Motor-cycling: Fogarty prepares for the Haga saga

Norman Fox assesses the Japanese challenge to the home Superbike hero today
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The Independent Online
CARL FOGARTY, Britain's former world Superbike champion and joint leader this season, faces an unexpectedly early head-to-head when Donington Park hosts the British round tomorrow. His latest rival is Japan's Noriyuki Haga, who last weekend made a temporary switch to Grand Prix racing at Suzuka and, remarkably, was among those who left last season's virtually unchallenged world champion, Michael Doohan, a fuming also-ran.

Fogarty and Haga have 41 points after the first Superbike round in Australia where each won a race, but for the 22-year-old Haga, riding a works Yamaha and sporting dyed green hair, it was only his second victory. For Fogarty, on a Ducati, it was number 46. Experience should count for a lot at Donington, but Haga is sensationally quick for a comparative newcomer, and Yamaha have developed a competitive bike which suits his bold style. His philosophy is simple: "Get to the front... stay there." Fogarty says he expects "the lad" to be a handful this season but thinks he could be "a bit too wild", adding: "We'll just have to sort him out now we're back in Europe."

Until his visit to Australia, Haga had never won outside Japan. Last season he was upstaged by a fellow countryman, Akiro Yanagawa, who finished fourth in a championship that reinforced the huge interest in a form of racing to which road riders feel an affinity that the grand prix circuit fails to provide. Fogarty finished runner-up to America's John Kocinski who has moved to grands prix.

Last weekend Haga was given a wild card for the Japanese Grand Prix and chased the surprise leader, Max Biaggi, of Italy, so intensely that the pursuing Doohan went off the track, recovered then retired. Haga only conceded second place to the more experienced Tadayuki Okada in the last chicane but still finished ahead of a host of top grand prix riders.

Fogarty, now a one-man team and recovered from a knee operation, will draw a devoted crowd to Donington and is favourite to finish the day with two wins. He expects Haga to be "fast but not the biggest threat". That compliment he reserves for the Honda rider Aaron Slight, who is particularly impressive on the difficult Donington circuit where he won last year. Equally, the former champion Troy Corser, of Australia, likes the sweeping bends and is on a Ducati machine so similar to that of Fogarty that everything depends on ability.

Fogarty's record at Donington since 1992 is five wins out of 12 starts and three other podium places. Although he is from Blackburn, he considers this his "home track", where he badly wants to achieve the two wins that would provide a clear advantage. He considers that not being part of a team is beneficial, especially as he is now managed by Davide Tardozzi, who masterminded Corser's title- winning 1996 season.

Most riders are worried that the cold weather could badly affect tyre performance, particularly as the Donington circuit has a predominance of right-hand bends (leaving the left sides of the tyres cold). The difficulty of the circuit has been emphasised in practice with several riders, including Haga, sliding off on the long curves. Pole position will be decided today over one flying lap, an exciting but potentially dangerous innovation.