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COMEBACK KINGS | HISTORY MAKERS

The toughest enemy to overcome is a career-threatening injury. One of the comeback kings, Mick Doohan, talks us through how he did it and the advice he gave to Marc

The current MotoGP championship table might not say as much. But things are starting to look pretty rosy again for former champion Marc Marquez. The Catalan’s battling instincts were certainly on show over the last few months as he displayed flashes of his former level, having gone to hell and back over a nine-month period after breaking the humerus bone in his right arm during last season’s Spanish Grand Prix.

Marquez broke his right humerus bone July 2020. The humerus is a bad bone to break and has ended many careers, including Carl Fogarty’s, who later described himself as being “one percent of the guy I had been.”

Marquez had the fracture pinned and four days later was at the next race, determined to win a seventh MotoGP title. Big mistake – riding a MotoGP bike further damaged the arm.

Comeback kings

Mick Doohan and Marc Marquez share a fighting spirit

Two weeks later he went under the knife again, to replace the bent titanium plate. Four months later surgeons went in again because the fracture had become infected, so it wasn’t healing. A bone graft from his pelvis did the trick.

Marquez returned at April’s Portuguese GP. He finished first practice third fastest, tucking the front and kicking out the rear like he’d never been away. He finished the race in seventh, just 13.2s behind the winner.

At May’s French GP he led the rain-lashed race until he slid off, proving he had lost none of his speed or willingness to take risks. At Mugello and Barcelona he was in the lead group when he again fell.

Next time out at Sachsenring he scored his first victory in 581 days. The German track runs anti-clockwise, so his right arm was less of a handicap through the ’Ring’s multiple left-handers. Marquez – never one to show emotion – was in tears after the race because he had come back from another career-threatening injury to win again.

Comeback kings

A week after breaking his arm Marquez was back at Jerez and determined to race

His return win in Germany marked one of the sport’s great comebacks. And Marquez’s subsequent displays of emotion were something to which grand prix legend Mick Doohan could relate. The Australian was in serious danger of having his right leg amputated after operations to fix a fractured tibia at the Dutch TT in 1992 went badly wrong. From there he had to fight infection, a lack of strength and machine limitations before he could return to winning ways the following July. There is little doubt that Doohan’s is the greatest comeback in bike-racing history (see below).

With that recovery in mind, Doohan reached out to speak to the eight-time World Champion after they crossed paths at the Italian Grand Prix in May. Marquez endured a nightmarish weekend at Mugello. Issues with his right shoulder – a possible consequence of a heavy crash in the previous race – combined with Honda being completely lost with the development direction of its RC213V left him in possibly his most uncompetitive shape in any time during an eight and a half year stay in the premier class.

Comeback kings

However complications mean that over a year later he is still not 100 percent

The Catalan was in need of being picked up. Thankfully, Doohan was on hand to remind him of the challenges he faced before.

“I had a phone call with Mick Doohan,” Marquez revealed after his triumph at the Sachsenring. “I was 30 minutes on a phone call with him. I was listening (and) he was just speaking.

“He was explaining his situation, but it was like he was explaining my situation. He had exactly the same problems. [Like] you don’t understand the bike. You are not riding like you want, stupid mistakes, stupid crashes, some races you will be fast, some practices you will be slow and you don’t know why. All the problems I’ve had this year is what he had in the past.”

Comeback kings

When Mick Doohan returned to racing it was with a thumb-operated rear brake

Doohan was keen to play down his role in Marquez’s comeback.

“I didn’t really have any input into the result he achieved anywhere, especially in Germany,” the five-time 500cc champion told AMCN.

“I just felt everyone was putting pressure on him to perform quicker on a motorcycle that doesn’t seem to be capable of it. [I wanted him] just to understand that it was a similar situation to what I went through close to 30 years ago. It’s always good to hear stories like that.

“[It was] a different era but a similar situation. Coming back from an injury like that, which is prolonged and complicated, is never easy. Really it was all ABC-type advice. It wasn’t anything left field. The only thing I could offer is you do come through the other side and he’ll probably be stronger for it.”

Marc Marquez

Robbed of a preseason and working with a right arm and shoulder lacking strength and endurance, Marquez was initially handicapped at clockwise tracks and struggled to deal with a revised riding position.

Back at the close of ’92 and throughout ’93, while Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey were riding at the top of their game, Doohan had to find new ways of riding to cope with his physical limitations at that time. Those limitations included his right leg. The bone hadn’t knitted together and included a 20-degree angulation, meaning he couldn’t steer the bike in a conventional sense. That called for a rethink to set-up.

“I had lost the use of my right ankle, which, on a motorcycle, you’ve got the rear brake there,” Doohan said. “So I didn’t have a rear brake on a two-stroke, which had no engine braking. It was fairly important, especially for me, as I used a lot of rear brake anyway.

“It took me six months to develop a different system, which is now used by a lot of riders – the thumb-activated rear brake. I had to move around with less mobility in the ankle. Also, I had to move my body around a bit differently.

Marc Marquez

“I’d imagine that’s similar with Marc and the shoulder injury that stemmed from the arm injury. These are things you adapt to but it’s learning to ride different so that takes a little bit of time.”

It wasn’t just injury that has left Marquez 10th in the standings, 106 points off leader Fabio Quartararo. He returned with Honda enduring its worst run of results in the premier-class since 1981. Cost-cutting regulations brought in last year meant engine development was frozen from 2020 to ’21, meaning the RC213V’s current engine, which suffers from too much inertia, remains. Development direction was seriously confused, with all four Honda riders running different spec machines or chassis at the Spanish Grand Prix.

It was then when the lack of preseason testing for Marc or teammate Pol Espargaro, new to Honda for 2021, became clear.

Comeback kings

Marquez completed his comeback with a dominant win in Germany

“I imagine the engineers at Honda work similarly today as they did back in the nineties,” said Doohan. “The only thing I said that was different to what happens today is that we could actually test. Even back then they were starting to limit the tests but I was still able to ride the bike, whereas he is restricted to how often he can ride a MotoGP bike.”

Of his own return to racing at the end of 1992, he found the Honda NSR to be radically different from the machine on which he racked up five wins and two second places in that year’s first seven races.

“They were just minute changes,” Doohan said. “But minute changes when you stack them on top of each other become a major issue. That’s the thing: engineers love to engineer. It’s always going to be the same, and I think it’s the same with any manufacturer. If you don’t have your lead guy there to give direction then it’s quite easy for it to run off track quickly. Then you’ve got to get it back on track, and that’s not easy as well.

Comeback kings

Doohan and Barry Sheene know about recoveries

“When it’s one on top of the other, finding the piece or item which makes the difference is difficult. So, you almost have to go back to square one. Quite often those parts or those items don’t exist any longer! But anyway, this all seems to be getting back on track.

“But it all takes time. Because of the limited testing available, it becomes quite difficult to do this on a race weekend.”

As Doohan professes, that first win after a long injury layoff was a boost that did wonders for self-belief. The start of 1993 was a grind at times, and there were days it didn’t go to plan. But by the fifth race of the season Doohan was back on the podium. And by race nine at Mugello in July he was back to his winning ways. He recovered from a heart-stopping moment at the final turn, chased down Schwantz – at that time in the form of his life – before holding him off in the closing laps. It was confirmation he could still beat the very best when he was far off his own.

Like Sheene Doohan’s greatest wins came after his return from bad injuries

So how much of a tremendous boost was that Mugello triumph?

“Absolutely, it was,” said the 54-time GP winner. “Basically, I was still riding with a broken leg. To win with one and a half legs essentially gave me a lot of confidence to know I am capable of doing it, and that once I’d regained full strength in both legs then I should be able to get back to the form prior to the accident. It certainly gives you confidence.

“Knowing you can run with them is one thing. Winning is a different level altogether. That gave me the belief to keep pushing, that I was on the right track to get myself healthy again.”

Marquez and Doohan

If the Dutch TT was anything to go by, Marquez’s German GP triumph provided a similar injection of morale. For one, his rivals have definitive proof that if the circumstances are right, as they were on Sunday, his determination and racecraft are as fine-tuned as they always were. As Jack Miller said, “he comes back here with one arm and still smokes us.”

Then there is the positivity it generates within Marquez and his team. He put it nicely on Sunday, saying, “the fuel tank was in the limit and here in Sachsenring we found a petrol station.”

Despite an enormous highside in free practice leaving him battered, bruised and doubting whether he could continue through the weekend, Marquez fought back from his worst-ever MotoGP qualifying performance (20th) to rescue a commendable seventh. Crucially, a new HRC chassis was, according to the Catalan, “the first item that more or less is different and works this year.” Expect more new items to be in the Repsol Honda garage when the series reconvenes in Austria in early August. Plus a five-week break will provide him the necessary time to recover to full fitness.

Marc Marquez crash, Dutch MotoGP, 26 June 2021

And Doohan is convinced Marc Marquez will return to his very best level.

“I have no doubt,” he said. “No doubt. Like every other rider, he’s still young and he’s still learning. Pretty much every rider is still learning until they stop.

“He’s not going to get any slower, that’s for sure. The other guys racing – the likes of the Quartararos, the (Johann) Zarcos, the Millers, etc. – are all pushing. They don’t slow down or wait for anybody. The sport is always evolving.

“Having time out is never easy and coming back and working around an injury is not easy, either. But the mental strength of someone like Marc Marquez is a different level. To win as many championships as he has shows he is no pushover and that he’s not going to lie down without wanting to get back up and on top.

“I’ve got full belief that he’s going to be back and as strong as he once was, if not better.”

Marc Marquez MotoGP race, German MotoGP, 20 June 2021

Comeback kings
Mick Doohan

Mangled a leg in 1992. Went on to win five consecutive 500cc world titles

The teak-tough Aussie was leading the 1992 title chase by a mile when he slid off his Honda NSR500 during practice at Assen. The crash wasn’t big but it had huge consequences. A local surgeon botched the operation to fix his broken right tibia and fibula, so that within days the leg was dying.

“It was starting to smell like bad meat,” he recalls.

The surgeon’s solution was amputation below the knee. The operation would’ve gone ahead if MotoGP medic Dr Claudio Costa hadn’t intervened. He kidnapped Doohan and flew him to his Italian clinic in an air ambulance.

Doohan’s only thoughts were for returning to racing to protect his points lead. Costa’s only thoughts were for saving the leg. Numerous treatments didn’t work, so he sewed the dying leg to the good leg, using that leg’s blood supply to keep the injured leg alive.

“There were numerous operations – I lost count of how many – and they were long ops,” he adds. “This one was a success but it wasn’t pretty, they never were.”

After 14 days the legs were separated. Doohan could hardly walk, yet his target was to race at the penultimate GP in Brazil, just five weeks later.

“Brazil was a pretty rough weekend. It was extremely tricky because I didn’t have any feeling from the knee down, so my foot would come off the ’peg and I wouldn’t know until it was floating in the breeze.

Doohan had his legs joined to aid blood circulation during his recovery

“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.”

Doohan missed the title by four points and began preparing for 1993.

“The problem was that the leg was infected so the bone was pretty soft. I pushed it too hard in training and the bone started to collapse. Also, I still had no feeling in the leg, so I ground half of my little toe away during testing. There were times when I thought what the hell am I doing? But I wanted to ride and I knew if I could get strong again I should be able to win.”

Doohan struggled through 1993 but during the off-season surgeons attached an external fixator to the leg, a rarely used technology at the time. Each day he tightened the fixator screws to bend the bones straight, millimetre by millimetre. During this phase of treatment patients take morphine tablets. Doohan used aspirin.

“Mick took so little pain medication, it was almost superhuman,” said his surgeon Kevin Louie. “It’s like he reset his pain thermostat.”

Still limping, Doohan came out all guns blazing in 1994. He won that year’s title and the next four. Only another huge accident in 1998 stopped him winning more. MO

Comeback kings
Ian Hutchison

TT history man who has been fighting injury after injury since 2010

Some people know when to say, enough is enough. Ian Hutchinson isn’t one of those people. In 2010 Hutchy became the first rider to win five TTs in a week. But ever since then he’s lived through a nightmare of one serious injury after another, followed by one agonising comeback after another.

And he’s still going. Why? Because he doesn’t want to even think about life without racing.

Three months after his mighty TT achievement he crashed at Silverstone and got run over. His left tibia and fibula were so badly smashed that surgeons told him there was no alternative but amputation. Hutchinson told the surgeons where to shove it and found someone willing to undertake the challenge of reconstructing the leg.

Twenty-four operations later – including one 16-hour epic from which he awoke convinced he was no longer of this world – he was ready to race again.

“I presumed I had died and been taken away on a spaceship!” he writes in his autobiography Miracle Man. “My only thoughts were about getting back on a bike, racing as hard as I ever had and taking the same chances that had become such a crucial part of my existence.”

And then he rebroke the leg while riding a minibike, because the fracture site had been weakened by infection.

In May 2012 he removed the external fixator from the messed-up leg to score three top 10s at the TT, changing gear with his right foot and operating the back brake with his left thumb. Immediately afterwards he was back in hospital for another six operations.

Hutchy came back from this latest nightmare in November 2013 at Macau – arguably a more dangerous racetrack than the TT – where he took an emotional victory.

Now he was really on the way back. At the 2015 TT he won his first victories since 2010 and another three the following year. In 2017 he proved he was fully back to his best by winning his first Superbike TT – the
most demanding of them all – since 2010.

Five days later in the Senior he crashed at a missile-fast corner on the Mountain Mile. This time he fractured his left femur and smashed his already mangled ankle.

Back to the operating table, where surgeons rebroke the tibia so they could lengthen the bone and fuse it to the foot.

This comeback also had its setbacks. When Hutchinson returned to action the leg was still weak, so at the 2018 TT he couldn’t put enough load into the footpeg to control the bike. His best finish was 11th in the second Supersport race. The following year’s TT wasn’t much better – one 10th place.

Due to Covid there hasn’t been a TT since, but Hutchy is still at it, contesting the 2021 BSB Superstock championship.

Surely no other racer has been through so much without giving in. MO

Comeback kings
Robert Dunlop

Recovered from horrific TT injuries. Lost his life as a result of those injuries

There cannot be a bigger story of sporting triumph and tragedy in racing than the story of the Dunlop family.

Three of the Dunlop road-racing greats are dead: Joey, younger brother Robert and Robert’s middle son William. Only Robert’s elder son Michael continues to race at the top.

Robert Dunlop didn’t win as many TTs as his big brother but he made the mightiest of comebacks from a horrific accident during the 1994 TT to win again on the Isle of Man.

The crash wasn’t his fault. His Marvic rear wheel had collapsed, throwing him into a wall and nearly killing him. His right arm and leg were so badly mangled doctors said he would never race again.

Isle of Man TT races 2000 – Joey Dunlop chats with his brother Robert after they finished first and second in the Ultra-Lightweight TT in June 2000. 

Two years later, after multiple operations, he tried returning to racing with a specially modified Honda RS125 (he knew he wasn’t strong enough to race anything bigger). Dunlop could operate the throttle but not the front brake, so he moved the brake lever to the left handlebar, alongside the clutch. But he was told his right arm was still too weak to race.

In 1997 he was passed fit to race at the TT and took third in the Ultra-Lightweight race. The next year he won the class, a mind-boggling achievement, considering his considerably weakened body and his unique brake/clutch set-up.

“It’s brought me back from the brink of despair,” he said.

“It been a bridge over troubled water for me.”

In May 2006 Dunlop took his 16th victory at the North West 200, once again on the 125.

Two years later he entered the 250 class at the event. During practice his engine seized at 240km/h. Dunlop grabbed the front brake instead of the clutch, which flung him over the handlebars. He died instantly when he was struck by another machine. MO

Robert Dunlop who roared to victory in the 125cc race at the Ulster Grand Prix

 Words Neil Morrison & Mat Oxley Photography Gold&Goose and Doohan archive