The five greatest injury comebacks in MotoGP history
Racers treat injuries with a disdain that looks utterly deranged. But they still feel pain. They just ignore it. And that takes real courage
rash. bang, wallop. And then ouch. Crashes are part of racing. Injuries also. But hurt motorcycle racers aren’t like other people. By and large, they can’t wait to go and do it all again.
Modern racing is mercifully kinder than in days of yore. Airbags and air fences have admirably reduced the likelihood of major trauma; on-the-spot medical attention is streets ahead of what it was. But guess what – when you go flying through the air off a motorcycle, you can still break stuff when you land.
What happens next has a common thread. Tattered, weakened and limping, most riders will do everything they can to ignore the injury.
The current record for turning round a broken lower leg – both bones, compound fracture – stands to Randy de Puniet: 26 days from the German GP of 2010 to Brno the same year. He eclipsed Rossi’s own record for a very similar injury: 41 days from breaking his leg at Mugello that same year to jumping back on in Germany. The difference is that Vale almost made the rostrum at his first race, and did so at the next one.
You have to wonder what fitness tests they have to pass. “The rider knows if he is able to ride or not,” the former chief medical officer told me some years ago, with astonishing complacency. Thankfully things seem marginally stricter now. When Cal Crutchlow broke his ankle at last year’s British GP, he wasn’t allowed on the bike until he’d shown he could run back and forth across the medical centre, and done a series of heel and toe lifts – an experience he later described as, “fucking murder”. But he coped, because pain isn’t enough of a reason to miss a race.
Here are five of the best comebacks from recent times.
Broken femur, broken arm, other injuries. 49 days to return
Smashed knees and wrist. Seven-and-a-half months to return
Nobody did jumping back on regardless better than Barry Sheene. Or more often. He twice forced himself back after horrendous injuries, and created a legend in the process.
Being Barry, he did it all in a full blaze of publicity and milked it to the max. He was as famous for his injury recoveries as for his two World Championships. None of which in any way diminishes his courage.
The famous first time was in 1975. Daytona, 170mph, rear tyre shredded. Broken left thigh and right arm, compression fractures to several vertebrae, broken ribs and enough skin off his back, “to cover a sofa. If I’d been a racehorse, I’d have been shot.”
Pinning bones was a relative novelty, and like the crash itself the subsequent surgery and plucky recovery were painstakingly televised for an admiring and ever-broader fan base.
Unfailingly charming and casual when the cameras were rolling, Barry was an obsessive workaholic who never stopped looking for an advantage. He applied the same ethos to his injury, astonishing doctors with his physio work rate, his rate of recovery, and his ability to absorb pain. He wasn’t going to let this stand in the way of a career that was really starting to take off.
His return came after 49 days, at Cadwell in the MCN Superbike race. On a 750cc triple Suzuki, a mighty handful, especially on the tyres and suspension of the day. He led, then pitted to retire.
Barry went on to win two 500cc titles, then did it all again (the horror injury, that is), when fighting to save his career after switching from Suzuki to Yamaha. That was Silverstone, 1982, in pre-race free practice, on a track crowded with every sort of racing bike from 125s to factory 500s.
Sheene had walked from Suzuki to Yamaha, but hadn’t got the warm welcome he’d expected. Kenny Roberts was the factory rider and in the middle of a three-year championship reign. Now at last Barry had managed to get a V4 like Kenny, and he wanted to win his home Silverstone GP.
Coming flat out over a blind crest, tucked into the bubble and with no marshals on duty, Barry hit a fallen 250 in the middle of the track. Witnesses said it was like an air crash. Amazingly he was still breathing. His right knee was badly broken, left knee and wrist completely shattered. Seven-hour surgery rebuilt him, and his astonishing determination as he fought back to fitness became another media legend.
Sheene returned in ’83 after more than five months out of action. But he never again rode a factory bike, never won another race.
Feared dead. Nine months to return
The remarkable thing about Franco Uncini’s return was not the speed of his turnaround, nor that he ever again achieved results to match those that had won him the World Championship the year before the crash (he didn’t). It’s that he came back at all.
He was at first feared dead and, when doctors were able to restore a pulse, remained in a coma. But Franco lived to tell the tale, and to race again. He now works in MotoGP as Dorna’s chief of safety.
Franco, riding the yellow HB Suzuki RG500, was defending the title he’d won in 1982. He was trailing when they got to Assen as the seminal battle between Freddie Spencer and Kenny Roberts stole the show.
Early in the race on the old and complex long circuit, Franco high-sided in the middle of the lead pack. He landed on all fours, unhurt. Seeing the bikes coming up behind him, he launched himself at a sprint towards the safety of the trackside.
At the same moment Wayne Gardner, in his first (self-financed) foreign GP, had swerved wide to avoid the wreckage. Collision was unavoidable.
Gardner’s front fork and right handlebar hit Franco in the head. The force of impact ripped the helmet off, and spun the rider in white leathers round to land face-first, motionless. Wayne went into the ditch, breaking his ankle.
Uncini nowadays points with pride to his part in increasing track safety, but admits the same crash could happen today. “That is something you can’t avoid. It was a similar crash with Marco Simoncelli – a different way, but a very similar incident.
“I was very lucky – unlucky for the incident, but very lucky for the result. I was very close to finish my life there, but luckily I was inside that limit, so I am here.
“My helmet came off completely. The rivets that fixed the strap came out. The handlebar pushed it. I went 360 degrees, then the impact of my face with the asphalt. My nose used to be much better; you can still see the cut. For that reason I went into a coma.”
Franco was taken to hospital and kept in a coma for a week. Gradually he was brought back to consciousness, and he slowly made his way back to a full recovery. He was back for the opening round in South African in 1984, but he never regained his past successes.
Broken tibia and fibula. 41 days to return
When an injury or its treatment introduces a new word to the racing vocabulary – scaphoid, carpal tunnel, Ilizarof frame – you know you won’t forget it in a hurry.
Rossi’s contribution was ‘hyperbaric’ – oxygen treatment in a high-pressure chamber, many hours at a time, to speed the healing of the two broken bones in his right leg.
Rossi had led a charmed life until then: a finger injury here, a minor wrist disturbance there. But he started 2010 carrying a very troublesome shoulder injury incurred while motocross ‘training’ (always a hazardous business for a road racer, for obvious reasons of going bonkers). It would require surgery after the end of the season, and was, he said, more of a problem than the leg.
He crashed alone at his favourite circuit Mugello, just one of that year’s victims of highly temperature-sensitive Bridgestones. He’d let them cool a touch too much as he waited for a clear lap; the Yamaha flicked him off at the final S-bend, and he snapped his leg as he fell.
Rossi was helicoptered off, smiling beatifically in a haze of painkillers. I was not the only one who feared we might have seen the last of him. He’d never been hurt like this before.
Such misgivings underestimated the power that had driven him this far already. Vale had surgery promptly, spent the next 15 days on his back with his leg elevated, then took to the hyperbaric chamber and intensive training, working five or six hours a day. His season was ruined, but his drive was in no way reduced. “These two races [Germany and Laguna Seca] are really important for me, to come back strong for the end of the season,” he said, after arriving at the Sachsenring on crutches.
His own predictions were too cautious. He only lost third to Stoner on the last lap, and then by less than half a second. The Doctor was back in the house, and a week later he was third at Laguna. Later that year he added another win, a symbolic 46th on a Yamaha.
Broken left wrist. One day to return
Casey Stoner had a fine model for racing the day after his Indy crash in 2012. Kevin Schwantz had done much the same when he was defending champion in 1994. It was his wrist rather than his ankle that he broke, but he too came back next day, and followed up with a courageous fifth place, in agony.
The biggest problem was the risk of further damage. Years later Kevin would tell me he was now regretting taking that risk. The injury had been exacerbated, and he would continue to suffer at every other race for the rest of the year. It remains stiff and crooked. But the medical ethos around Dr Costa’s Clinica Mobile was utterly dedicated to getting guys out again as soon as possible (still is, really). And to be honest Kevin didn’t take much persuading.
He’d actually started the season with that wrist broken, freshly plated, after a mountain bike crash. It still hadn’t fully healed, thanks to the racing schedule.
Over the first six rounds, Doohan had started to come into his own. He’d won four times, Schwantz only once. Mick had 136 points, Kevin 108. But with eight rounds to go it wasn’t over yet. And Assen was Kevin’s favourite track – his lap record there would never be broken.
The crash was on Thursday. He landed on his injured wrist, and suffered more cartilage damage and an internal fracture. On Friday he went out with his arm in a cast and a modified handlebar, planning a couple of laps, “just to see if I could do it”. He ran 18 laps, almost full race distance.
The race was agonising. Painkillers can only do so much when you’re grinding your deranged wrist bones together every time you brake, pulling them apart again every time you open the throttle. He was still fighting at the end, taking fifth from Doug Chandler’s Cagiva by six tenths.
In the pit afterwards Kevin was overcome with exhaustion and agony. Dr Costa was waiting with the gear to take the pain away. As Kevin slumped in his seat, Costa dropped to one knee alongside, and uttered possibly his only English phrase: “I love you.”
The injury effectively ended Kevin’s career. His wrist continued to deteriorate as Mick romped away. Kevin kept trying. At one race he tried a padded knee brace to take braking strain. By year’s end he was taking his hand off the bar on the straights, flicking it to regain feeling and movement. He still claimed one last race win, at Donington Park, but retired early the next year.
Broken right tibia and fibula, with severe complications. Eight weeks to return
Doohan was coming into his own in 1992, riding like a demon, making the most of the advantage conferred by Honda’s Big Bang engine. He arrived at Assen, round eight of 13, leading Kevin Schwantz on points 130 to 77. Eventual winner Wayne Rainey had half Mick’s tally, and was absent injured.
This race, and the title, were there for the taking.
Mick was up to speed quickly in Friday’s final qualifying session. On his first fast lap, accelerating hard out of the first corner, he was already almost upright when – spin, flick, crash. It happened late in the corner, and he was sliding down the track rather than the run-off, trapped under the bike and feeling friction burns starting up. He tried to twist out from under, but his right leg was trapped at the wrong angle. Then he hit the kerb. Snap.
The surgery was a relatively straightforward plate-and-screw repair, done that afternoon. Then gangrene set in. GP medic Dr Costa kidnapped Doohan from hospital for a mercy flight to his Italian clinic. Schwantz was a fellow passenger in the Lear jet; he’d dislocated his hip after colliding with Eddie Lawson in the race. Rainey, at home in California, could hardly believe the news.
Dr Costa’s unconventional methods included stitching both of Doohan’s legs together to share blood supply, a decompression chamber, and skin grafts. Over the gruelling weeks that followed he saved the leg. But it was badly weakened, and would continue to give trouble, including bending under the strain, requiring further surgery and the gruesome application of an external Ilizarof apparatus (right) to straighten it out somewhat.
Mick returned for the Brazilian GP. He looked like a ghost, walked on crutches. He struggled to 12th while Wayne Rainey won, shrinking Mick’s lead to two points. He had to beat Rainey at the final showdown at Kyalami. He was in no condition to do so, but he took a brave sixth. Rainey secured a safe third and was champion by four points.
Ironically, there was almost a rider strike at the Brazilian race, over the circuit’s lack of safety. Had it gone ahead Mick would have been champion. Instead he had to wait another year before beginning his five-year reign.
Words Michael Scott Pictures Ian Jubb, Gold and Goose, Bauer Archive