CARL FOGARTY is back on board the most beautiful bike in the paddock for the British Grand Prix meeting here this weekend. In true Wimbledon tradition, the host country's best unseeded rider has been given a wild card for tomorrow's 500cc race; and, in the fashion of his tennis-playing compatriots, Fogarty can expect to make a hard challenge for the final eight on his home ground.
Regardless of his position at the fall of the chequered flag tomorrow, the 28-year-old Blackburn rider, who heads the standings in the World Superbike Championship, will look the part riding the red Cagiva in a similar one-off deal to the one he struck with the Italian team for last year's race, when he was fourth after qualifying fifth.
Fogarty has come to these two and a half miles of demanding curves from the Austrian round of the Superbike series in Zeltweg last weekend, where he finished first and established a 10-point lead in the championship. Another opportunity to race for Cagiva, with their incumbent American pair of John Kocinski and Doug Chandler, has provided the Briton with a tantalising glimpse of the world's true road- racing arena, where he still hopes to arrive on a full-time basis.
'I'd love to do a full year of grands prix on a factory 500,' Fogarty said. 'But you're guaranteed nothing in this game. Even if I win the race, it wouldn't guarantee me anything for next year.'
His winning ways for Ducati in the Superbike championship have helped to forge a link with Cagiva, both marques coming under the business umbrella of Claudio Castiglioni. But the arrangement with Fogarty is something in the nature of a test, as he will not be provided with the same machines as the Americans. Kocinski won the first race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, and lies third in the championship standings, so his machine is proven. Fogarty, on the other hand, is riding the fuel-injected version this weekend, an option tried and rejected recently by Chandler, who elected to race the carburettor bike while further testing took place on the new version. Fogarty is the guinea pig.
Kocinksi's victory at Eastern Creek at the beginning of the season was part of a remarkable clean sweep for the Italians that day. Cagiva won the 500cc race while Aprilia took the 250cc and 125cc grands prix. After years of domination by the Japanese, it appeared that the glory days of MV and Giacomo Agostini, the former champion who runs the Cagiva team, were dawning again.
They had signed up two hard men, raised on dirt tracks in the United States, one of whom, the volatile Kocinski, could not hold down a place in the strict regime of Kenny Roberts' Yamaha team. They had worked hard all winter to close the power divide between their sleek machines and the Japanese monsters. But Honda, Suzuki and, to a lesser extent, Yamaha got down to their fine tuning and re- established, if only temporarily, their grip on the series.
Tomorrow's race represents the last genuine attempt for Kevin Schwantz, Suzuki's reigning world champion, to make an impact on this year's competition. He trails Honda's Michael Doohan by 76 points with 25 points for a victory and four grands prix remaining after this one, which means if the Australian wins tomorrow and the American fails to score, Doohan will be the world champion.
Schwantz must have mixed feelings about this circuit; more recently, apprehensive ones. After winning here three times in a row from 1989, his last two outings have resulted in accidents which were not his fault. In 1992 he fell on an oil slick and last year he was bounced out by the late-braking Doohan on the first lap.
Despite his unfortunate record of late, the Texan's style normally finds the groove on the sweeping corners here, where power and straight-line speed are not essential ingredients for victory.
Schwantz, as is often the case for many riders at any meeting of the year, is carrying a painful injury and has to wear a cast on the wrist he broke in practice at the Dutch Grand Prix last month. 'My wrist isn't perfect, and that is a worry,' he said. 'The problem is not so much under-braking, unless the bike gets out of shape and I have to wrestle with it. Changing direction in chicanes and S-bends is more difficult. Donington only has one slow chicane, and not much of that kind of back-and-forth.
'If things go smoothly, I feel I could win. Of course, that depends on nobody running into me from behind like last year, or hitting any oil the marshals don't notice.'
Doohan is the clear favourite for the 500cc event, even though his record here is one of discomfort and struggle. Such is the Queenslander's present form, however, it would be a bold move to back another man. Doohan, who was on the way to winning the title in 1992 when a crash caused a serious leg injury, is having another dominant season and, if his luck holds out, he should take his first title. His victory at Le Mans last weekend was his sixth in succession, breaking the record held previously by the 15-times world champion, Agostini, 22 years ago.
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