“My right hand was still bad,” he remembers. “So by the time Wayne had crashed out of the race I was having to ride down the back straightaway cross-handed. I’d come out of that fast kink [when Misano ran anti-clockwise] shift gears, then reach over and hold the throttle with my left hand, so I could release the right hand and shake it for a couple of seconds, just enough to get some circulation back.”
The following year – his last full season – Schwantz broke his other hand for the third time. He should’ve undergone surgery and rested up. Instead, he carried on racing, in grim agony.
“The bones would dislocate every race and then I’d get them reset Sunday night. I won at Donington [his final GP win], even though the bones dislocated halfway through the race. That evening I was in the Clinica Mobile with two guys hanging onto my upper arm, one guy hanging onto my hand and [MotoGP medic] Doctor Costa poking around with his thumbs, popping the bones back into place.”
And then there was Doohan when he was battling Rainey for the 1992 title. He had crashed at Assen, breaking his right leg. Local surgeons botched the op, so Costa sewed his legs together, to save the dying right leg. After two weeks the legs were separated and four weeks later he was in Brazil for the penultimate race at São Paulo.
“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,” Doohan recalls.
And riding the bike wasn’t the only nightmare. “The night before the race I woke up and the leg had basically exploded with all the infection. All this puss oozed out over the bed, so Costa came in to flush it out with saline solution. He’d pour a litre through this hole, like a big boil-type thing, then flush it back out to get rid of all the crap. It wasn’t the best of nights.”
When surgeons attached an Ilizarov external fixator to straighten Doohan’s broken and bent tibia and fibula they were amazed at his ability to handle pain. “It’s like he’s reset his pain thermostat,” said Dr Kevin Louie. “Most people with external fixators will use an opiate painkiller, like morphine. Mick took paracetamol.”
More recently there was Cal Crutchlow’s 2012 British GP, which seemed to have ended when he broke and dislocated his left ankle in FP3. Doctors at the local hospital told him he would have to miss the next four races
“I’m not allowed to put weight on the foot for eight to ten weeks,” he said. “But I’m a typical motorcycle racer, so that’s eight to ten hours.”
When Crutchlow returned from hospital to the paddock he lied to circuit doctors, who had told him he wouldn’t be able to race with broken bones. However, the hospital had already been in contact….
“So I had to do a vigorous fitness test before warm-up,” added The Briton. “The test was f**king murder. I had to run from one side of the medical centre to the other four times. Then I had to do 20 foot raises on both feet, then ten on the left and then ten on the heel.” He started the race from the back of the grid and finished seventh.
Worse was to come a few weeks later. “The worst one was Sachsenring in 2013,” Crutchlow told me recently. “I was f**ked. Honestly, if you’d seen me! That was another time I shouldn’t have raced. When I crashed in FP2 [at Sachsenring’s notorious Turn 11] 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 1.5 seconds behind winner Marc Márquez]. But I had no feeling in my right arm.”
Doohan in 1993. Most external-fixator patients take morphine. Doohan took paracetamol
It was the same deal for Crutchlow last weekend – racing with a pinned left scaphoid which caused him to overuse his right arm to the point where it went numb, causing him to run off the track. That’s why he briefly came into the pits
By coincidence, Sachsenring 2013 was the weekend that Jorge Lorenzo put himself out of that year’s title battle by crashing and breaking his left collarbone in practice. In fact rebreaking the bone he had broken two weeks earlier at Assen – the accident that became the blueprint for Márquez’s abortive return at Jerez.
Lorenzo crashed in FP2, flew home to Barcelona in his private jet, had the bone plated in the middle of the night, flew back to Assen on race-day morning and finished fifth. Surely this was madness?
“I’m not a crazy person and I think riders are not crazy people – we know exactly if we are fit or not to race,” he said. “If I’d felt I wasn’t in condition to try, I would never have tried. I am not a hero, I am so human. I felt a lot of pain during the race but if you push hard to get your goal you can reach it.”
Such unlikely comebacks are entirely thanks to the surgical technique of pinning and plating bones. During so-called open reduction and internal fixation, the broken pieces of the fractured bones are realigned in open reduction and reconnected by pins, plates and screws in internal fixation.
ORIF has been around since the late 19th century but the technology has only been perfected in recent decades. War has helped a lot, because there’s that symbiotic relationship between military engineers, who work to find better ways of blowing people apart, and medical engineers, who work out new ways to bolt people back together.
The first GP racer to undergo ORIF surgery was East German MZ rider Ernst Degner, who broke an elbow during practice for the 1961 Dutch TT, while he was battling for that year’s 125cc title with Honda’s Tom Phillis. Degner couldn’t wait for the injury to heal naturally, because the Belgian GP was the following weekend, so his East German minders drove him home where he went under the knife.
“I have a minor sensation to report,’ wrote British reporter Mick Woollett at Spa-Francorchamps. “Ernst Degner will be racing. He’s had an operation on his arm, a steel pin has been inserted to ‘bolt’ things together.”
What Márquez did last weekend was just the same, after surgeons had undertaken ORIF on the right humerus he broke the previous Sunday. But the reigning MotoGP champ came in for plenty of criticism when he decided to ride: he will be a danger to himself and he will be a danger to others.
In fact he was neither because the moment he felt he might endanger himself and his rivals he withdrew from the event. The problems started during FP4, his second session of the weekend, when his injured right arm reacted angrily to the stresses of riding a MotoGP bike.
“In the morning I felt really good,” he said. “I was able to ride 37.7s with used tyre, the same kind of times from last weekend. When I started again in the afternoon [FP4] I felt really good again and I could ride in good way, with good feeling. But when I stopped in the box and went out again something changed immediately. It was the inflammation. The arm got bigger, pressed on some nerves and I lost the power in my arms in some corners.
“At that point you need to be honest with your body and understand the situation. I told the team I would go out in Q2 and if I had the same kind of feeling I would give up. Tonight I will sleep well, because I tried.”
Márquez most likely finished his 2020 title challenge with the terrifying 100mph highside that ended a breathtaking charge through the pack after an early mistake, when he lost the front. His second and much costlier error came after he had moved into third place, behind Viñales, who was some way behind race leader Quartararo.
“Last Sunday you cannot imagine how much I enjoyed the race,” he added. “After my mistake and big save it was a strange race but I enjoyed myself a lot on the bike; I was feeling really, really good. The mistake arrived when I said, ‘OK, the job is done’. I arrived behind Viñales and with only few laps to go it was impossible to catch Quartararo, so the job was done and I was going to follow Viñales and overtake him at the end. That’s when I flew. That corner, every lap I was cutting the inside kerb. That lap I didn’t cut the kerb, I just touched the white line and suddenly both tyres, the front and the rear, gave up. It was my mistake, of course. This kind of thing can happen in racing and you must learn from it.”
Márquez will be much stronger at Brno, but how strong? There are 11 races left – maybe fewer – and he is 50 points behind Quartararo. It seems like an impossible mountain to climb, but stranger things have happened. “This is racing, anything can happen,” he says. “I will never give up if I have some chance.”