Hodgson living a tangerine dream

British wild-card rider is hoping to humble Superbike luminaries for a second time at Brands Hatch tomorrow.
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The Independent Online

Most riders look to the heavens in anticipation of fine weather to enhance their chances of victory, but Neil Hodgson will be hoping for motorcycling's equivalent of lightning striking twice at Brands Hatch.

Most riders look to the heavens in anticipation of fine weather to enhance their chances of victory, but Neil Hodgson will be hoping for motorcycling's equivalent of lightning striking twice at Brands Hatch.

Tomorrow the British racer once again engages his supposed betters in the World Superbike series as a wild-card rider, and there is every likelihood that he will repeat his astounding performance at Donington in May. Then, in the second race, having bagged a step on the podium in the first, he left the factory-backed luminaries of the four-stroke world flailing, flush-faced and humiliated in the wake of his vivid orange Ducati.

That victory - snatched thrillingly on the final lap as Pier-Francesco Chili's works Suzuki faded agonisingly, and following an argy-bargy tussle of elbows and banging fairings with Chris Walker, another wild-card rider - was the most remarkable British finish since Carl Fogarty, the series' dominant figure, steered his privateer bike to an equally unlikely win as a rookie at the same circuit in 1992.

Not only did Hodgson endear himself to the 55,000-strong crowd of flag-waving patriots and card-carrying Fogarty fans, but the staggering result at last confirmed the arrival of a talent whose wildly oscillating career had almost ended in retirement only the previous year, unfulfilled at the age of 26.

In the absence of Fogarty - ruled out of the pursuit of a fifth title this season by an injury sustained in Australia - Hodgson seized the moment. It was a feat he is eminently capable of repeating over tomorrow's two races at the Kent track.

"I'm in tip-top shape and rearing to go," Hodgson said from his home in the Isle of Man this week. "Ever since I won at Donington, my season has turned round."

Not only was Hodgson emboldened by the victory, it served as a vivid riposte to those who considered his bolt at World Superbikes had been thoroughly shot after three disappointing seasons in the series.

"I'll always watch the video with my rose-coloured glasses on, because I won the race," he says. "So it seemed fantastic to me. But a lot of other people have said the same. Because I was the underdog and me and Walker had such a battle and we beat [Yamaha's Noriyuki] Haga and then closed in on Chili. It was just the perfect race, to grab it on the last lap."

Perfection it certainly was; it was a searing vindication, too, of his decision not to retire after an underachieving WSB stint from 1996 to 1998. "I had my moments, but I never really found myself in the teams I rode for," he conceded. "I never really got established, always played second fiddle to another rider. I was a little bit immature, to be honest. I was a young guy when I got my ride, 21, and I didn't really know what I was doing.

"But I'm sort of glad it's gone the way it's gone; I do feel better for it. Looking back I've learnt a lot. And I'm still only 26 years old and the fire's still burning inside. I'm very enthusiastic about motorcycling."

That ambition was only rekindled after a perilously close call with a racer's P45 at the end of 1998, when he lost his ride with Kawasaki.

"I was 24 and that was it. I sat down with my family and my girlfriend and seriously thought about retiring. I'd raced bikes since the age of nine and the sparkle had gone totally. And I didn't believe in myself, which is the worst thing for a bike racer. It was horrendous. I thought I could get on with my life and do something else."

The decision to return to the grass-roots of the sport and a ride in the British series has certainly breathed fresh vigour into Hodgson's career, thanks in no small measure to the GSE outfit that prepares Hodgson's two-wheeled tangerine machines. "I was fortunate enough to choose the best team. A lot of credit goes to them because they've given me everything I've wanted and I've had really good advice from the team manager, Colin Wright, at all the right times. He's helped me find my way."

Such has been the turnaround in Hodgson's fortunes that he and his team are considering a step up in status next season - "that would be the ideal situation: to ride factory Ducatis with an English team. That would be heaven for me" - an ambition that will surely be enhanced by a victory this weekend.

The snaking ribbon of Brands is a veritable charm of a circuit for riders like Hodgson, whose twin cylinder Italian bikes are never really troubled by the sheer horsepower of the Japanese factory machines. "You can hold corner speed and you can run with them," Hodgson maintained.

Certainly in his favour is Foggy's relegation from bike-racing deity to spectator status tomorrow. "The fact that he's not there seems to give everybody the wake-up call because he has been so dominant for so many years. All of a sudden everyone seems to realise they can win.

"Standing behind him, he casts a pretty large shadow and you can end up being stuck there. But now that he's out, he's given us all glimmer of hope. A lot of the riders seem to have reacted well to that. And I'm one of them."

Reacting with equal vigour, too, will be Hodgson's fellow wild cards, British riders with plenty to prove against the big boys. "Certainly John Reynolds and Chris Walker will be the hardest guys to beat, because having seen the publicity I got for winning at Donington I'm sure they'll want a slice of the cake, too. They'll be going out so hard to try and grab a win."

Ranged against them will be the significant talents of Honda's Colin Edwards and Troy Corser, of Australia, who is fast eroding the Texas Tornado's lead in the series. Both racers desperately need wins and will not take kindly to the British upstart stealing their thunder and precious points. Yet Hodgson, third fastest in yesterday's opening qualifying session, has every reason to believe his tangerine thunderbolt will strike twice.