Mick Doohan and MotoGP’s greatest comeback

MotoGP

In June 1992 Dutch surgeons planned to amputate Mick Doohan’s right leg. By September 1998 the Australian had won five consecutive 500 world titles. This is the harrowing tale of bike racing’s greatest comeback

Mick Doohan

Doohan in 1999, wearing the number-one plate for the fifth-consecutive season

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This is the harrowing tale of how Mick Doohan fought back from what should have been a career-ending injury to rule the toughest class in bike racing.

The Australian’s recovery from his accident at Assen on June 26, 1992 is the stuff of legend. During the days, weeks and months that followed he showed a Churchillian refusal to surrender, an almost scary capacity to tolerate pain and a superhuman ability to stay focused on an apparently impossible goal.

And all this without even a whimper of self-pity. “You’ve only got yourself to blame and nobody gives a damn,” says Doohan, blunt as ever. “So you’ve just got to get on with it.”

Most frightening of all, none of these heroics would’ve been necessary if a Dutch doctor hadn’t botched the operation to fix his broken right leg. Only years after the accident did Doohan tell the world that he thought the doctor acted vindictively.

“The wound at the back of the leg swelled to about 10cm wide. I knew this wasn’t the best scenario for getting back on a bike.”

Doohan and his big-bang Honda NSR500 were flying high in 1992. By the time the circus got to Assen he was leading Kevin Schwantz by 53 points and there was a chance he could wrap up the title with four races to go.

Back then Assen was the trickiest GP track of them all and the Dutch TT claimed its usual haul of victims, Schwantz, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner and Doohan among them.

Doohan slid off during second practice, then ran a mile back to the pits, where the local track doctor insisted he strip for a check-up. “I’d just run for ten minutes in all my gear and survived,” he recalls. “Complete tosser!” This clash would have huge consequences.

The next day Doohan fell again – possibly on fluid dropped by another machine – and sustained a distal spyroid displaced fracture of his right tibia. As he lay there, feeling the broken bones grind together, his first thoughts were for the championship. “I was thinking, how can I get back on the bike, what’s the quickest solution?”

Stretchered into the Clinica Mobile he discussed the options with renowned bike-racing medic Dr Claudio Costa and others, including the local track doctor. No surprise that he chose the solution that would – in theory – get him back on a bike soonest: have the injury fixed that same afternoon.

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“I asked my ‘buddy’, the local doctor, who’s the best orthopaedic surgeon in Holland? His response was ‘we all went to the same university, so we are all as good as each other’. I thought that was an odd answer, but I decided to go with him anyway. Bad choice!”

Controversially, the doctor used plates and screws to fix the injury, instead of a rod, and gave Doohan an epidural, instead of a full anaesthetic. “During the op I could feel the power tools rattling through my bones, so I asked to be knocked out.”

And that’s when everything went really wrong. Within hours Doohan’s leg had compartment syndrome, a pressure build-up that cuts off circulation, with potentially disastrous results. “When Costa came to see me the next morning he asked if I could feel my toes and I couldn’t, so I knew something wasn’t good.”

So Doohan went under the knife again. “From there on it got very messy. They cut open the leg from the back of my knee to the ankle and from the top of the foot to the toes. The wound at the back of the leg swelled to about ten centimetres wide. I knew this wasn’t the best scenario for getting back on a bike.”

“I really believe the doctor who operated on me wanted my career over. I heard he said to Schwantz [also hospitalised that weekend] that he felt no sympathy towards us racers because our injuries are self-inflicted.”

There’s no doubt that Doohan did receive horrendous treatment at Assen. “I had to ask to have the bandages changed because the leg was starting to smell like bad meat. The doctor had been speaking with Costa and they got into an argument when the doctor said he would have to amputate the leg if it didn’t improve within 24 hours.”

After that argument the doctor returned to Doohan’s bed in an agitated state and ripped off the dirty bandages, pulling away a lot of flesh. “I was in a fair bit of pain there,” says Doohan with characteristic understatement. “They had to stitch the flesh back together and give me couple of bags of blood.”

Costa – who wasn’t allowed to practice in the Dutch hospital – knew there was no time to lose. He booked an air ambulance, ‘kidnapped’ Doohan and Schwantz from the hospital, despite fearsome resistance from the doctors, and flew them to his clinic in Bologna, Italy.

“It was a relief to get out of there; it was a bad place to be. Costa was concerned because they had thinned out my blood so much [in a desperate attempt to improve circulation] that my internal organs were at risk of shutting down. That was the first barrier he had to cross – to get my general health into a stable condition – then he could see what he could do with the leg.

Mick Doohan in hospital

In July 1992 Doohan appeared on TV with his legs sewn together. He wasn’t a well man

Doohan Archive

“It was a dark time – Costa couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t understand Italian and the other doctors weren’t saying anything – but I was just looking forward. I also knew that motorcycle racing does have its downsides, so it wasn’t really a surprise to be in that position.

“I guess I was a bit naïve and not willing to accept that I might lose my leg and never ride again. The only thing that kept me going is that I wanted to get back out there and try to retain the title lead.”

At first Costa prescribed daily visits to a hyperbaric chamber to increase the amount of oxygen in Doohan’s bloodstream. But the leg was still dying.

“I was just agreeing with things because I wanted to get back on the bike… there were numerous operations – I lost count of how many”

“After a week I noticed a lot of very black skin. The doctors took a spoon-type instrument and started removing it until they got down to the tendons and bones and the metal plates and screws. I guess that’s when reality set in – that this was going to be a long road to recovery. But I still wanted to keep pushing.”

Costa finally decided there was only one option: use the blood supply from the left leg to keep the right leg alive. So he sewed the legs together.

“It sounds pretty barbaric and it hadn’t been done for quite a while. Normally when they did that they bolted the legs together, but Costa plastered them together because bolting them wouldn’t be good for getting back in a hurry. It was a bit of a shock, to be honest. I was just agreeing with things because I wanted to get back on the bike. But looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. Working to get back as quick as possible was what kept me going – if I’d been sitting around in hospital for six months it would’ve done my head in.

“Throughout that period there were numerous operations – I lost count of how many – and they were long ops. This one was a success, but it wasn’t pretty, they never were.”

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The legs were separated after 14 days, and then the race was on to get him ready for the Brazilian GP at Interlagos in Sao Paolo, just eight weeks after Assen. Going into the Brazilian round – the penultimate race of 1992 – he still had a 22-point lead over Marlboro Yamaha Team Roberts rider Wayne Rainey.

“I could hardly walk but I wanted to give it a go. I did physio at Costa’s and rode an Aprilia street bike around Imola, very gingerly. I thought if I could get out there at Interlagos and just score a few points…

“Brazil was a pretty rough weekend. It was extremely tricky because I didn’t have any feeling from the knee down, so my foot would come off the footpeg and I wouldn’t know until it was floating in the breeze. I used a lot of rear brake on the 500 but I couldn’t do that anymore because I didn’t have any movement in my ankle. I was just riding around.”

Quite apart from his weakness, there were other problems – the leg was badly infected and bleeding. “One night I woke up and the leg had basically exploded with all the infection. All this pus oozed out over the bed, so Costa came in to flush it out with saline solution. He would pour a litre through this hole, like a big boil-type thing, then flush it back out to get rid of all the crap. That was the night before the race – it wasn’t the best of nights.”

Doohan struggled to 12th in the race. Any other year and that would’ve given him four points, but 1992 was the only year between 1988 and now that they only awarded points to tenth.

After the race Costa cried his eyes out. Meanwhile Doohan’s thoughts were only for the season finale in South Africa, two weeks later, where he would defend a two-point lead over Rainey.

He returned to Costa’s clinic to continue physio, then got on a plane to Kyalami, outside Johannesburg.

“I was a lot stronger by then and I got sixth.” But Rainey finished third and won the title by four points. Any other year and Doohan would’ve been champion, having won more races. “I was pretty bummed out,” he says, understated as ever.

At least he now had the off-season to get back to full strength for 1993. If only it had been that simple.

1993 – Doohan leg in Ilizarov frame (8) – Copy

The Ilizarov frame on Doohan’s right leg following surgery in the US in late 1993

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“The problem was that the leg was still infected, so the bone was pretty soft. I pushed it too hard in training during the off-season and the bone started to collapse. By the start of ’93 there was quite a bit of angulation in the leg. Also, I had a big crash during testing at Eastern Creek and smacked the leg pretty hard. That might’ve weakened it a bit more. By the end of 1992 it had 20 degrees of angulation – you could grab my ankle and knee and you could flex the leg back and forth. Wild times!

“Also, I still had no feeling in the leg, so I ground half of my little toe away during testing at Phillip Island. It took another 12 months to gain some feeling. Even then it was nothing like before, but at least I could feel my foot on the footrest.”

Surely he must’ve been close to admitting defeat? “Yeah, there were times when I thought what the hell am I doing? But I wanted to ride and I knew that if I could get strong again I should be able to win, because before the crash I had been dominating, with all the good guys there. So I knew that if I could get even 90 percent fit there was a good chance I could win again. That’s what kept me going.”

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Doohan says he has no idea why he is so determined. “I just think it’s a lot easier to put in the effort to finish as high as you can as it is to be happy with second or third. I think it’s easier to keep pushing yourself.”

And that’s exactly what he did, even though he finished way off the podium in the first few races of 1993. Doohan wasn’t only struggling because his leg was weak and wonky, he still couldn’t use the rear brake. At Suzuka he had a bright idea: why not design a new brake system that he could operate with his left thumb? Second time out with the thumb brake he was on the podium and four races later he topped the podium at Mugello, his first victory since the accident.

“That confirmed my madness of pushing myself to get out there. A few races before that Honda had wanted to replace me with Eddie Lawson, so I could have time to heal, but I felt that if I was out for six months or a year I might never get back in. Mugello was a big boost: I’m going to push through and if I can win like this I’m definitely going to be okay once the leg is stronger.”

But his trials and tribulations were far from over. At Laguna Seca he fell and broke a shoulder, the crash caused by the same problem that had had him off at Eastern Creek. “I was using too much upper-body to steer the bike, instead of using my legs. I was basically hanging onto the bike with my thighs, and my arms were doing all the work. It was a challenge to ride that way.”

After Laguna Doohan stayed in California where renowned surgeon Kevin Louie attached an external fixator to the leg, to bend it straight. This technique, created by Russian orthopaedic surgeon Gavriil Ilizarov, was a new treatment outside of Russia.

“When I started testing in February 1994 I could steer the bike a lot better and it just improved from there. I still couldn’t move about on the bike like I use to, but it wasn’t too long before I was able to compensate for that.”

Louie was amazed by his patient’s ability to cope with pain. “Mick took so little pain medication, it’s almost superhuman,” he says. “It’s like he reset his pain thermostat.”

Doohan doesn’t think he’s superhuman. “I feel pain without a doubt and I’m not the only guy in the sport who’s ridden injured. You tend to put it in the back of your mind. It comes down to determination – if you want to do something you’ll find a way to do it.

“If I could get away with your normal aspirin-type pain medication, I would. I didn’t want to be all screwed-up with all the drugs, like the hangover feeling you get from pain medication and sleeping pills. That was the main reason I wasn’t taking pain medication, not because I was superhuman, just because I wanted to be mentally back on my game quicker.”

Doohan made a steady start to 1994 but was soon into his stride, winning nine races to take the title by 143 points. By the end of 1998 he had won five consecutive premier-class crowns – a feat matched only by Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi. And it might have been six in a row if he hadn’t had another massive shunt in early 1999. This time he knew there was no way to keep going. One of bike racing’s greatest careers and its greatest comeback were finally over.


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