Sunday, 10 March 2013

Mick Doohan; The Unstoppable Aussie

As a general rule of thumb, any rider or driver who dominates the championship for a number of years is not held in the highest of affection. There is respect for the scope of his achievements but that is about as far as it goes. I'm sure that many people don’t care who wins any race or championship, as long as we see good racing. But the fact of the matter is that, when there is such domination it is rare to see any kind of racing at all.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it. I mean, we all love to hate Michael Schumacher for whatever reason and I can see the love for Sebastian Vettel waning if he wins the championship for the fourth time in a row next year. But what about Agostini who won seven consecutive Championships; what about Rossi with his five consecutive championships? Surely they are two of the most loved riders in the history of the sport (is it coincidence this paragraph is neatly divided into car and bike riders?)

And then there is Mick Doohan. He’s a bit more difficult to pigeonhole. Not always the most popular of people when he was racing – journalists of the time refer constantly to his prickly nature when dealing with the press – he nevertheless won the 500cc championship five times in a row in the 1990’s with a display of absolute crushing domination. Consider the statistics; 141 GP’s contested, 54 wins, 39 additional podiums, five whole seasons where he never finished a race outside the top three (with only seven DNF’s). Pretty strong stuff.

Doohan started racing in the late 1980’s in the Australian Superbike series. When the World Superbikes visited Oran Park in Australia in 1988, Doohan entered the race and won both heats! This certainly brought him to the attention of the outside world and, sure enough, he was signed to Honda to ride their NSR500 in the 500cc Grand Prix Championship the following year.

Bearing in mind that this was the era of 500cc two-stroke machinery which couldn’t have been further from the big four-stroke bikes running in the World Supers and it is easy to see how it could have been a baptism by fire. But Doohan took it all in his stride and scored his first podium 6 races in.

With Daryl Beattie at the French GP,
The next year saw him win his first race; score 4 more podiums and 6 fourth places on his way to third in the championship. He was starting to make his mark but the next year – 1991 - really put him on the map. This was the first of the five years in which he never finished off the podium and had only one DNF. Three more race wins contributed to his finishing second in the championship to Wayne Rainey on the Yamaha, who had just won his second championship in a row.

1992 was a pivotal year in the making of the Doohan legend. He kicked off the year with four wins on the trot, followed by two second places and a fifth win to lead the championship by 57 points. Then, during practice for the Dutch TT he crashed and suffered a dreadfully broken right leg. Initial treatment was botched and amputation was on the cards.

This was thankfully avoided by the use of radical surgery, sewing both his legs together and transplanting muscles from his torso to his calves to help the dying muscles become oxygenated by the living tissue.
Seven weeks after the crash and with two races left of the season, Doohan returned to race at the Interlagos circuit in Brazil. Up to that point in the year he had been virtually unbeatable but here he was far too weak to ride; his leg withered and useless. ‘I’d lost 6 kilos and had been pretty lean to begin with. I was run down, beat up and on some pretty strong pills,’ he said.

But he got on the bike and raced in order to try and save the season and the championship. He eventually finished 12th, out of the points; all that effort had been for nothing. Pictures taken at the time show him in obvious appalling pain; “That was my toughest race ever, but I was happy that I had finished,” he says. “I got back to the pits and Costa [his surgeon] and another doctor were crying. It was all pretty emotional.”

Despite finishing 6th at the last race in South Africa, he lost the championship to Rainey by just four points.
1993 was to be an equally tough season as it was all Mick could do, by his own admission, to keep his ride at Honda as he battled to ride at the top level and regain his fitness. He did, however, gain five podiums and a win, which just goes to show the grit of the man.

One unfortunate side-effect of his accident was the absolute uselessness of his right foot and, hence, his back brake. To counter this he had a thumb lever fitted to the right handlebar, much as you would find on a quad or jetski for the throttle. This activated the rear brake and neatly sidestepped the handicap of his inoperative right foot.

Honda’s loyalty to their man was justified the very next season. In fourteen rounds he scored nine wins, three second places and two thirds and simply destroyed the opposition. And, if his fellow racers thought they might get the measure of him in the coming seasons, they were sadly misguided. For the next four seasons, Doohan was in a class of his own, He won 35 of the 57 Grands Prix, failed to finish in six and was off the podium in only four races!

And this is where the reputation of the man takes a bit of a beating. No-one can blame a rider for winning in the most certain way possible but Doohan’s superiority was such that he rode off into the distance at the start of the race and then, when the gap to second was sufficient, would cruise home to win. Hardly what you would call thrilling. But whose fault was it? Often with up to eight rivals on the same bike, surely it was their fault for not being able to take the fight to Doohan. With so many victories in that period, it wasn't what you might call a vintage era for close racing.

The story of so many
races; build a lead, protect
it to the end
Another factor that cannot be ignored as the presence of Jerry Burgess as chief race engineer. His skill at setting up the suspension and geometry of a race bike perfectly matched Doohan’s skill in the saddle. Also, one has to remember that between 1994 and 1998 Doohan and Burgess resisted the pressure from Honda technicians to try new technology on the bike; they knew what worked and stuck to it - much to the frustration of Honda - and this undoubtedly helped them.

 At the beginning of 1999, Doohan crashed in wet practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, once again breaking his leg badly. He announced his immediate retirement shortly after.

So that’s Doohan the rider. What of Doohan the man? He was always a down to earth Australian who told it like it was and didn't mind who knew it; ‘I guess I could be a little intimidating for journalists at times, but everything just kept snowballing, the demands on your private time increase, and in the end the pressure of trying to give everyone what they wants gets just too much. And although you don’t mean it, you end up ignoring or bypassing some people you should spend more time with. The truth is that the longer you do it the harder it is to be polite to everyone!’

Writing the Top Ten in Motocourse, the annual bible of the racing season, the editor drew attention to Doohan’s position; ‘If he looked around him, he saw only a clear track; if he looked behind he saw a generation gap. Either way, he was alone, and it wasn't comfortable.’ He went on to say that Doohan was ‘more prone to snap than smile.’

The fact of the matter was that Doohan was a reluctant hero who wanted more than anything else for someone to come along and challenge him. Rainey and Schwantz were gone and Doohan was left on a pedestal on his own. ‘At the moment, racing is as boring as sh*t,’ he commented in an interview in 1995. He wasn’t having fun and neither were the spectators. Naturally he got the blame (‘What do you expect me to do? Slow down?’) but wondered about the low standard of other works riders and revealed how his own enjoyment of racing was suffering as a result.

After his retirement, Doohan continued to work for Honda in an advisory role until 2005. Now he spends his time in capital investment, leasing corporate helicopters and jets and property. It feels like he has dealt with the return to normality after the frenzy of being the world’s top racer with ease and this normality has allowed the real Mick Doohan come back into the light and it seems he is smiling once more.

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