MotoGP riders sometimes seem superhuman – rising from their hospital beds to make a Lazarus-like comeback – but are they really?
Valentino Rossi’s recent comeback from a broken leg is already the stuff of legend. Or is it? Rossi fractured his right tibia and fibula when he slid off a dirt-bike, just days after reigniting his 2017 championship challenge with a third place at Silverstone, when he’d finished 0.7sec behind winner Andrea Dovizioso.
His tibia was fixed with the usual surgical nail, inserted by drilling through the top of the tibia and hammering the nail through the bone. If the operation is successful, the leg should immediately be as strong as it was before the break. The pain, however, is another matter.
Motorcycle racers are used to dealing with pain. Rossi raced at Aragon 23 days after sustaining his injury, which isn’t anything unusual. Most famously, Jorge Lorenzo raced in the Dutch round of the 2013 MotoGP championship less than 48 hours after he had had a broken collarbone pinned and plated.
“As a motorbike racer you’re never fit, you’ve always got some sort of injury,” says Cal Crutchlow, who won his first MotoGP race last year. “My worst was at the Sachsenring in 2013. Honestly, if you’d seen me; I shouldn’t have raced. When I crashed on Friday there was so much blood that they loaded me with morphine. I was completely out of it. When I got up on Saturday morning I ended up flat on my back in the motorhome, pissing all over myself, with Lucy [now Mrs Crutchlow] screaming, because she thought I was dying. Then I went out, qualified second and the next day nearly won the race [he finished 1.5sec behind winner Marc Márquez].”
If you think this sounds like madness, perhaps you are right. The big question, of course, is how are riders allowed to race when their fitness is questionable?
There are four senior medics at every MotoGP event: the chief medical officer (appointed by the national federation), the medical director (appointed by rights-holder Dorna), the FIM medical officer (appointed by the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) and Dr Michele Zasa (chief doctor at the Clinica Mobile). The medic who has the final say on a rider’s fitness to race –which is judged via a series of strength tests – is the chief medical officer, who is most distantly connected to the championship.
But most riders are much more familiar with Dr Zasa, who runs the travelling hospital that has attended Grand Prix events since the 1970s. The Clinica Mobile was created by Dr Claudio Costa, son of Checco Costa, the man who helped create the Imola racetrack. The first rider Dr Costa helped was Geoff Duke, after a crash at Imola.
Zasa took over the Clinica Mobile a few years ago. He had previously worked with the East Anglian air-ambulance service, bringing pre-hospital emergency treatment to traffic accident victims. He knows more than anyone about how MotoGP riders cope with their injuries.
“I have the best job in the world, but also it can be a terrible job,” he says. “When I worked with the air ambulance I would get to an accident where people had very bad injuries and might die, but I didn’t know them, so I used my training and did my job. Here in MotoGP it’s totally different. I was there with Marco Simoncelli after his fatal accident; also with Luis Salom in the resuscitation room after his fatal accident. It was really, really bad. I started working in the Clinica in 2011, so I’d only known Marco for a few months, but I knew Luis very well.
“In MotoGP I have two lives: one is the rush of adrenaline I get when I reach the side of a rider who’s had a bad crash; the other is my job inside the Clinica, which is more like being a normal doctor: helping riders with broken bones, dislocations, flu and gastroenteritis.
“I know the riders are superhumans but, even if they have a higher pain threshold, for sure they feel pain and they don’t want to feel it. Adrenaline helps a lot. They may have pain but when they get on the bike but the rush of adrenaline overcomes the pain, at least until they stop riding.”
Riders do use painkillers, according to the WADA code, which bans cortisone, opioids and so on. Mesotherapy – a series of shallow injections around the injury – is effective because the painkiller isn’t introduced to the bloodstream. Otherwise it’s Ketoprofen, ibuprofen, paracetamol, plus electrotherapy and physiotherapy. In other words, a wide-ranging approach to managing pain and inflammation.
But ultimately, it’s the rider that makes the biggest difference. “The best riders are the most motivated to do what they do, so even though they feel the pain, they always want to get back on the bike,” adds Zasa. “When they get hurt they don’t take a month off, instead they wait five minutes and then they ask to get back on the bike. Their talent makes them champions, but their motivation to let pain and other problems pass them by is vital.
“MotoGP is dangerous, so it’s not enough to be fast and talented. You also need to be smart to manage every race without taking too many risks.
“I don’t think many of them think about getting badly injured, otherwise they’d stop. They are fatalistic: if it’s going happen, it’s going to happen. You can have a bad accident on the way to work. At least they are doing what they love.”
Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner