Motorbike riders, even more than racing drivers, are often idolised for their courage and fearlessness. Going along at 300kph protected only by your helmet and overalls, with just a patch of rubber the size of a cigarette packet keeping you on the road, is undoubtedly outside the norm when it comes to acceptable risk-taking. But that’s not the only reason why these riders are truly gladiatorial heroes. Often they get straight back on the bike after injuries that would keep a mere mortal out of the saddle for months or even years. It’s pure resilience – or ‘grit’ as they often call it in Australia.
Mick Doohan, a laid-back Aussie from the Gold Coast, is one of the most resilient riders of them all – if not the most resilient. He was born in 1965, and after participating in his national championship and the Formula TT world championship, he had a wildcard entry on two rounds of the newly-created World Superbike championship (supplied exclusively by Pirelli from 2004 onwards) that resulted in two race wins. In 1989, his adventure on the world championship began with Honda when he was just 24, which ended with ninth place in the standings. But in 1990 he really began to show what he was made of. He finished the year third overall behind two giants of the sport from the United States: Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz. In the following years they would be the only riders to consistently rival him, together with Italy’s Luca Cadalora and Spaniard Alex Crivillé.
Doohan was even better in 1991, claiming 14 podiums to conclude the season runner-up behind Rainey and ahead of Schwantz. The rising Australian also won the famous Eight Hours of Suzuka that year in Japan, together with team mate Wayne Gardner. In 1992, Doohan was billed as the championship favourite and from the beginning he didn’t disappoint: winning five of the first seven races and finishing second in the other two. He looked set to be heading inexorably towards a dominant championship title, but fate had other plans. After celebrating his 27th birthday on June 4, 1992, Doohan arrived for round eight of the season at the Assen circuit in Holland; known as the ‘cathedral’ of bike racing thanks to its challenging technical layout. But during qualifying he was trapped underneath his bike following a fall, which dragged him across the circuit and left him with a broken right leg as he tried to free himself.
It didn’t actually seem too serious at the time, at least not by biker standards. Doohan was taken to hospital nearby and underwent an operation to reset the fracture. But the operation didn’t have the desired results: following a subsequent infection, the Dutch doctors concluded that the only solution would be to amputate his right leg. Doohan was only saved from this terrible fate by the guardian angel of all MotoGP riders: Dr Claudio Costa from Italy. Dr Costa brought him back to Bologna and used a cutting-edge surgical technique to attach both of Doohan’s legs together, so that the healthy limb could feed and regenerate the other leg that was beginning to show signs of gangrene. After two weeks the legs were separated once more and Doohan began a tricky but intense rehabilitation programme. Incredibly he was back on the bike just two months after the accident, on August 21, 1992, at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He fought hard for the title right up to the final round, with Rainey eventually being crowned champion again.
But that character-moulding incident also represented a turning point in Doohan’s career. It took him a little while to return to top form, and because of the permanent damage to his right leg he was obliged to use an additional lever on the left handlebar of his Honda to operate the rear brake, which he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to manage with his injured leg. In 1994 he claimed his first title in the 500 class, which would be followed by four more in a row (always with the Honda NSR500) until 1998. He also set the record for the most victories in a single season by claiming 12 wins in 1997: a benchmark that would remain unbeaten until the 2014 Valencia Grand Prix, when Marc Marquez made it 13 wins in one season.
In 1999 however, there was more bad luck for Doohan when he fell once again and re-broke that fragile leg that had been damaged in 1992; spelling the end of his professional career.
So much time has passed since then, and many more champions have been crowned, but today – on June 4, 2020 – Doohan can enjoy his 55th birthday. His sheer Aussie grit not only won him five titles but made him an inspiration for all the riders who came after him, as well as a living legend for bike fans all over the world. Happy birthday Mick!