A cut above his rivals

The Australian chasing his third consecutive world crown shows his lighter side to the fans in a hair-raising sport; Andrew Baker observes stunts and pranks on a curious day at Donington
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The Independent Online
Thursday was an odd sort of day for Michael Doohan, the world 500cc motorcycling champion. He was circulating around Donington Park, the venue for today's British Grand Prix, but not behind the handlebars of a Repsol Honda as usual. Instead, he was behind the dustbin- lid-sized wheel of a 12,400kg, 51-seater coach, ferrying competition winners around the track on which he won last year's race. Strange enough - but there were weirder things in store for Doohan.

It was the Day of Champions, a traditional event when the closed world of grand prix motorcycling opens up, and all sorts of stunts, japes and pranks are staged in aid of a biking charity. Most obviously, the paddock is thrown open to the public, and what is normally a place of privacy and peace becomes instead a kind of zoo, with riders as the exotic exhibits. Throughout the course of the afternoon, the crowd was thickest outside Doohan's motorhome.

The Australian is the heir to Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey and Randy Mamola, unquestionably the dominant figure in the sport. But while he has the admiration of the fans, he has yet to win their affection. He has been perceived as an aloof, taciturn figure - until this season, when he has noticeably loosened up. Between media interviews he appeared at the motorhome door to sign autographs and press the flesh.

Mick Doohan, the people's friend? It could be his greatest challenge. "I enjoy the atmosphere at Donington," he said. "I get a lot of support from the English crowd and fans." But he is not keen on the Derbyshire circuit itself. "I don't get a lot of feel from the Honda around here."

Doohan's chief mechanic, Jerry Burgess, who has been with him since 1989, explained. "He likes the place well enough, but the track doesn't really suit a 500cc bike, it's not so fast. Mick likes to ride a 500 the way it should be ridden, and you can't really do that around here."

Burgess has watched - and helped - Doohan develop from a fast but raw novice into the dominant force he is today. "He always had the talent," Burgess said, as final preparations were made to Doohan's race bike in the pit, "but now he has experience as well, and that can be useful in a race situation. Younger riders are inclined to panic. Mick doesn't do that."

The 31-year-old from Surfer's Paradise has very little left to prove in the sport, and until he recently re-signed with Repsol Honda for next year there had been speculation that he might retire. Right now, things might appear to be easy for him, but he has seen the hard side of the sport. His right leg was so badly smashed in a crash at Assen in Holland in 1992 that surgeons considered amputation, and Doohan says that the injury reminds him "every day" of the dangers of the sport. He has admitted that last winter he was seriously considering hanging up his helmet, but now that day has been delayed again. "I'm happy that the decision is made," he said, "and that I am staying where I feel comfortable. Obviously, the Honda is very competitive as well."

"Competitive" is something of an understatement: the combination of Doohan and Honda is well-nigh unbeatable, except when he makes a mistake, as he did in Germany, miscounting the number of laps left to go and letting his Italian rival Luca Cadalora take the win. Barring accidents, a third world title is Doohan's for the taking.

The adoration of the Donington fans is harder won, but he is certainly trying hard enough to earn it. And not just on the bike: early on Thursday evening, in a sweltering marquee in the infield, Doohan lost his hair in public.

"I was sitting around with Daryl Beattie [Suzuki rider] and Randy Mamola [former rider] talking about ways of raising money for charity here," he recalled. "And I must have had a few ales too many. I said if they can raise pounds 3,000, I'd have my head shaved. Randy wrote it down and it all started from there."

The response from the fans - and from Doohan's fellow riders in the paddock - was predictably overwhelming, and when he walked on to the stage the marquee erupted. One fan paid pounds 150 to cut the first stripe in Doohan's luxuriant silver-streaked dark locks, and the follically challenged Beattie and Mamola competed to finish the job. "I just can't say how we feel about it," Mamola said, "that we finally get to skin him."

Shorn, Doohan stood before the whooping crowd, a dead ringer for Andre Agassi. By letting his guard down, by joining in, by just being one of the lads, he had won himself a place in the supporters' hearts that any number of grand prix wins could not earn. And the hair? "What the hell," he said. "With any luck it will grow back black."