Hodgson has the metal to be a king of speed

Andrew Martin on the Burnley biker out to beat the best at Brands
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The Independent Online
If Neil Hodgson has, at 23, so far failed to collect the wealth of silverware that marked Barry Sheene as the outstanding motorcycle racer of his era, the cocksure young rider from Burnley has begun to accumulate the sort of metal Sheene was painfully familiar with.

For beneath the jagged tear of a four-inch scar, two ugly metal screws now hold Hodgson's right kneecap in place. The metalwork is the legacy of a freak accident Hodgson sustained six weeks ago while riding his moto- cross bike as preparation for the demands of World Superbike racing.

Sheene's steel latticework in both legs was collected after a 180mph tyre-burst at Daytona. Although a generation apart - it is 20 years this week that Sheene won the second of his world 500cc titles - both riders' injuries are stark reminders of the sport's inherent dangers. Yet within a month of his accident, Hodgson was back in the saddle of his works Ducati and riding in the German round of WSB at Hockenheim.

A sixth and eighth place there, plus a podium finish at the following round in Laguna Seca, California - oh, and another high-speed crash - bode well for Hodgson, who tomorrow will be among the front-runners hoping to dent Carl Fogarty's prospects of a double victory in the latest round of World Superbikes at Brands Hatch.

The injury continues to handicap Hodgson's sustained challenge for WSB honours, however. "The knee's about 80 per cent right now," he said. "I've got full movement in it but it still swells up when I put any strain or stress through the knee. It's uncomfortable when I race it in a bent position, but hopefully I'll be able to manage.

"The two screws will have to remain in there forever, but thankfully they don't have to re-open it and take them out; I'm pleased about that because I don't like pain - I think I'm in the wrong sport."

The latter sentiment is delivered with a wry grin, since at the exalted level of competition that will attract more than 40,000 people to the Kent circuit, pain from injuries sustained in frequent falls comes with the territory.

Yet Hodgson remains admirably sanguine about the set-back. "The way I live my life everything is done for a reason, and in the long run I'm going to have my time: I just wasn't ready there and then. It's happened and I'm over it now. It's not like I'm in a wheelchair, so I'm not even thinking about it now. It's nothing. I'm going to get on with what I do best, and that's riding motorcycles and try and continue where I left off... I'm going to win races this year, that's definite."

Such confidence may be discounted as mere Burnley braggadocio, but there is no doubt about Hodgson's ability to ride the Ducati 916 at a very rapid pace indeed. Fogarty's famously intense glare could well be fixed on the back of Hodgson's Union Jack-liveried helmet as they twist and turn through the 2.6 miles of Brands Hatch.

Certainly, Fogarty, the series leader and double world champion, is fully attuned to Hodgson's potential: friends off the track as well as team- mates on it, they often train together. There is also the challenges posed by the Americans John Kocinski and Scott Russell to contend with, as well as that of the New Zealanders Aaron Slight and Simon Crafar, plus another Briton, the works Suzuki rider Jamie Whitham.

Little, however, appears to shake Hodgson's iron will.

"Each time I get on the bike, I'm feeling more confident and I'm getting closer," he said. "Hopefully, my day will come at Brands but it might not do, and if it doesn't I'm not going to be that upset. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year but I will be world champion sooner or later. I'm not doing it because I enjoy it, I'm doing it to be world champion."