Hodgson battles precarious decision and the weather

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The Independent Online

Can anyone at Manchester United replace David Beckham in the affection of the fans as effectively as Neil Hodgson has won over the British followers of World Superbike racing? Unlikely. Hodgson has not simply taken the place of Carl Fogarty, the wild-eyed maestro, but quickly become a similar magnet for the crowds.

Brands Hatch could today see an attendance of over 100,000 but the fans love affair with superbikes is soon to be put to the test.

Hodgson's runaway success this season (he has a 120-point lead) makes it highly unlikely that he will fail in his bid to become world champion. His supremacy is partly the product of his own skill and the power of his Ducati machinery, but he has benefited from the fact that the superbike scene has been denuded by the defections of some top riders to this season's grand prix (Moto GP) series. And with Ducati making a big impression there as well, the Italian manufacturers will be only too pleased to see Hodgson also move. His decision could come any day soon.

Losing the retired Fogarty and Hodgson in comparatively quick succession would be a major blow. Yet at the same time it could give opportunities to several other British riders who will be out to impress today. James Toseland (also Ducati) has taken one win this season (Hodgson has had 11) and is third in the championship procession behind the Spaniard Ruben Xaus (Ducati). Chris Walker (Ducati) is sixth and particularly likes Brands Hatch while among the wild-card entries, the British Superbike series leader, Shane Byrne, is pressing for full World Superbike recognition. John Reynolds, a winner at the equivalent meeting two seasons ago, is in good form in the tough domestic races.

Although Hodgson is comfortably placed in the championship, unlike the always metro Forgarty, he is prepared to say that although the fans love the 'stadium-like' atmosphere of Brands, he actually feels unsafe there, particularly in the wet.

Looking back, Fogarty will only go as far as saying: "It was always a special place for me because I always felt that the crowd was really behind me. But I can't say that I really enjoyed racing there. It's so demanding that you never seem to ride smoothly."

Hodgson has been in the top three of his last six races at the circuit but finds it hard to love.

"Unlike Silverstone, it's a spectators track, but in spite of the changes, it's still dangerous." Byrne had shown his potential during yesterday morning's first matches when, in the dry, he set the fastest time of 1min 26.248sec, but Hodgson is never one to show his hand until he needs to.

In the same session, he was only seventh and had technical problems to resolve before he tackled the afternoon's starting-grid determining "super pole". But by then the rain had arrived, as it had on Friday when he opted not to attempt a quick lap. Faced with a more urgent situation yesterday and on an increasingly treacherous surface, nevertheless he stayed cautious and finished only 11th fastest. He was completely upstaged by Reynolds who set the fastest lap of 1min 35.706sec on only the fifth of the permitted 12 laps. "I got out just at the right moment before the track got really soaked, but finding that window is a fluke." Walker and Byrne will accompany him on the front row today but if conditions revert to the dry, Hodgson could make light of yesterday's disappointment.

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