Having been offered new opportunities by the absence these past two months of the injured world champion, Mick Doohan, the 500cc championship ought to have become a tight, unpredictable and competitive affair. Yet, in spite of the fact that the next best practice times of the top dozen riders consistently separate them by only fractions, when it comes to race day all that usually happens is that Doohan's Repsol Honda team-mate Criville takes over as the dominant force. Or at least, that was the case until last weekend in the Dutch Grand Prix.
Since Doohan's crash in Jerez, Criville had won four successive rounds. But bike racing being what it is, no sooner had he begun to look comfortable with his formidable 55-point lead than he crashed his Honda NSR into and under the air bag fencing surrounding the Assen circuit, dislocating his hip as both he and his bike slithered at undiminished speed into the tyre wall beyond.
He flew home to Barcelona for treatment, thinking that the hip was broken, but recovered sufficiently to begin practice at Donington on Friday. That surprised even him: "I'd crashed at Assen two years ago and badly injured my left hand, but the pain was not as bad as last week - I really thought I would die when they tried to pull me out."
There was not much wrong with his determination yesterday, or on Friday when he was the quickest in a practice session notable for seeing the first 10 riders separated by 0.5 seconds. Combined practice times from yesterday and Friday mean that the top 13 riders today are within a second of each other. Criville held the fastest time of all (1min 32.660sec) in dry, perfect conditions yesterday until, with only a few minutes remaining, Tadayuki Okada, also riding a Repsol Honda, bettered that.
The Japanese rider's lead was by such a small margin, however, that Criville, who is never at his best in practice, says he is more concerned about his ability to endure the 75 miles of today's final than being able to match the speed of Okada and the Italian former 250cc world champion, Max Biaggi, who yesterday suddenly produced a late surge of consistent pace and daring on his Yamaha to take third place on the grid. Criville's hip injury is less of a problem than bruising to his legs. "It's difficult even to get on the bike," he said. "But I probably noticed it more in practice than I will in the real race."
Criville still has a solid 35-point lead over the American Kenny Roberts Jnr, riding a Suzuki, who is only one point ahead of last week's winner, Okada. The odds are still on Criville to take the world title.
But it is an ill wind, and today's race is going to be all the more interesting because of doubts about Criville's fitness. Doohan says that his own leg injuries are likely to prevent his racing until the Czech Grand Prix in August. All that the Australian has been doing this week is signing autographs, but the winner of the British grands prix of 1995, 1996 and 1997 says he would love to have made up for losing last year to Simon Crafar, though that would not have been difficult since Crafar has gone so far off the boil that he is hardly simmering and no longer rides for Yamaha.
Perhaps, for the sake of surprise, today's race will be all the better for the 33-year-old Doohan being unavailable, but the sight of this exceptional rider on this testing circuit, that many believe is made slippery by aircraft fuel dropped from planes using the nearby East Midlands airport, is a blow. For the moment, he says that his attitude has to be that he is being well paid for being bored, mainly sitting at home in Monaco watching the coming and goings of other millionaires' yachts. What a hardship.
"Well, after a crash like that it makes you value what you've got all the more. I keep thinking about retiring, then I think how much I enjoy riding and racing." Doohan added that, having managed to avoid all that many crashes in his career, he was not inclined to think in terms of having had enough of the pain: "I can put up with quite a lot of that." When the surgeon in the United States talked to him before his recent three- hour operation, it was mentioned that there would be a scar on his leg. "So I just said, one more is not going to make a lot of difference."Reuse content