Italian Doctor Heals Body and Mind to Bring Racers Back
Too often in motorsport, we as fans focus solely on drivers, teams, and design engineers while overlooking the great accomplishments and heroic efforts put forth by those behind the scenes. Doctor Claudio Costa is a perfect example of this. While he may not be a household name on the level of Valentino Rossi, his incredible medical and therapeutic contributions to the sport over the past four decades make those who are familiar speak his name in awe.
Private collector Jonathan Giacobazzi grew up deeply involved in Formula 1 and is a close friend of the doctor. He describes Costa as “a living legend because everybody involved in motorbikes—MotoGP in particular—knows him as a real personality. He’s more than a doctor, because he works really on the spirit and the will of the rider. Many riders have accidents, and they might break a bone or maybe a complete hand, and somehow Dr. Costa works with the mind of this rider as well as his broken bones. Often the very next day that rider is on the podium even with a broken hand. Doctor Costa is more than just a simple doctor—some people say his abilities are supernatural.”
Giacobazzi continues: “He is from Imola, Italy, and his father, Checco Costa, along with Enzo Ferrari, built the Autodromo at Imola. Since Doctor Costa grew up around all of this, he has worked with motorbikes and auto racing since he was a child. Because Doctor Costa was studying medicine, in the early days of racing at Imola, his father asked him to be at the circuit for support just in case anyone needed his help. He is still the doctor of the Imola circuit for MotoGP, for Moto2, Moto3, et cetera.”
We recently spoke to Doctor Costa himself, as well as his Champ Car legend patient, Alex Zanardi, to get their perspective on what the doctor’s legacy means to motor racing as a whole. Possibly Dr. Costa’s greatest success story, Zanardi is a former F1 driver and two-time Champ Car champion. Known affectionately as “Mr. Donut” for his famous victory ritual, Zanardi was involved in a horrific racing accident in 2001 that cost him both legs. Despite losing almost 75% of his blood, he fully recovered with Dr. Costa’s help and has returned to competitive driving, winning Paralympic medals in both handcycling and racing in specially-modified touring cars.
Zanardi describes Costa as “neither magician nor the world’s greatest scientist”, instead citing his ability to be exactly what a patient needs him to be at any given point in their treatment—whether that means skilled technician, empathetic ear, or quietly encouraging presence, he is equally adept at all.
Zanardi further cites the doctor as a motivating force in his decision to return to the sport, his kindness a subtle but consistent call for Zanardi to find the strength to persist within himself. When questioned about his role in Zanardi’s triumphant, heroic return to racing, Costa claims he had nothing to do with it, saying in essence that one harbors a champion inside or not at all—a philosophy only serving to reinforce Zanardi’s own perspective on the doctor’s importance to his success.
Q: In your own firsthand perspective, what kind of legend is Dr. Costa to you?
Alex Zanardi: He has helped so many people like Giacomo Agostini, Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi, Max Biaggi, and myself. All of the people I listed were in trouble, and Doctor Costa played a very important part in their healing. Not only was he a good advisor technically, but he was also a very close and deep friend who worried about finding the best solution for all of us. He worked to not only mend our physical problems, but he also worked on our spirits, to try to push us towards full recoveries. In doing all that, he became a very close friend of a lot of drivers. He certainly became a very close friend for me. Whenever I was about to scream, “Help!” he was already there.
Q: Do you recall the first time you realized he was much more than just a doctor?
Alex Zanardi: To be successful, you have to be dedicated to what you do, and Claudio is very passionate about what he does. For him his job is not just a profession—it’s a mission. He’s fascinated by the world he chooses to live in. He’s the number one fan of race car drivers—he has a lot of respect for all these people, and he only wishes to help them. Every time I needed help from Doctor Costa, he always seemed to study out the best technical solution for the given problem.
For example, I had just come back from Germany in 2001 after my accident. One of my wounds was still bleeding, but Doctor Costa couldn’t figure out why, so he took me to a friend with a spatial scanner that had the capability to trace all my veins and arteries. We realized that one of the veins had not completely mended and was still bleeding. The normal scientific solution would have been to do another, very long, and complex surgery which would have consisted of reopening the wound, separating the muscle, finding the vein, and closing the vein.
Claudio stayed up the entire night, trying to come up with an alternative solution. The following day, he applied a lot of pressure with his thumb, and from that he could see that the vein would close. So he wrapped a bandage around it to substituting a small roll of bandage for the thumb. Four days later, he removed the bandage, and the vein had closed without having to do any surgery. Would you call that science? For me, this is just common sense. It’s just using your imagination to try to find the best solution, which most of the time doesn’t end up being a sophisticated surgery.
Claudio is a man that is very well prepared. He has a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience, and if he needs to find a solution inside the books of his scientific experience, he’s capable of doing that. If he doesn’t need to (which is most of the time), he’d rather fix the problem in a less invasive way.
Q: Why did you decide to become a medical doctor on the race track?
Claudio Costa: It was an easy decision to make since my father asked me to do it. When I was in my mother’s womb I was already a boy, and as soon as I was born I was already a doctor, and once I really became a doctor I already was the doctor for all the racers.
So what decision did I make? None! This was my father’s dream, and I think that dream coincided with mine.
Q: What was the greatest challenge that you had to face?
Claudio Costa: Having to fight against the angel in black. Sometimes you win—sometimes you lose. When a pilot in the thrill of racing for his dream stumbles against tragedy, like Marco Simoncelli, it is a challenge for me. I hope that when things like this happen, these people will become immortal in their glory.
Q: What was the most useful medical discovery in recent years that has made your job easier?
Claudio Costa: It’s not a medical discovery but rather the fact that in the heart and soul of each and every creature, there is something beautiful and miraculous.
Q: What was the most memorable display of gratitude that you received from a pilot?
Claudio Costa: There are many, but the most memorable is probably the one I received from Alex Zanardi. He gave me the helmet that he had been wearing in Berlin on the day of the accident, December 15, 2001. When he did this, he said to me, “I got in some big trouble on that day, but thankfully I had a great friend like you who helped me overcome it.”
Q: How do you convince a racer with a broken throttle wrist to get back on the bike right away and race?
Claudio Costa: I don’t have to convince him. He’s the one who asked to race. If he doesn’t want to race there’s nothing I can do. If a pilot says, “I want to race!” even the impossible can become possible.
Q: What was the most rewarding thing that happened to you in your career?
Claudio Costa: My greatest reward is when I make a heart beat again.
Q: Is there a specific case that you are most fond of?
Claudio Costa: The ones regarding Mick Doohan and Alex Zanardi. Even though I’ve helped Mick Doohan win five championships and saved his leg, and even though I helped Alex Zanardi with his recovery and with his sport career, I have to thank faith, luck, and fortune for having given me the chance to meet these two incredible and enriching human beings who have given me the answer as to why I came to this world.
Photography by Afshin Behnia