Mat Oxley – MotoGP

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Dealing with the pain

Rostrum or hospital!” The bike racer’s on-the-grid battle cry is only half a joke. Motorcycle racing is dangerous, everyone knows that. Just ask Jorge Lorenzo, Fiat Yamaha’s much battered-about MotoGP star who recently turned the macho mantra on its head with a French Grand Prix ride that took him from wheelchair to rostrum.

Lorenzo’s second place at Le Mans, with broken bones in both ankles, was undoubtedly gritty. But it was nothing out of the ordinary in a sport that expects riders to routinely grimace their way through the pain barrier, never mind that bike racing is a hugely physical sport, riders wrestling their machines through each and every corner.

Although Grand Prix racing is much safer than it has ever been, thanks to wider run-offs and much-improved riding gear, motorcycle racers still accept injury as the inevitable downside of their vocation. Decades ago the carnage in Grand Prix street races was sickening. “There were so many deaths that to be perfectly honest you got immune to it,” says Frank Perris, a Suzuki GP rider during the 1960s. “In 1962 and ’63 there were 14 of us who got killed. It’s pretty awful to say this but it didn’t worry me, and all the top guys will tell you the same. It was awful, but we put it out of our minds. It was never going to happen to you.”

These days the really nasty thing is riding hurt. Largely, it is a case of mind over matter, as Lorenzo explained after his Lazarus-style comeback at Le Mans: “I thought I’d be lucky to finish sixth or seventh. Always it’s a fight with the two minds. One mind says to you: ‘okay, this race, just finish it, nothing else’. Then the other mind says: ‘you can try to go with them…’.”

Lorenzo and his MotoGP rivals are helped in their brave (or should that be foolish) endeavour by the Clinica Mobile paddock hospital, run by the eccentric Dr Claudio Costa. Costa’s House of Pain has been patching up riders and sending them out for decades. The Italian medic is a big fan of Nietzsche, whose mantra ‘what does not kill us makes us stronger’ perfectly fits the clinic’s philosophy. Costa wrote the following words last year on the occasion of the Clinica Mobile’s 30th anniversary: “Our clinic has become a home for heroes, an altar for riders to celebrate the magical ritual with which they resurrect from their injuries, from their fractures, from their illnesses, to climb the enchanted mountain of motorcycling, the mountain with only the stars in heaven above it.” Remarkably, Costa’s operation (which is financed by commercial interests within the sport) is often involved in clearing injured riders to ride.

Costa’s secret is mesotherapy pain-killing treatment, a specialist technique that delivers micro-doses of painkiller via dozens of injections in the injury area.

The treatment itself is agonising, as Valentino Rossi says: “I have very much fear of the mesotherapy needle”.

Of course, mesotherapy doesn’t allow riders to ride pain-free, it merely allows them to ride when otherwise they might have to sit out the race. They still have to deal with the pain.

Five-time MotoGP champion Mick Doohan was renowned for his ability to race through the agony, even without chemical assistance. Back in the 1990s the Aussie underwent multiple operations for a badly broken leg, after which his surgeon was moved to say: “Mick took so little pain medication, it’s almost superhuman. It’s like he’s reset his pain thermostat.” Some years later Doohan broke a finger during German GP practice, refused painkilling treatment with the immortal words “I’m not a painkiller type of person”, climbed back on his bike and grabbed pole position.

Sometimes determination can become desperation, as in the case of Italian rider Marco Papa who tried reversing his Yamaha’s controls – clutch on the right handlebar, throttle and front brake on the left – after he broke his right wrist during Malaysian GP practice a few years ago. It took him three scary laps to realise the error of his ways.

Depending on your viewpoint, these men are noble braves, vainglorious fools or deranged maniacs. But at least they are all fully grown adults, quite capable of deciding what they want to do with their own bodies. Well, not quite. In recent years the minimum age for the smallest Grand Prix class – the 150mph 125cc category – has been successively lowered to the current 15 years of age. And the recently introduced rookies cup allows 13-year-olds to compete at World Championship events on lesser-tuned 125s that nudge 130mph. Most people within the sport don’t consider this morally dubious, but consider the following…

Reigning MotoGP champ Casey Stoner contested his debut Grand Prix season in 2002 aged 16, riding a 170mph Aprilia RSV250.

He was allowed to contest that year’s Italian GP despite having fractured his right wrist less than two weeks earlier. Not surprisingly, the injury caused him to crash in first practice, this time suffering concussion. Remarkably, he was cleared to ride that afternoon by the Clinica, by his father and by his team. After that next outing a somewhat groggy Stoner said: “The brake markers seemed to move every lap, I was taking different lines all the time”. Nevertheless he decided to continue riding the next day when inevitably he crashed once more, breaking a finger on his left hand.

Last summer a colleague interviewed one of GP racing’s new breed of 15-year-old starlets at the family home. The rider’s father was somewhat rankled when his son was asked about the dangers of racing, as if the kid shouldn’t compromise his potential by contemplating the possibility of breaking bones or back. Perhaps the father had never thought to raise the subject with his son.
Motorcycle racers live with pain, it’s part of the job. It’s their decision to take risks and we admire them for that. But MotoGP needs to think carefully about its duty of care to schoolboy Grand Prix riders, or risk being branded some kind of sick freak show.

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Rossi to go on and on

Good news for Valentino Rossi fans, bad news for up-and-coming MotoGP riders: the seven-time premier-class World Champion has announced that he may continue in MotoGP for another five or six years.

“The age is not a problem,” says Rossi, who will celebrate his 30th birthday next February. “Look at Troy Bayliss [currently leading the World Superbike series], he is still very, very fast and he is 38. The same with Loris Capirossi, he is 35 and still very fast and hungry. So I see no problem at all in continuing until I am 34 or 35.”

Rossi, who has found a rich vein of form following his recent switch to Bridgestone tyres, is now on the verge of surpassing the all-time record of 68 premier-class victories, held for decades by 1960s and ’70s biking legend Giacomo Agostini.

The Italian’s ongoing love affair with bikes looks like keeping him away from a switch to his other passion, rallying. Although Rossi came close to moving to F1 with Ferrari a few years back, his favourite four-wheeled motor sport has always been rallying. In 2006 he finished 11th in Rally New Zealand.

*****

250 Grands Prix: The end is nigh

Motorcycle Grand Prix racing’s second class is about to undergo the greatest overhaul in its six-decade history. MotoGP’s rights-holders Dorna is expected to announce that the 250cc category will be killed off at the end of the 2010 season and replaced by a 600cc four-stroke formula. The new 600s will run prototype chassis powered by street-based engines in an effort to minimise costs.

The alteration is in line with the sport’s shift from two-strokes to four-strokes, a move started by the 990cc MotoGP bikes introduced in 2002 to take on (and eventually replace) the 500cc two-strokes.

Not everyone is happy about the passing of the 250 two-strokes, especially because they are being replaced by glorified street bikes. Two-stroke advocates argue that the acute nature of the two-stroke race bike – both in its set-up and behaviour – educates racers better. This is why, they say, MotoGP is packed with former 250 men, not riders from the street-based World Superbike and World Supersport classes. “Top MotoGP guys come from categories in which you must know about set-up,” says famed two-stroke engineer Harald Bartol. “A 600 is not a race bike, it’s not a race horse. To me, 600s is donkey racing.”