Hodgson hooked on speed and adrenalin

Jon Culley goes behind the scenes, and discovers the best British prospect since Barry Sheene
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The Independent Online
For a young man about to embark on the most important 48 minutes of his embryonic racing career, Neil Hodgson seems remarkably relaxed. To any home motorcyclist, the British Grand Prix is the most important date on the calendar, but for Hodgson its significance goes well beyond the desire to uphold national honour.

This 21-year-old Lancastrian is among the disadvantaged in his sport, competing with a low budget private team on hopelessly unequal terms against the multi-million pound resources of the factory teams, whose riders routinely win every race going.

But like every ''privateer,'' Hodgson dreams that his talents will earn him a place among the big guns; and there is no better platform from which to catch important eyes than Donington Park.

It is no fanciful dream either. This is Hodgson's first season at 500cc - the Formula One of two-wheel racing - and yet he has already been identified by Barry Sheene, Britain's last world champion 18 years, as having the potential to emulate his own achievements.

But in the modest mobile home that serves as his race day base - easy to miss among the rows of gleaming pantechnicons and motorised hotel suites assembled by the factory outfits - he seems oblivious to any pressures, even with the start only 90 minutes away.

"I am nervous really," he says. "This is the worst time, when all the practices are over, the bike is all ready and there is nothing more to do."

He knows, too, that it will only get worse, especially when he sits astride his pounds 180,000 team WCM Yamaha for the first time on the grid. "I always have half an hour or so immediately beforehand to think the race through and get all negative thoughts out of my mind.

"But sitting on the grid for those four or five minutes before the warm- up lap is awful. You feel numb, your eyes start watering and you cannot seem to grip the clutch. And yet you've got to go round to warm up the tyres and the discs; otherwise you discover the brakes don't work."

Once the green light shows and the simultaneous roars of 30 engines fill the air the nerves vanish and adrenalin takes over.

"That's why I do it, really," he says. "It is difficult to describe to a non-racer but the sensation of speed, of being in control of a wild beast that can carry you along at 200 miles per hour, it really is like a drug.

Outside tensions are building, too. To the unfamiliar eye there still seems much for Mike Webb and his three-man technical team to attend to but the dismantling and reassembling of the machine is routine preparation.

Meanwhile, interested parties are making for their vantage points. Team sponsors and guests assemble in the hospitality suites overlooking Craner Curves, but conspicuous by their absence are Hodgson's parents. The anonymity of a grassy public bank, with no need to restrain feelings, is their preference.

His father, Mark, who runs a small business in Burnley, himself raced at club level. It was he who taught Neil to ride a scooter at four, introduced him to moto-cross at nine and persuaded him on to a road machine when the distractions of youth were threatening to curtail his interest in the sport. It was Mark, too, who talked the former Rothmans Honda star, Roger Burnett, into helping his boy get a start in 125cc racing, in which he became British champion at the first attempt in 1992. Burnett's PR company now sponsors Neil and manages his affairs.

The race starts badly but finishes wonderfully for his client, who almost comes to grief at the Old Hairpin after five laps, wobbling along the grass right in front of Mum and Dad, but recovers to finish seventh, four places higher than his grid position and as the best British rider, overtaking the faster, factory Yamahas of Spain's Juan Borja and the Frenchman Bernard Garcia, with some brilliant riding in the closing stages. He is mobbed by British fans, yearning for a new champion, as if he has won.

Back in the paddock there are all sorts of emotions, father Mark is a picture of understated pride; mother Maureen beams with maternal joy but is relieved that her son remains in one piece. Burnett, meanwhile, reflects that the career of Britain's brightest world championship prospect has taken a major step forward.