It rained in London yesterday afternoon. I know because I got caught out in it. It was cold, wet and miserable apparently. I skipped through the puddles with a smile on my face and a spring in my overweight step, crammed my way onto a packed Northern Line tube and headed home feeling like I’d just found a long lost fifty pound note in my pocket. My last meeting of the day was on the 35th floor of the Shard, with Mick Doohan. Mick is in town for the Race Of Champions this weekend. His mouth tells me over a coffee that he’s not really a four-wheel kind of guy and he knows he’s not so competitive when it comes to racing anymore. His eyes tell a very different story…
SB: You’re racing cars against car racers this weekend. What are your chances?
I tested a F1 car back in about ’98. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you which model it was. It was a test, but it wasn’t a test at the same time. Jacques Villeneuve Tommy Makinen and myself were all world champions that year. We had mutual tobacco sponsors, who got us all together for some promo work at Catalunya. Initially Villeneuve was supposed to ride my bike as well, in the end Williams canned that idea at the last moment. When I told him I normally got on the brakes at the 200m board, he said he was pinned in the car to the 80-metre board. In hindsight that was probably a good thing because he told me he was fairly certain he’d run off the end of the main straight. I left pit lane in the car and by turn four I’d stuffed the thing into the wall. Makinen made it one corner further than me before he span off and eventually managed to write the car off within five laps. Ron Dennis at McLaren used to offer me tests in his cars quite regularly, but I didn’t want to be a car guy. I figured if I was going to make this much effort, use this much focus and energy, I wanted to use it doing something I loved and that was racing bikes. The Race Of Champions is just a bit of fun for me. It’d be nice to beat a few guys but I don’t come here expecting to win. A lot of these guys are current racers. As much as you feel that you’re going to give it your best shot, as the years go by and you get to spend less and less time going fast, it becomes harder to stay tidy in the cars. I don’t want to destroy them, I just want to have a bit of fun. The best thing about it is the fact that the races are only about a minute, how far behind can I get left in a minute?
SB: But, you’re Mick Doohan.
Ha! Considering I’m a washed up bike guy that hasn’t ridden competitively for 15 years, I’ll be happy if I can win one race. I’m an ambassador for AMG Mercedes at home in Australia, so I get to drive nice cars, but on general driving duties, which usually means going out for a loaf of bread.
SB: So what about riding bikes? Do you still ride?
I do ride now and then, but only really for parades and demo rides. Last year at Motegi Honda dusted off a museum bike for me to have a ride on, and two years before I rode Stoner’s MotoGP Honda at Phillip Island.
SB: At this point, we remind Mick about the time we stalled Barry Sheene’s RG500 Suzuki in front of him at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. We said he looked at us like we were a clueless fucking bike journalist, and that he wasn’t far off the mark. We laughed, we pretended we were mates hanging out and he carried on talking about riding Casey’s bike.
It was good, well beyond the capabilities of what I was used to when I was racing. I could feel the electronics a lot, they were wound up for me. I also felt like I was going fast, but I wasn’t. I think if I’d had a day or two on the bike, I’d get within a few seconds of the pace but as it was I was a number of seconds off. Being slightly off the pace is normal for any rider that’s jumping back on after a little lay off, but I’d been away from riding properly for years by then and it took a while to get my thoughts together. Equally, the electronics when I was racing were taken care of by my right hand and the clutch. The Japanese engineers were freaking out about me covering the clutch on Stoner’s bike. Using it for anything other than pulling away would disengage the electronics and that could be bad. It was a nice thing to ride, but at the pace I was going, anything would be nice to ride
SB: You and Jorge Lorenzo are representing bike racers at the ROC, do you get on?
I’ve seen him at the odd event here and there but haven’t spent much time with him. That’s not unusual, when I was competing like he is I didn’t spend much time with anyone either. I also live on the other side of the world these days. He seems like a nice young guy, we seem to get on okay, but I don’t seem to have too many problems with too many people.
Do you have much of a relationship with two-wheeled manufacturers anymore?
I still have a great relationship with Honda, but I don’t have any association with any of the others. The only manufacturers I have an alliance with these days are in aviation and cars. The bike guys don’t seem to want to know me.
SB: Before we talk about the 2015 season, I’d be interested to hear your opinion on Casey Stoner and 2016. Do you have much to do with him?
He also lives on the Gold Coast in Australia, but I don’t see him that often to be honest. I’m always on the move and so is he. I don’t really know what he’s up to. I know he’s still passionate about riding and it’s a shame that he’s actually retired. If he was still racing, I think he’d still be in the mix. I feel that he still wants to ride, but doesn’t want to race. I don’t understand that concept. For me, if I was riding I would want to race, to find competition. He prefers the solitude of going out on his own and testing. Testing used to bore my head off, I’d rather slam my hand in the door than do all that. Sure we used to test. As a team we would do what needed to be done, but as soon as it was done and we’d achieved our goals we were out of there and looking for a race. Stoner prefers the other side of it.
SB: What would you do if you were in his shoes now?
I really don’t know. He’s won a few world titles, I think he was 30 the other week so he’s not old by any stretch of the imagination. But you’ve got to have the want. To fully immerse yourself back into a sport after being away for so long will be difficult. Had he come back for 2015 or was fully in to race in 2016, not a problem. But another year out in the wilderness? A few too many glasses of red wine and relaxing is hard to get away from to get back into racing.
SB: But if Ducati and Honda both waved a contract under your 30-year-old nose, you’d go for one, right?
To be fair, I’m not around racing enough to know what the offers look like and who they’ve come from. I’d imagine they’d have to be fairly enticing to drag him back into a life he turned his back on, for reasons only known to him. Something must have turned him away and so it’d be difficult.
SB: So, lets talk about how the season played out with Honda and Yamaha over the last few rounds.
Well, I don’t think it was a Honda Yamaha thing, I think it was more about two individuals.
SB: We were trying to be polite.
I was there to see the race in Australia, that was a cracking race. For somebody to be in the title hunt to expect other people not to get in the mix is wrong, the wrong perception to start with. People are out there to win races for themselves, whether they’re in the championship or not. Nobody wants to be the contributing factor in somebody winning or losing, but it’s competition. The manufacturers expect X amount and as a rider if there’s an opportunity to win a race, regardless of whether you’re going for the championship or not, you’re going to want to win.
What happened in Malaysia? I don’t really know, they’re both probably to blame I think. If I was in Marquez’ shoes, I think there would have been a couple of options. You either run off the track or shut the throttle down. To try and turn into somebody when there’s a bike there seemed a bit odd. I didn’t watch it live, I caught the replay and don’t know whether Rossi kicked him or not, who knows? To me it didn’t look like he did.
And Valencia, well there’s a couple of ways to look at that. Regardless of what I think, if Rossi knocked Marquez off, that could be all the incentive he needed to not want to pass Lorenzo. Equally, he did look like he was getting closer and closer in the closing stages and seemed to be preparing to pass and then Pedrosa came on strong and that screwed them up for the last lap. Only the riders themselves know what’s going on out there. I look at it like this, in a year or two or even when he’s retired, would Marquez say to himself, shit I could have won that race and added to the tally. Aside from the good win bonuses, this was a Spanish race for a Spaniard, a home GP. At the end of the day, it’s all bullshit. The real winner out of all this has been MotoGP. The story has been amazing. In my view the best rider won. Whether or not Valentino felt pressure, I don’t know. This may have been his last opportunity to win a title. He could still come out next year and dominate, but I’ve never seen him react like this before. Whether he was playing up as part of the show I don’t know but why he was suddenly worrying about riders not in the championship chase getting in the way. Shit, it’s racing and that’s just not the way it goes. Each man is there for himself. You don’t want to take a guy out that’s fighting for the championship but you’re not going to give away points. As I said, MotoGP are the real winners. The racing has been fantastic. Formula 1 has been absolutely…. Boring. The big winner in the whole debacle has been the sport. Rossi’s fans are still going to be Rossi’s fans, if anything it’s just bought more people in to have a look at the sport because of the exposure it got over the past six weeks.
SB: Did any of it remind of you of a particular scenario from when you were racing?
No, not really, but you guys in the media love it. To create a story out of nothing and then not let it go. I had my moments with a few different riders over the years, but it was water off a duck’s back kind of stuff. Didn’t keep me awake at night then and doesn’t keep me awake at night now. I’d be surprised if it keeps any of these guys awake too, they’re seasoned professionals. At the end of the day if something like that is going to rattle them. Well, they’re not in the position they’re in for being mentally soft, put it that way.
SB: And Pedrosa’s recent pace and victories have almost been swept aside because of the whole Marquez, Rossi and Lorenzo thing?
He’s done a great job. To be fair to Pedrosa, I was surprised and quite vocal when they signed him again. Next year will be his ninth season as a factory rider, which is pretty much unheard of and he hasn’t produced a world championship. The way he’s riding at the moment, if he can carry this form uninjured next year. Shit he may be another player in the championship. 2016 is already shaping up to be a good year.
SB: So it’s been 15 years since you raced, what is it you miss the most about pulling on a pair of leathers and going racing?
That’s a tough question, there are a lot of aspects I miss. I guess when you’re doing it, you don’t realize how cool what you’re doing actually is. You’re being paid to ride bikes you could only dream about when you were a kid and racing against the best guys there are.
SB: And beating them.
Well yes, beating them was always good as well, but that’s just drive and pushing yourself and wanting to be the best. I miss all those little aspects, but it’s not like I don’t push myself now as well. You’re fully immersed when you’re a racer. You’re isolated from reality, which I don’t miss. I guess the thing I miss the most would be the adrenaline of competition.
SB: So not the physicality of coming off a corner on a screaming 500cc two stroke and feeling the thing moving about?
Yeah, sometimes. Getting the most out of the bike, but its only when you step away that you can look back and think, shit that was pretty damn good.
SB: Are you able to replicate any of those feelings in your day job now? Does closing a strong deal feel anything like winning a race?
I try to apply myself in a similar way in a lot of things I do. My work ethic and focus is all about trying to achieve similar results, but in a different arena. But like in sport, you can’t win everything. The biggest difference between sport and business is there are more Band Aids and ambulances in sports. I try and use the same discipline of learning from mistakes and never letting them happen again. Analysing why I get things wrong. I guess I’m still a hard task master, but I have loyal staff who’ve been with me for years, so I cant be too bad.
SB: Which was the best championship to win, the first or the last?
The first was good, it was really difficult to achieve. The second was rewarding because I’d always said to myself that if I won one, I’d want to back to back it with a second to prove that it wasn’t down to luck. Beyond that, everything became a game. It was just about winning enough races. Winning two was the goal. The instant gratification of going out and winning a race was what kept me in the sport after that. I just kept wanting to win.
SB: You’ve probably been asked a thousand times, but if you could pick between winning when you won, or racing this season with these guys, which would you choose?
I enjoyed the time I was racing. Schwantz, Rainey, Lawson, Gardener and Sarron were a whole bunch of guys who were all capable of winning every race. I can remember thinking the same thing when I was racing, ‘how would I go against Agostini or Kenny Roberts?’ I’m fucked if I know. At the end of the day, if you threw a Rainey or a Schwantz into the mix today, they’d want to win and be the hardest guys for you to race against and equally today these guys are the same now. You know it’d be great to take all the best riders from Agostini through to Marquez and put them together, but it’s never going to happen, so you end up enjoying talking bullshit, exactly like we’re doing now.
SB: Last question. When you woke up and saw that your legs had been stitched together, what were your first thoughts?
Well I knew it was coming of course, so I was kind of prepared for it. We knew it was the only option for the quickest way to get back on the bike. I had a huge hole in my ankle, it would have taken months to do a traditional skin graft, or we could stitch my legs together. It was a fairly barbaric thing to do and it hadn’t been done for a few years but it had to happen. Normally they’d bolt your legs together as well, but that was no good to me as I needed to get back on the bike. After 14 or 15 nights of them being stitched together, they made a small cut to see if the skin would survive and thankfully it did so they were able to separate my legs. Having your legs sewn together didn’t make life easy, but it was part and parcel of racing. I was leading the world championship that year and was trying to get back as quick as possible. You don’t think too much at the time and push through. We’re in central London, there are hundreds of people riding bikes around here today that might have a life changing accident that they don’t know is coming. I feel fortunate that I had some choices, I chose to ride those bikes.
There’s still time to grab a ticket and support Mick and Jorge Lorenzo at the Race Of Champions. Click this link to buy tickets, retweet this piece to be in with a chance of winning a pair of general admission tickets for the Friday.
Words: Johnatsuperbike Images: Honda and ROC archive