FLASH BACK – Mick’s maiden GP season | Columns | Gassit Garage
Mick Doohan contested his rookie Grand Prix season 30 years ago – considering the battering he took it’s a bloody wonder he kept going
Thirty years ago one of motorcycling’s all-time greats made his agonising entry to world championship racing. When Mick Doohan made his Grand Prix debut at Suzuka on 26 March 1989 he had already learned that the 500cc two-strokes of that era were difficult things to master. It would be a while before he had them worked out.
“We went testing at Suzuka in early January and it was pretty cold,” remembers the Australian, a wide-eyed 23-year-old at the time. “I gave the bike a fistful going through the esses and as I shifted my weight from right to left the rear lit up. The thing had me off the side, so I was hanging onto the handlebars, with both knees dragging on the ground. I ran off the track and slammed into one of those big rubber bales they used at Suzuka. My face ended up in the dirt while the bike got me in the back of the head. The impact broke my helmet open.”
HRC’s next winter tests were scheduled for Goiania in Brazil, where the track was hot and greasy, which allowed Doohan to ride the bike loose, just the way he liked it.
“I was still wary of the thing but I thought my lap times weren’t too bad. It was pretty hot there so the racetrack had some feel – I could feel what the rear was doing.”
Then final preseason preparations at Phillip Island and Suzuka, where he crashed again. This was baptism by fire aboard Honda’s fiery NSR500, four times more powerful than the 40 horsepower Yamaha TZR250 he had raced in 1987, dramatically more demanding than the Yamaha FZR750 superbike he had raced in 1988 and much harder to handle than the Yamaha YZR500 he had tried at Yamaha’s test track in October, while discussing racing 500 GPs ride with Honda’s great rival.
“That was my wake-up call. It was like, ‘Wow, so they call this a motorcycle, do they?!’ I realised then that the Honda wasn’t like the Yamaha. The Yamaha was just another motorcycle, whereas the Honda definitely wasn’t. I could see why WG [Wayne Gardner, Doohan’s Rothmans Honda team-mate] was always getting spat off.
“I wasn’t 100 percent happy with the way things were going and I didn’t know whether it was me or the bike. I wasn’t getting a lot of feel and I’d been thrown down the road a few times. I was already thinking I’ve got to change the way I do things. I was feeling a bit cocky after the previous two years. I probably wasn’t preparing myself in the way to go racing. I wasn’t 100 percent dedicated.”
Despite everything, there were glimmers of promise during the weekend of the Japanese GP. Doohan at least knew his way around Suzuka, having contested several 8 Hours races there with Yamaha, so he qualified an impressive sixth fastest, putting him on the second row, behind Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey and Wayne Gardner. But he didn’t get that far in the race – his GP debut came to end after a few laps when his NSR broke its crankshaft.
Two weeks later he was at Phillip Island, practising for Australia’s inaugural motorcycle GP, when things got much worse. During practice Doohan fell at Southern Loop. It wasn’t a huge crash but it had massive consequences.
“I got my hand caught under the handlebar and ground away the little finger and the finger next to it. I could see the bone, with gravel in it, and the tendon had been torn away. Right then I was thinking, what the hell am I doing here? Maybe I’m in a bit too deep. I realised I was on to a completely different playing field where everyone was quick and strong. I really hadn’t been hurt up until then. I thought about the whole deal and decided to keep going.”
Read the full story in AMCN Magazine Vol 68 No 19
Words Mat Oxley Photography Malcolm Bryan, Gold & Goose