport foothold, and Mark was busy in 1971. He won his third Trans-Am title, as well as racing in the USAC series and in sports cars.
Perhaps the highlight of the year was his one-off Grand Prix debut at Mosport in a Penske-run McLaren M19A (pictured above), where he finished a sensational third in what is still considered to be one of the best F1 debuts of all time.
Incredibly, he wouldn’t grace the F1 stage the following year, and instead followed the Penske trailblazing machine, claiming a brilliant Indy 500 win in 1972 in a Penske McLaren.
Despite being sidelined by an accident in mid-1972, Donohue returned to racing and signed off his career by brilliantly winning the 1973 Can-Am championship crown in a Porsche 917, promptly announcing his retirement from competition.
But as we’ve seen before, it’s almost impossible to keep a driver away from the sport, and Mark founded himself finally tempted into a return to racing, and it was a full-time F1 drive to boot.
Of course it would be with Penske, which was finally making its pukka F1 foray in the final two races of the 1974 season. The brand-new PC1 chassis needed plenty of development, and there was no better candidate than Donohue.
He continued with the effort in \to the 1975 season, and – despite his best efforts – the PC1 was a poor car, replaced mid-season by a customer March 751 chassis while the team concentrated its efforts on developing its 1976 challenger.
Taking the car out to practice ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix at the daunting Österreichring, it is thought that one of his tyres suddenly deflated, sending the hapless Donohue into the catch fencing and over the barriers. The accident killed one marshal and seriously injured another, but incredibly Donohue emerged from the wreck seemingly unscathed, albeit a little dazed and with a good headache to boot.
It seemed to be another lucky escape for the Grand Prix fraternity, but fate would have other ideas. Just hours later, Donohue lapsed into unconsciousness.
It later transpired that Donohue’s headaches had stemmed from his helmet hitting a catch-fencing post or an advertising sign’s frame. Despite emergency brain surgery, he would succumb to a cerebral haemorrhage a died three days later.
Despite the devastating loss of one of the best driver-engineers of his generation, Penske plugged on with Formula 1 for another season, this time with John Watson at the wheel. It was completely fitting that the team’s one an only win would come a year on from Donohue’s death, with Watson mastering the soaked conditions at the Österreichring to claim his maiden Grand Prix win.
Survived by his son David – who has forged his own accomplished motorsport career Stateside – Donohue was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame in 2006.
[Images via ASAG, F1 Facts, F1 Nostalgia, Famous New Jerseyans, IMS Blog, Streetfire, The Cahier Archive]
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