Whatever happened to Dr Claudio Costa?

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The man who made a career bolting MotoGP stars back together

r Claudio Costa was the man who created the Clinica Mobile, which tours the world with the MotoGP and World Superbike paddocks, looking after the medical needs of all the riders. Costa’s creation revolutionised international racing, ensuring that riders have the best-possible care from professionals who understand what they need.

Dr Costa fact file
Born: 1941, Italy
Famous for: mending broken motorcycle racers
Notable patients: Mick Doohan, and Graziano and Valentino Rossi

Wasn’t Costa the man who sewed Mick Doohan’s legs together?

Yes, that’s the one. Doohan broke his right leg at Assen in 1992 and was subjected to a badly botched operation at a local hospital. Dutch surgeons were about to amputate the mangled limb when Costa kidnapped him from the hospital and flew him back to his Bologna clinic in a private jet. Costa sewed the rotting right leg to the left leg to help keep the limb alive. Doohan made a miraculous comeback a few weeks later but missed the title by four points. He made up for that by winning five consecutive world titles from 1994 to 1998. 

Who else has he helped?

Costa has been in the game so long that he’s not only helped Valentino Rossi recover from numerous injuries, but also Rossi’s father. The doctor probably saved Graziano Rossi’s life, after he crashed at Imola in 1982 and fell into a coma. Way before that, Costa tended to 1972 250 world champion Jarno Saarinen. He retired in 2014 although he still takes an active interest in the Clinica as it tours around the world’s race circuits.

How did Costa get involved?

In 1952 his dad Checco created the Imola racetrack, which still hosts WSB racing today. Claudio says his father was fascinated by Greek myths, including the half-man/half-horse centaur, and he saw bike racers as a modern incarnation of the centaur. So he wanted to build a racetrack where the centaurs could roam free. Inevitably, his son fell under the spell.

But why a doctor and not a rider?

Costa decided he wanted to dedicate his life to helping riders after TT winner Ray Amm died at Imola in 1955. The sight of improvised rescues – untrained marshals dragging badly injured racers off the track – made him realise he had to do something to improve the situation. Ever since then rider safety has been his mission. There’s no doubt he transformed medical interventions, saving dozens of lives and many more careers over the decades. 

When did Clinica first go mobile?

Costa had a camper van converted into a mini mobile hospital in 1977. The third version of the Clinica – a proper 12-wheeler truck – was unveiled in 1988 and blessed by Pope John Paul II outside St Peters in Rome.

He sounds like a saint…

To many racers he is, but his career didn’t go entirely uncriticised. He was sometimes accused of pushing riders back into racing before they were fully healed. A case in point is Kevin Schwantz, who broke a wrist at Assen in 1994 and raced the next weekend. The Texan reckons that’s one reason he retired the following year – his hurried return had damaged bones in the wrist. 

Isn’t Costa a bit of an eccentric?

Yes. Costa is a lover of philosophy and of Greek, Roman and Renaissance mythology. Here’s a small taste of his philosophy. “The Clinica has become a home for the heroes, an altar for riders to celebrate the magical ritual with which they resurrect from their injuries… to climb the enchanted mountain of motorcycling, a mountain with only the stars in heaven above it.” 

Any more pearls of wisdom?

His book Tears and Triumph: My Life in the Clinica Mobile is chock full of beauties like this. “The windswept motorcyclist escapes from reality to discover the beauty and richness of instinct. It is this natural, true and vital dimension that they take onto the racetrack; it lights the fire that warms the cold night and illuminates a theatre where there is no violence, only humanity, clamour and enthusiasm… ”

Er, right, anything else?

Let’s get back to reality. Today’s Clinica Mobile is a mammoth operation: at every European MotoGP race there are six physios, one x-ray technician, one orthopaedist and one anaesthetist, specialising in intensive care and resuscitation. Last year the team made almost 3000 medical interventions during the 18-race season. Which is every reason to forgive Dr Costa his eccentricities.

Words: Max Oxley Photos: Gold and Goose