MOTOR CYCLING: Doohan still has drive to succeed

Patrick Miles predicts a fruitful defence of the 500cc grand prix title this season
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The Independent Online
It is not a motorcycle racer's lot in life to be content. One world title is not enough; a fastest lap time is cause for complaint. Such is the case with Michael Doohan, the 500c champion and provisional pole-sitter for tomorrow's Australian Grand Prix.

The Australian, who lives in Monte Carlo among many other fast men, had a fertile winter testing his new Honda and is favoured to defend his crown. But he still feels he has something to prove. "I know my determination won't dwindle because I feel I've got to win another title to make it certain," he said.

In the first official speed test of the season yesterday, Doohan was quickest, but jumped straight from his bike into a strong criticism of the Eastern Creek circuit. "It is in the worst condition I have seen it in for a race meeting," he said, explaining that the track had not been effectively cleaned.

Doohan has a right to be fussy, though, having endured great traumas to reach the heights of last year, when he won nine grands prix to sweep away his rivals, finishing in the top three at every meeting.

In 1992, the 29-year-old Queenslander broke his leg so severely that he was in grave danger of losing it. Almost three years later, after numerous operations and intensive treatment, he is back to something approaching full fitness.

This raises am imposing profile for the other competitors, only one of whom has won the 500cc title and only one of whom is considered to represent a genuine threat to Doohan's reign. And Kevin Schwantz also knows about riding through pain.

The 30-year-old American, who won the 1993 championship, is perceived to be the only man with the experience, the skill, the daring and the machinery to push Doohan to the limit this season, which is, for now, to be Schwantz's swan-song in the series.

As is the case on a regular basis, at least one of the leading protagonists in the 500cc class will be carrying a close-season injury into the first round of the championship. These men have a habit of crashing even when they are racing only against the clock. Schwantz crashed in the winter and has a hand injury which is affecting his ability to squeeze the most out of his Suzuki.

He crashed again yesterday but he was lucky this time - he slid 50 yards across the road on his back and was unhurt. He was fortunate: when a rider comes unstuck at more than 100mph there is nowhere to hide.

Schwantz returned on his spare bike and finished the session in seventh place. "I wasn't hurt at all, and I went out on the other bike that had been faster in the morning, back on the settings we had then. I'm not too unhappy," he said.

All the signs indicate that Schwantz, and possibly his Lucky Strike team- mate, Australia's Daryl Beattie, are the only men who can get near Doohan over the season, so it was an inauspicious beginning for the tall Texan.

Having announced that he will hang up his leathers at the end of the season, Schwantz may be all the more motivated to finish in the highest fashion with a second title. But the opposite may apply in equal measure in that his reason for quitting - a reluctance to be maimed like his friend, the former champion Wayne Rainey - could dampen his resolve to take the risks necessary to be the fastest.

"I doubt I will still have the drive or the desire next year to push myself to the limits that are necessary for me to be competitive. My body has taken a lot of pounding and I don't want to stretch it," he said.

In the absence of Cagiva from the field, the factory Yamaha is the only other machine with a chance of winning a race from Honda and Suzuki. Italy's Luca Cadalora leads the Yamaha charge and was a close second to Doohan yesterday. Beattie was third in qualifying, followed by Spain's Alex Criville on a Honda similar to Doohan's.

AUSTRALIAN MOTORCYCLE GRAND PRIX (Eastern Creek, NSW) Leading first qualifying times: 500cc: 1 M Doohan (Aus) Honda 1min 31.468sec (ave speed 96.114mph); 2 L Cadalora (It) Yamaha 1:31.493; 3 D Beattie (Aus) Suzuki 1:31.671; 4 A Criville (Sp) Honda 1:31.754; 5 L Capirossi (It) Honda 1:31.835; 6 A Barros (Bra) Honda 1:31.870; 7 K Schwantz (US) Suzuki 1:32.062; 8 A Puig (Sp) Honda 1:32.238; 9 S Itoh (Japan) Honda 1:32.815; 10 N Abe (Japan) Yamaha 1:33.048. 250cc: 1 T Okada (Japan) Honda 1:33.201 (ave speed 94.32mph); 2 T Harada (Japan) Yamaha 1:33.214; 3 R Waldmann (Ger) Honda 1:33.215; 4 M Biaggi (It) Aprilia 1:33.358; 5 C Checa (Sp) Honda 1:34.041. 125cc: 1 K Sakata (Japan) Aprilia 1:38.437 (ave speed 89.254mph); 2 P Oettl (Ger) Aprilia 1:38.742; 3 G McCoy (Aus) Honda 1:38.811; 4 H Aoki (Japan) Honda 1:38.935; 5 Y Katoh (Japan) Yamaha 1:39.091.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP CALENDAR 1995: 26 March Australia (Eastern Creek); 2 April Malaysia (Shah Alam); 23 Japan (Suzuki); 7 May Spain (Jerez); 21 Germany (Nrburgring); 11 June Italy (Mugello); 24 Netherlands (Assen); 9 July France (Le Mans); 23 Britain (Donington Park); 20 Aug Czech Republic (Brno); 24 Sept Argentina (Buenos Aires); 8 Oct Europe (Barcelona).