When Mighty Mick won his first crown

by Mat Oxley on 6th August 2019

It’s a quarter of a century since Mighty Mick Doohan won his first 500cc world title at Brno. Here’s how he did it...

Mick Doohan riding his Honda in 1994 on the way to the title

Mick Doohan would dominate the 1994 season to take the championship by almost double the points of his closest rival Photo: GPMP

There are many parallels between Mighty Mick Doohan and Magical Marc Márquez: their crazy talent to ride the ragged edge, their mastery of the front tyre, their premier-class records and milestones, their enjoyment of mind games and perhaps most of all their love for destroying and demoralising the opposition.

Doohan’s crew chief Jeremy Burgess had a phrase for this last obsession, borrowed from the rough and rude world of Aussie rules football: “Crush the c***s!”.

This is what Márquez did once again at Brno. He had no reason to take risks and could’ve been forgiven for engaging cruise mode to conserve his huge points advantage, which is, of course, exactly why he didn’t. The idea is to mess with your rivals’ heads, until they see you as unbeatable, so they go into each race already beaten.

He did it in qualifying, skating around the partly soaked circuit on slicks to better everyone by 2.5sec. And he did it again in the race, when he beat everyone by 2.4sec.

His 58th MotoGP pole position equalled Doohan’s all-time pole record and his 50th race win makes him only the fourth rider to reach the half-century, alongside Doohan, Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi.

It was fitting that Márquez reached these landmarks at Brno, because it was at Brno that Doohan won his first 500cc world championship 25 years ago, in August 1994.

Undoubtedly, Doohan’s five consecutive titles – 1994 to 1998 – constitute the greatest comeback in Grand Prix history. In June 1992 the 27-year-old Aussie went into the Dutch TT leading the series by 52 points from Wayne Rainey, but then he crashed in final practice, sustaining spiral fractures of his right tibia and fibula.

'In the post-race media conference he made an ominous announcement. “I know my determination won’t dwindle. I feel like I’ve got to win another title to make the point.”'

He elected to go under the knife at the local hospital, where surgeons botched the op that should’ve fixed the break and had him back on a bike in a few weeks. The surgeons were on the verge of amputating the leg below the knee when MotoGP medic Dr Claudio Costa arrived in a Lear-jet ambulance and spirited Doohan to his own clinic in Bologna, where he sewed the Aussie’s legs together, so that the left leg’s blood supply might save the right leg.

Doohan spent the next year and a half in and out of operating theatres, after returning to racing at the end of 1992 with so little feeling in the leg that he couldn’t even keep it on its footpeg.

The operations are too numerous to go into here. And they weren’t just fixing the leg, they were also fixing injuries he suffered while trying to go fast again before the leg was up to it.

His number-one surgeon was Arthur Ting, the go-to MotoGP bone-fixer of that era, who also fixed up Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson and many others. Despite working with so many racing legends, Ting was in awe of Doohan’s ability to deal with pain.

“He took so little pain medication it’s almost superhuman,” says Ting. “It’s like he’s reset his pain thermostat.”

Doohan was far from fully fit throughout 1993 and was still walking wounded at the start of 1994. But he had worked out how to ride around his injuries.

Preseason testing started in February, at Eastern Creek, outside Sydney, venue for the season-opening Australian GP.

“Straight away I felt better on the bike,” Doohan recalls. “But I was pretty tentative. With all the operations I’d been through I didn’t want to injure myself again.”

Round 1: Australian GP (Eastern Creek), March 27

At the first race he was beaten into third by John Kocinski on a Cagiva and Luca Cadalora on a Yamaha. He wasn’t at all happy about that. Something wasn’t quite right – the bike wasn’t behaving like it had in 1993.

Mick Doohan gets off the line at the Malaysian GP in 1994

Mick Doohan's first win of the 1994 season would come at the Malaysian GP Photo: MotoGP

Round 2: Malaysian GP (Shah Alam), April 10

Doohan had the same problem again: a lack of suspension balance. He only just made the front row, but the following day he won his first race of the year, after crew chief Jeremy Burgess had an inspired overnight rethink.

“We couldn’t keep any corner speed, so we geared the bike down,” says Doohan. “That way I could put the bike into a turn, park it, stand it up and accelerate.”

Round 3: Japanese GP (Suzuka), April 24

This was long-haired local hero Norifumi Abe’s GP debut, when he battled for the lead with Doohan and Schwantz. Abe crashed out, but not before he had won the hearts of thousands of race fans, including a 15-year-old Valentino Rossi, who was so taken with Abe’s wild-riding style and heavy-rock hairdo that he rechristened himself Rossifumi.

Doohan got beaten into second by Schwantz, but while racing with Abe he noticed that the youngster’s 1993 NSR500 was getting drive where his 1994 model was getting none. That got him thinking.

A pre-Spanish GP test at Jarama revealed the truth. A feature of Doohan’s 10-year grand prix career with HRC was the Japanese engineers always pushing to develop and move things forward, while Doohan simply wanted to stick with what he already knew.

He understood that one of the most important factors in motorcycle racing is rider/bike intimacy. To ride faster than anyone else you must know your machine so well that you know what it’s going to do even before it does it. That way you can ride the ragged edge and survive.

For example, at Mugello 1993 Doohan had won his first GP since the Assen accident after requesting 1992 cylinders, exhausts, suspension and so on for his 1993 NSR.

It was the same story in 1994. “They kept telling me I was running 1992 suspension, but I was a second faster once we fitted my old ’92 forks, and the front tyre didn’t chew up anymore. I was pissed off; that took some of the trust out of our relationship.”

Round 4: Spanish GP (Jerez), May 8

Doohan may have been upset, but by the time he got to Jerez he was bursting with confidence and aiming to deal reigning champion Schwantz a morale-crushing defeat at a track that suited Suzuki’s fine-handling but not-so-fast RGV500.

“I knew it’d be psychologically good to beat Schwantz there. It’d bum him out because Jerez isn’t a horsepower track, and after that we were going to two horsepower circuits.”

The pair fought an epic duel, both shattering the lap record on the final lap, Doohan taking the chequered flag four tenths ahead of Schwantz. Kocinski joined them on the podium and probably wished he hadn’t. Neither the winner nor runner-up liked the former 250cc world champion, so they blinded him with champagne, leaving him to stagger to the Clinica Mobile for help.


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Round 5: Austrian GP (Salzburgring), May 8

This was the last time the epically fast and scary Salzburgring staged a Grand Prix. The stunningly picturesque Alpine venue had become too dangerous for GP bikes, although Doohan never hid his love for the place.

“It’s got my all-time favourite corner, where you come over the top of the hill overlooking the pits. I know it’s dangerous, but to me it’s everything racing is about.

“You’re in sixth gear at over 300 kays [186mph], the bike is just about revving out and it doesn’t want to turn. You flick it left and you run past a bank really fast. As you go through the left you’re over the brow of a hill and the track starts to fall away and there’s a little dip in the road there too. The bike also unloads the suspension as you go from one angle of lean to the other. The steering suddenly goes light and the back tyre breaks away; the whole bike is loose. It’s breaking loose and sliding at close to top speed, then while that’s happening you knock it down two gears for the next right…”

No wonder he beat Schwantz by 12sec.

Round 6: German GP (Hockenheim), May 22

Hockenheim wasn’t quite as scary as Salzburgring, but it was even faster, Doohan setting a new lap record at 128mph (206kph). And he loved the place almost as much as Salzburgring.

“It’s awesome fun – you’re smoking along close on 320 kays [199mph] and the bike’s getting lively. You’re bending it over because the fastest straight isn’t even straight and you’re riding through an endless tunnel of trees and Armco.”

That new lap record helped him beat Schwantz by 13sec.

Round 7: Dutch TT (Assen), June 25

Doohan won again, the first of five consecutive victories at Assen, where his career had almost ended two years earlier.

On every visit it was the same deal. “I wanted to stick it to the doctor who messed up my leg and hopefully spoil his evening.”

This time he hobbled away from a 140mph [225kph] crash during practice and in the race he had to deal with Schwantz’s team-mate Alex Barros, who always went well at Assen. He beat the Brazilian by 1.9sec. Schwantz finished a heroic fifth, wearing a special cast on his left forearm, after breaking the wrist during practice. His bravery had a high price – riding with the fresh fracture caused serious damage to the wrist, which was part of his decision to quit 11 months later.

Round 8: Italian GP (Mugello), July 3

Doohan took a while to get into the lead after a slow getaway and then had to battle with Cadalora, who had started from pole. But when he upped his pace in the final laps the Italian couldn’t go with him. He won by 5sec.

Round 9: French GP (Le Mans), July 17

This should’ve been another pushover, but it was anything but. As soon as he started from pole things went awry.

“I’d not been getting good starts all year, because we were running lighter clutch springs, so I could work the clutch and the thumb rear brake at the same time.”

At the first chicane Doohan tried to ride around the outside of the pack of riders that had beaten him away from the grid, but someone was in the way.

“Oh shit! Next plan, let’s panic!”

He ran into the gravel trap at high speed and was lucky to avoid a crash. Eight laps later he was in the lead. Then he very nearly crashed three corners from the flag while showing off to the crowd – a very un-Doohan thing to do.

“I threw the bike sideways for the people watching in the stands. The bike went straight onto full lock and chucked me out the seat. I was lucky I still had one finger on the clutch – I grabbed the lever, drained the power and the bike pulled itself back into line.”

This was his sixth victory in a row – a sign of things to come – and the first time anyone had managed that since Giacomo Agostini in 1972.

Mick Doohan celebrates winning the MotoGP championship at Brno in 1994

Mick Doohan celebrates on the podium at Brno after winning the title Photo: GPMP

Round 10: British GP (Donington Park), July 24

Finally, he got beaten. Schwantz’s left wrist was good enough to defeat Doohan by 2sec. It was the American’s final victory.

Round 11: Czech GP (Brno), August 21

This was first match point and Doohan made it count. He wanted the title done and dusted as soon as possible, so he won the race, easing away from HRC team-mate Shinichi Ito.

Doohan climbed the podium, where the Czechs played Waltzing Matilda, not the Australian national anthem. There were no tears either. “I’m not a crying, emotional type of person – what makes me happy is seeing the team so happy.”

In the post-race media conference he made an ominous announcement. “I know my determination won’t dwindle. I feel like I’ve got to win another title to make the point.”

Round 12: United States GP (Laguna Seca), September 11

Doohan was determined to beat his American rivals on home ground, but it didn’t work out. He came home third, his Michelins struggling to find grip, unlike winner Cadalora’s Dunlops.

After Laguna Doohan and older brother Col travelled to Road Atlanta to watch their younger brother Scott race at a US superbike round.

“Two corners from the end this other guy ran into Scott, pushing him into a concrete wall at 180 kays [110mph]. Me and Col were the first people to get to him and I was surprised he was still alive.”

Scott had two punctured lungs, two broken arms, a broken wrist and a broken shoulder. Doctors kept him in a medically induced coma for a couple of weeks. This was a year almost to the day since Rainey had been paralysed at Misano. And it got Doohan thinking about retirement; not for the first time.

“I thought about what had happened to me, what had happened to Rainey, and now my brother, lying in a medically induced coma. It was another of those moments – should I keep going or should I stop?”

Round 13: Argentine GP (Buenos Aires), September 25

Kocinski got pole but Doohan ran away with the race, beating Kocinski’s team-mate Doug Chandler by 8sec.

Round 14: European GP (Barcelona-Catalunya), October 9

A mid-race rain shower convinced him to ease off a bit, so he finished second to Cadalora, who secured second overall, with just over half Doohan’s points total

From 1995 Doohan became an even stronger force. “That was when I started training harder and pushing harder. With that came more pressure. I was training seven days a week, working harder than ever. I only rested when I was on a plane. It’s a mental thing – you’ve got to do more than you did last year.”

Doohan won 54 GPs between 1990 and 1998. He is still Honda’s most successful premier-class rider of all time; although Marc Márquez is closing fast, with his 50th win at Brno.

 

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