Motor Cycling: The return of a super hero

Norman Fox says that Carl Fogarty is ready to resume his world domination
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IN THE early hours of this morning Carl Fogarty was beginning his attempt to cast off the title of ex-world superbike champion and regain the crown he held in 1994 and 1995. Merely being on the grid for the first round of the new season at Phillip Island in Australia was remarkable and typical of the British rider's courage and defiance of all odds.

Less than four months ago Fogarty underwent an operation on cruciate knee ligament damage which would have had any footballer thinking of a year out of action. The surgeons had to remove a leg tendon and convert it into a knee ligament. But yesterday he was fit enough to ride his Ducati to fourth position in practice.

Fogarty has led the way in turning superbike racing into the second biggest crowd puller in motorsport in this country after the British Grand Prix. Superbikes relate slightly more realistically to high-performance road machines than do grand prix bikes, but the enormous following for the class here is really down to the man from Blackburn, who has become the sport's most magnetic draw since Barry Sheene.

But he does not court that popularity, and it does not spread to the inside of the paddock. Indeed most of his rivals would have been happy if he had not recovered from his injuries quite so quickly, which would have given them a few races without his fierce competitive spirit. Yet a grid without him is much the same as Formula One of the past being deprived of Nigel Mansell. They share the ability to be loved by the fans but less by their own kind.

Fogarty, blunt and far less talkative than most of the others on the superbike circuit, is not given to underestimating his own ability, nor is he a natural team man. He rides bravely, stubbornly and confidently for himself and his family, which is why before today's race he said he would not have ridden another season had he not believed he would recapture the world title from the similarly dogged John Kocinski, of the United States.

It says a lot about Fogarty's character that this season he is a one- man team, still on a hot red Ducati but without any need to get involved in the paddock sniping that has been wonderful for publicity but bad for concentration.

At 31, Fogarty is not expecting to spend many more seasons on the international circuit. He believes his huge experience will be crucial in a campaign likely to see a strong challenge from a number of younger riders. But even if he succeeds in fending them off and winning back the world title, he is not intending to have one last try to gain a ride on the grand prix scene. Towards the end of last season his crashes left him in permanent pain from the badly insulted knee. Just before Christmas the operation to repair the damage brought a diagnosis that the doctors thought he would take as good news. He would be able to ride again, but not for at least six months. He would recover from the sort of injury that in other sports often leads to early retirement. He was appalled at the lay-off and by February this pied piper of British motorcycling, who attracted nearly 70,000 to Brands Hatch last summer, was in the Far East testing the Ducati.

Early trials this year showed him to be happier with the bike, and quicker, though that happiness is only comparative since the testing process makes him miserable as sin. "I get sick of the travelling and the qualifying," he said. "All I want to do is race. But now I'm on my own I've got new motivation. I've got to get this bike competitive."

He will not be displeased that Kocinski, who took the title last season on a Honda after Fogarty crashed twice in the Spanish round, has moved on to the grand prix circuit. Fogarty's former British-based Honda team- mate Aaron Slight, of New Zealand, with whom he has had many a slanging match, is likely to pose a threat and badly wants the world title which has long escaped him. Italy's popular Pier-Francesco Chili, who, like Fogarty, rides a Ducati, says if he is more careful "everyone will follow me".

But the biggest threat in the long term is likely to come from the former champion Troy Corser, of Australia, who, riding a new Ducati, has been frighteningly quick in pre-season practice, while the American Scott Russell (Yamaha), the champion in 1993, recently won his fifth Daytona 200. But all of them could be upstaged by Kawasaki's Akira Yanagawa, phenomenally fast last season and getting better.

With two other British riders - Neil Hodgson (Kawasaki) and James Whitham (Suzuki) - now on more competitive machinery, domestic interest should be more widely spread this year. Early success, especially for Fogarty, and Brands Hatch could be trying to find room for a record crowd this summer. "The following sometimes frightens me," Fogarty said, "but I craved it, so I'll have to justify it."