Dr Claudio Costa - Medicine Man

Meet Dr Costa. He's a very passionate Italian who has spent the past 30 years at motorcycle races fixing up racers who crash. Here's his story

"Crashing is best avoided. But if you must then do it when Doctor Costa's around," said a young Barry Sheene of Claudio Costa, the Italian doctor who patches up bike racers.

Since the early 70's Doctor Costa has breathed life back into the likes of Franco Uncini and Virginio Ferrari and saved the limbs and careers of Mick Doohan and others. He introduced to bike racing the security and understanding of a medical team devoted to motorcycle racers at a time when you'd have been lucky to find a plaster at the local chemist 15 miles away.

Costa has used his expertise to make the "theatres" (tracks to you and me) as safe as possible and to ensure clothing manufacturers provide maximum protection for his "children" (racers, that is). Valentino Rossi calls him his "guardian angel", although Loris Capirossi hopes to "see as little of him as possible". "Doctor Costa's eyes are like an x-ray that let him diagnose an injury at a glance," Telefonica Movistar Honda MotoGP team manager and former GP champion, Fausto Gresini told me.

Today, Doctor Costa is revered by professional motorcycle racers the world over. So how did it all start? I asked the Doctor himself as we sat in the cosy Clinica Mobile motorhome at the 2003 Donington MotoGP.

"On 23 April 1972 my father and founder of the Imola race circuit, Checco Costa entrusted me with the medical service of his Imola 200 race, a service that didn't exist at racetracks in those days," explains Costa. "Racers such as Sheene and Paul Smart appreciated it so much they asked me to follow them during the motorcycling world championship. So I attended every meeting first with a briefcase, then with some more advanced medical equipment bundled in a car. I soon realised I needed serious machinery that would tell me whether a fallen rider was able to race, so in 1976 I invented the Clinica Mobile which specialises not only in injuries but also in pre-, during- and post-race preparation and physiotherapy. Today it has become the little hospital of this marvellous world of motorcycle racing."

But it was a battle. Before the Clinica Mobile was recognised as part of the racing organisation IRTA (International Road Racing Team Association) in 1994, laws in foreign countries often prevented Costa from treating his patients. In 1992 Doohan crashed and broke his leg, which became life-threateningly infected so the Dutch doctors wanted to amputate. Costa was horrified at Doohan's treatment, but he was thrown out of the hospital by local medics. So he kidnapped Doohan and flew him in a private jet to his home in Italy, where he strapped the good leg to the bad for some therapeutic blood swapping. It worked. The Australian went on to win five 500GP world titles.

I ask Doctor Costa whether he felt part of the victory when he got on the podium with the newly crowned 500 GP champion Doohan at Phillip Island on 5 October 1998. "The racers make it happen," he says. "They're the ones who find the strength to overcome horrific injuries. I'm lucky because I can be part of the fairy tale, I am the one who provides the means to make their motorcycling fairy tale continue."

As I chat to Doctor Costa I realise that Fausto was right when he told me he'd become "a bit of a poet and fantasist". This is also apparent in his book, 'dottorcosta', which ceaselessly compares racers to mythological creatures and gods. Costa has devoted his life to his "heroes", the men he believes symbolise life lived at its fullest. Now he is in his 60s and he recently recovered from a nasty cancer that affected him profoundly. As Fausto rightly said: "He is still doing amazing things for motorcycling. We must respect him for this." Fausto also pointed out that passion drives Doctor Costa: "This world is all about business but he has done it from his heart. Had he been in it for business he'd have been very rich by now - but this is not the case. People don't understand so they criticise him."

So how does he earn his bread then? Doctor Costa tells me the teams and IRTA donate money to the Clinica so the racers are free to use the Clinica's services free of charge. And he has indeed been criticised by media, medical bodies and the like for what they consider a 'patch 'em up, send 'em out' attitude. But Doctor Costa shrugs this off: "First, I ask the racer what he wants to do. If he wants to race, I work with him to make it happen." Costa says the words of GP champion Jarno Saarinen, a patient and close friend who died at Monza in 1972, guided him throughout the years: "If you want to keep being my doctor, providing me with proper treatment won't be enough. You must abandon any reservations in letting me return to racing as soon as I am able." Costa explains: "Since then I have sided with those who try to live life to the full. At the clinic you will not only find the latest technology, equipment and medicine, but also a love for the racers and a respect for and understanding of their dreams and projects."

Doctor Costa says he ignores the traditional dogmas of trauma medicine when it comes to 'fixing' racers and he counts on their desire to get back on their bike as a cure. He says fears that the injured riders would become cripples in their old age disappeared when Wayne Gardner wrote to him: "As I get older I have no ongoing problems with my injuries. My motorcycle career would never have been as good if it were not for you. I am indebted forever."

So what about claims that Kevin Schwantz's career might have been longer had he allowed time for his smashed up wrist to heal in 1994, instead of continuing to race thanks to special resin bandages? "Unfortunately, Kevin was operated on by American surgeons who didn't understand his need to race," says Costa. "They gave him a wrist that cosmetically looked as good as possible for everyday life. I would have carried out a different operation to enable him to race for as long as possible."

In the early days the Clinica Mobile's cause was helped when, on several occasions and in front of crowds of spectators, its medics would leap over the barriers to give mouth-to-mouth rescucitation to bring back to the living injured racers who'd stopped breathing, as Costa did with Franco Uncini after his 1977 Salzburg crash on the Clinica Mobile's first day of official service. Our interview was briefly interrupted when Uncini himself, who is now the riders' safety representative, bursts into the Clinica to get Costa's advice on plans for a new track being built at Imola. Costa takes one hard look at the drawings and says he'd like to see longer straights to break up the tight, bunched-up corners. At this point, Rossi walks in for his pre-race massage and fluid intake to combat dehydration from the 30+ degrees sunshine, so Costa shows him the proposals. "I agree with Dottor Costa," says Rossi, making hand gestures as if he's trying hard to flick a bike from one side to the other. "It needs longer straights or it's just too Mickey Mouse." The new track will be called Checco Costa, "but only if it passes my strict standards", Doctor Costa tells me. "It must be a prototype for safety."

Doctor Costa has fought long and hard to increase the safety of circuits. He was a major influence when it came to replacing Imola's lethally fast Tamburello and Villeneuve corners following Ayrton Senna's and Roland Ratzenberger's deaths there in May 1994, and he played a crucial part in removing the TT from the GP world championship calendar: "There were too many deaths and serious accidents. Anyone who wants to race at the TT should be respected. But it must be a choice not an obligation." He continues: "People rely on my 30 years experience for advice and information on safety issues that affect the theatres where racers enact their dramas. Racers hardly need to go slow so they can't have obstacles. Safer tracks doesn't mean there'll never be any injuries or deaths, but it does mean we will mourn our losses without guilt."

So what does Doctor Costa think of Suzuka, where Kato lost his life after smashing into a wall at high speeds in the opening round of the MotoGP in 2003? "The answer is in what happened," he replies. "Suzuka is a circuit that obviously has dangers and if it is still to be used as a theatre of MotoGP it must be modified or Kato's death will be in vain." And does he agree with the suggestions that the new generation of MotoGP bikes are too powerful and might be reduced in capacity as a result? "Absolutely not. Leave the bikes alone, I love speed. It's the theatres that need changing."

Protective clothing has also been improved using the Clinica Mobile's expertise. At the June 1997 Assen GP Alex Criville massacred his left hand when he caught it under the handlebars during a crash. Costa was outraged, condemning Criville's gloves and their "fashionable protruberances and jutting parts". "Fashion is worse than death," he fumed.

"There is no match for the level of experience gained at the Clinica Mobile and clothing manufacturers such as Dainese come to us for advice and research into racing injuries: we have influenced the way gloves are made to minimise the severity of the frequent injuries to the little finger and forefinger (that's pinky and perky), and we have improved helmets and back protectors."

I ask Doctor Costa to tell me about research being carried out using the riders' 'go fast' humps. "We have fitted into the humps state-of-the-art equipment that records and monitors the riders' heartbeats and physical conditions as they are racing. This has never been done during an actual MotoGP race. A racer's heart is put through incredible stress and can reach 200 beats per minute. Every racer's heart beats differently: some beat calmly like a child at play (he refers to Rossi), while others are placed under terrific stress."

Suddenly, the interview is interrupted once again as the Clinica Mobile's TV projects a massive highside from 125cc rider at the time, Alex De Angelis. It looks bad from where I'm sitting. I turn to Doctor Costa but his gaze is transfixed. He is staring intently at the replay, observing the way De Angelis is flung into the air before landing awkwardly feet first. "He has a contusion of his right foot but it's not broken," was Doctor Costa's at-a-glance TV diagnosis that proves spot-on when, half an hour later, De Angelis limps in for a check up. Fausto was right. Years of experience had gifted the racer's travelling doctor with x-ray vision.