The 750cc RC45 Honda has never quite delivered the results that the world's biggest motorcycle manufacturer has come to expect. Now entering its third season, the factory V4 regularly shows the fastest straight-line speed, but has been plagued by handling problems. Fogarty saw the switch as "a new challenge", although it is doubtful whether even he envisaged quite the battle which lay ahead.
"The prospects at present aren't brilliant," Fogarty reflected after a high-speed crash during pre-season testing in Italy, as if warning his army of devoted fans not to expect too much. After clinching his first title by the narrowest of margins in 1994, the 29-year-old won imperiously last year, giving UK bike sport its biggest boost since the days of Barry Sheene.
Fate has dealt a double blow in making the Adriatic resort of Misano the opening venue of the 11-round 1996 series. The bumpy track is the sort of circuit on which the Honda performs least well. It is also the home circuit of the mighty V-twin Ducatis.
In previous years, Fogarty's dominance has been based on his ability to carry higher corner speeds than his competitors. Yet it is precisely this style which the Honda precludes. "If I try to go into corners as hard as I used to on the Ducati," he explained, "the bike feels really vague. The front tries to tuck in and it runs wide. On smoother circuits it won't be such a problem, but at Misano it's a real struggle. Donington [the second round of the championship, on 28 March] should be much better."
Ironically, John Kocinski, Fogarty's replacement on the factory Ducati, is the man most likely to inherit the Superbike crown. A former 250cc world champion, "He rides," according to Fogarty, "a bit like me - lots of corner speed - so I think he'll do well." After three years in the wilderness, the gifted but eccentric American is undoubtedly the class act of the new entrants to the Superbike division. He has been smashing records in testing and many rate him a potential world champion if he can keep his temperament in check.
There are plenty of other contenders in what promises to be the most keenly fought championship for years. The 24-year-old Australian Troy Corser, second in the 1995 championship, rides a Promotor Ducati alongside the Texan prodigy Mike Hale.
The Muzzy Kawasaki squad gave Scott Russell the title in 1993 and will again be among the front- runners. Their riders are the mercurial Australian Anthony Gobert and the Kiwi Simon Crafer. Gobert only needs to add discipline to his speed to mount a serious championship challenge, while Crafer is a model of consistency.
Fogarty can also expect no favours from his Castrol Honda team-mate, Aaron Slight. The New Zealander has been placed third on the Honda in each of the past three seasons, a great achievement considering the machine's problems. He has also been consistently quicker than the Blackburn man during testing. Come race day, however, Fogarty's legendary determination will take over.Reuse content