MICK Doohan is a name that will forever be synonymous with the world of motor racing and the motorcycling elite.
There are few riders who have been so consistently fast on the track and only two have more motorcycle Grand Prix championships to their name. Only one of those has more consecutive titles.
But the path to two-wheeled legendary status, the sporting Hall of Fame and a Member of the Order of Australia is littered with shattered bones and paved with death-defying resilience in the face of adversity.
It was a serious crash and badly broken leg that eventually forced Doohan into retirement in 1999 following a disastrous Spanish Grand Prix qualifying, but it was a broken leg some seven years earlier that nearly ended the Gold Coast legend’s career when it had barely started.
The chain of near catastrophic events that nearly cost Doohan his right leg started with a crash during qualifying at the 1992 Dutch TT that would horrify most riders, but with typical stoicism, Doohan recounts the event as unspectacular.
“The crash wasn’t anything unusual to be honest,” he said. “I’d just gone over the start/finish line and apparently they’d put out the red flag out for somebody dropping fluid and I went into turn-one which is about 160 to 180km/h and when I came out the thing snapped sideways and flipped me off and over the top.
“Normally when you crash you go off the side of the track but because I was almost in a straight line, I went up the road and the bike was on top of me. I tried to spiral out from underneath it but that was the wrong thing to do. Everything spiralled except for my leg so I sort of broke it myself essentially.”
The injury was a double spiral fracture – enough to put any normal human out of action for many weeks followed by more months of physiotherapy, but Doohan was already formulating his plan of recovery from the stretcher.
The Aussie star was 65 points ahead of his closest rival in the championship with five races left in the season and, until the dramatic turn of events, Doohan was the clear favourite to take the 1992 title and his first world championship.
It was the allure of his maiden title and an unstoppable desire to win that lead to Doohan’s fateful decision in the hours that followed the crash in Holland.
Grand Prix medical officer Dr Claudio Costa recommended flying the rider back to Italy where his leg would be cast for six weeks, which would have almost certainly cost Doohan the championship that year so the racer suggested another option.
“What about if we bolt it together?” he asked the doctor.
“I was leading the championship by a long way by that point in time and there were two weekends off, which was a big break.”
Costa concurred that surgery could give Doohan a fighting chance at getting back in the saddle for the very next race in Hungary, rather than missing four races, including the Dutch competition he had already forfeited in the accident.
Screwing the bones back together should have saved precious weeks and kept Doohan’s dream of a championship alive, but it was his impatience that would eventually result in terrible complications.
“I had a British neurosurgeon saying come to the UK and an American guy who was saying come to the US, but I said let’s just get it done, let’s just go here.
“I looked at the Dutch doctor and asked him who’s the gun orthopaedic surgeon and he said ‘we’re all the same. We all went to the same school’, which I thought was a bit of an odd thing to say.”
The strange remark should have been a warning flag, but the surgery went ahead that night.
During the operation, the supervising surgeon Costa did his best to guide the seemingly incompetent and blundering doctors.
“The Italian surgeon (Costa) was able to come in to the surgery but he wasn’t able to operate. Basically he was removed from the surgery during the operation because he could see they were doing some things wrong. Essentially, what I am lead to believe is that they had closed the wound before actually seeing if the internal bleeding had stopped.
“Then they put me in a half cast and elevated my leg which again apparently you don’t do.”
The next day, once again, Costa tried to intervene for the sake of Doohan’s leg and possibly his life but, again the Dutch doctors prevented him helping.
“The Italian doctor came in in the morning and stated to take this cast off and lower my leg to get some circulation happening. They removed him again and put it back up.”
Later that night, the local medical team finally realised something was badly wrong and took Doohan back into surgery to try and restore the blood circulation that had been cut by a botched operation and severe swelling.
“Midnight that night I was rushed in to emergency surgery and they cut me from the back of the knee down to the ankle, across the foot and up the front. Chronic gangrene; it wasn’t there yet but it was starting.”
If it wasn’t for the persistence of the Grand Prix doctor and his determination to get Doohan the right medical care, the Australian would have certainly lost his leg, but the fast-acting Italian effectively kidnapped the patient along with fellow rider Kevin Schwantz.
“Not long after that, they were going to amputate the leg and that’s when Costa heard. He organised a medical aircraft to come and pick myself and Kevin Schwantz up and take us back down to Bologna.
“My blood was so thin they wanted to get the internal organs back first before they worried about the leg.”
From dangerously sub-standard medical care, Doohan found himself in the care of among the best doctors, and the rider underwent treatment that involved sewing his healthy leg to the diseased one to help return the blood supply. His fractures were also pinned in an advanced cage of carbonfibre hoops and steel bars to help the bones heal correctly.
A series of events and a chilling sickness that could have easily killed a less determined human, staggeringly, weren’t even enough to keep Doohan off the bike that year.
“The long and the short is that he saved my leg, which I’m thankful for, but I was in a rush to come back so he stole some skin from other parts to place over my legs.
“I was back in Brazil six weeks later.”
A gargantuan effort wasn’t enough to seal a win that year but, incredibly, Doohan only missed out by “about four points” riding with a seriously weakened leg and compromised health following the assault his body had endured. Amazingly, he still finished the year in second place.
The unbelievable ordeal proved Doohan’s superhuman determination and refusal to give up and that same staunch desire to succeed was once again demonstrated in 1994, when he finally realised his dream of a world title. And it would be followed by four others.
While the 1992 crash at Assen was a massive setback for Doohan’s career, the racing icon agreed that the close call was a significant factor in keeping him largely in one piece for the rest of his professional racing days.
“A crash is not ideal at the best of times … but certainly, a little downtime helped.”