For Leon Haslam, recovering from an operation undertaken to fix a double-fracture of his lower, left leg – suffered during a wet, practice session at Assen just four weeks ago - in time to race at his home circuit at Donington Park was always going to be a race against time.
When the news came that the doctors had given him the all-clear to race before Friday’s wet, practice session (sound familiar?), MCN caught up with the Pata Honda rider to capture his thoughts.
FRIDAY (Practice Day).
It’s a wet, blustery day at the Leicestershire track and it has just been announced that Leon has been declared fit to race.
MCN: How is the recovery?
Leon: "The break and the bones are all good, but it’s the soft tissue that is the issue. It feels like I’m rigid with a pulled muscle; my knee just doesn’t want to bend."
MCN: What do you think of your chances this weekend?
Leon: "Well, if I can get to where I want to be there is no reason why I can’t run at the front. I know my way around here so my main aim is to get comfortable on the bike. Once I’ve done that we’ll have a look to see how far away we are."
MCN: Have you found any problems with mobility once you’re on the bike?
Leon: "We’ve lowered the pegs and moved them forward. I did run a higher seat but it hindered my performance so we’ve gone back to the lower one. It’s only the left hand corners that I’m struggling with; I just can’t be aggressive due to the lack of bend – especially in the last corner. I was happy to get my knee down.
The difference in weather between Friday practice and Saturday qualifying is extraordinary. Grey skies have been replaced with blue and there is a noticeable warmth in the air. Leon however isn’t feeling any of these benefits on the circuit.
MCN: How was it out on track today?
Leon: "I can’t be where I need to be on track which is so frustrating. All the lefts lead to rights, so every time I go into a right I’m a tighter than I want to be because of the previous left. That just makes it all a little bit harder."
"I managed to knock a second off my lap time on a race tyre, but the pain is getting worse. I’m only 1/10th off of my best race lap from last year, and I led that race until the final corner.
MCN: What about the pain, did any of the changes made yesterday help?
Leon: "Whenever I try to push forward on the pegs - to stop the bike wheelying - the bone in my leg moves because it’s not fixed yet. When I’m putting constant pressure on it, even though the bones are moving, it’s ok, but when I release the pressure it goes back into place and it hurts a lot. That’s my main pain problem."
MCN: Maintaining your lines with limited movement must be a problem?
Leon: "The fact that my knee won’t bend means that I can’t hang off, and the problem with not being able to hang off is that I keep running wide."
"Superpole was the first time where I really tried to force my knee and push through it [the stiffness], but it just won’t bend. It’s not a pain thing - it’s ligaments."
MCN: Despite all of this, do you feel ready for the race tomorrow? Isn’t there a danger that you’re coming back too soon?
Leon: "Obviously I want to race, even though everybody else is trying to put me off. I know I’m going to struggle to fight for a podium, but just riding will give me satisfaction."
MCN: So when you do go out, how do you rate your chances?
Leon: "I want to get in the top ten and be able to have a bit of a go. The problem is that I’m getting knackered. I’m having to use my upper body so much that after four of five laps I’m worn out, which isn’t normal for me at all".
MCN: Because you’re over-compensating for your restricted movement?
"Yeah. Clinica are going to give me pain killers for the moving bone but they can’t do anything about how far I can bend my knee. It’s actually bending a lot more than it was a few days ago, but it’s just not enough. I just need to understand how far I can bend my knee and then ride to that limit, but the problem is that [where it is now] it’s not good enough".
"I know that if I could move around a bit more on the bike I would be a lot faster. I thought I would be able to ride differently and still get to where I wanted to be on track, but I just can’t get the bike where I want it to be. Down Craner [a fast left at Donington Park immediately before the sweeping right of the Old Hairpin] I’m a metre wide on the change of direction - which makes the Old Hairpin twice as tight - and it’s the same through Schwantz. Because of this, I’m shit at the Esses and I’m hopeless in the final corner where I’m losing 0.6 seconds."
"I can’t bend it enough to put the ball of my foot on the footrest. I have to use the arch of my foot which means any bump or jolt just shoots up my leg; there’s nothing to cushion it at the ankle".
MCN: And so you’ve made more bike changes?
Leon: "We’ve made the footrest lower and further forward which - while it’s helping my knee - is making everything else more difficult because my foot is practically in front of my knee. I can’t get over the front of the bike which means I have to do everything with my arms which is really hard work."
SUNDAY (Race Day)
On another glorious day in Leicestershire and despite qualifying thirteenth in Superpole, it’s announced – through Twitter and to the disapointment of the local crowd – that Leon has withdrawn from both of today’s races.
MCN: Do you think that you have been trying so hard to ride at this event that you have brought your recovery two weeks further forward than you would have?
Leon: "That is the only thing I can look back on – I could not have done any more in regards to getting it ready for this weekend. I tried to stay off the painkillers until this morning. They anaesthetised the bottom part of the leg but it just pushed the pain back to the knee joint. The top of the bars is chafing on the kneecap and the top of the femur. "
"Basically they [the Doctors] are saying that the pain is shifting and that they could – perhaps - anaesthetise the knee for the race, which is what they were going to do, but I still do not have any power in it or any bend. The lap time is around a second off of what I know I am capable of doing on this bike so result-wise it was never going to be the best. Fatigue-wise it was always going to drop way before half race distance. The most laps that I have completed was nine this morning and the pain was getting more and more. It wasn’t the pain so much that was stopping me though, it was more the fatigue in the rest of my body, because I could not use my legs."
MCN: How has it been on the bike today?
Leon: It has been more restrictive than I thought it would be. With the knee movement and pain, the guys and I have been working with and solving problem after problem over the weekend, but this morning - because I pushed it a bit harder - the top of the bar is catching on my knee and it’s just inflamed it again. It will be good to get another two weeks’ rest. I was probably being a bit stubborn wanting to ride, but another two weeks should be better for me."
"Realistically the pace I had was only good for a top ten anyway, but with this being Donington I wanted to be at the front. The bike was working well and everybody has been working hard for me so it is frustrating to not be racing on such a sunny day here. I feel like I can ride the bike but it is just a few things that are restricting me. Race distance is one thing I need to sort out, and I need to be able to put pressure through my left leg to give my upper body a rest."
"Sitting at home watching the Monza race was tough enough, so having to sit and watch this one will be even tougher."