Doohan's delightful dilemma

Norman Fox says the legendary Aussie biker is on a fast track to riches
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The Independent Online
Britain's summer of sport will be almost over. The big pay days at Wimbledon, Silverstone and Troon will have gone. By comparison Donington Park hardly ranks among the instantly recognised international sporting cash points. But if Michael Doohan, the Australian motorcyclist with a talent as formidable as that of such past greats as Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini wins the German Grand Prix today, he is more or less assured of a fourth world 500cc title.

Then comes a little matter of deciding at Donington whether to accept a record pounds 7m offer to leave Honda for Yamaha, who last won the world title five years ago and badly want to lure him away from Honda's supremacy. Honda pay Doohan a reported pounds 5m a year but money is no longer his incentive. It was not long ago that because of his own domination he found the grand prix scene so boring that he considered giving up. He arrived at the top of his sport late and quickly found his appetite diminishing through lack of serious competition. Then, last season, aged 32 and thinking of retirement, he found his Honda team-mate, the Spaniard Alex Criville, seriously challenging him. They battled wheel to wheel and Doohan played up to motorcycling's love of real or well-rehearsed personal antagonism.

There was one race in which they could be separated on the finishing line only by the thousandth-of-a-second timing used in Olympic 100m races. This season, though, Doohan started with a comfortable win over Criville but was pushed hard by the Spaniard in Suzuka and was convincingly beaten by him in front of the King of Spain in Jerez. But if Criville seemed certain to make it difficult for Doohan to keep complete control this season, it all ended at Assen when he crashed at 150mph in practice and severely damaged his left hand and wrist. Criville is unlikely to ride again this season.

In spite of past differences of opinion about riding tactics, Doohan not only sympathised, because he too had crashed on the difficult Assen track the year before, but realised that the season had suddenly lost much of its interest. So barring mistakes, which Doohan rarely makes, the title is going back to Australia but the race for his signature will continue in Japan. Honda will be hard pressed to keep him. He expects to see the small print of a contract with Yamaha when he visits Donington, but it has to include the mechanics who have made his Honda machines virtually unbeatable. Among the problems is the increasingly successful campaign to reduce or ban cigarette advertising world-wide - Marlboro support Yamaha.

Such is Doohan's superiority now Criville is out of action that even Kenny Roberts, who runs his own racing team, says: "The question is not whether he rides for Honda or Yamaha next season, but will there be anyone to rival him?" He is concerned that television has shown superbikes to be more competitive. Ironically, if Doohan switches to Yamaha, Marlboro may remove their sponsorship from Roberts' Modenas team to gain more publicity with Yamaha.

To place Doohan in historical perspective, only Agostini, who raced in the Sixties and Seventies, has a more successful record with 68 wins compared with Doohan's 41. Already this season he has won seven times, apearing to create artificial competition to satisfy himself and the crowds. He admitted that at the Italian Grand Prix at Imola he allowed the highly promising Japanese rider Nobuatsu Aoki to pass him. "I thought it might break his concentration." It was even more unsettling for Aoki when Doohan continually moved up to his front wheel before casually dropping back. With 10 laps to go he pulled away for victory.

Nothing in yesterday's final practice on the Nurburgring suggested anything but another win for Doohan today. Although Roberts's new three-cylinder Modenas machines became the talking point with French rider Jean-Michel Bayle impressively becoming fifth fastest, Doohan took pole position three tenths of a second ahead of fellow Honda rider, Carlos Checa of Spain.

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