CARL FOGARTY did not produce the win he craved here yesterday, but after banishing the handling problems that had restricted him to a fourth place in the first leg, a barnstorming second in the following race brought a crowd of 80,000 to its feet and swept aside dark mutterings of retirement at the end of this season.
But the 33 points the twice- former world champion from Blackburn acquired over both legs may not prove sufficient to secure a third title. The 1998 World Superbike Championship now appears the prize of Troy Corser. The Australian gave an imperious performance in the second race to finish some three seconds ahead of Fogarty. Corser leads the riders' standings from Fogarty by 30.5 points, with three rounds remaining.
The first race was dominated by the Castrol Honda riders Colin Edwards and Aaron Slight and the Yamaha-mounted Scott Russell in third.
It was Fogarty, however, who was the premier attraction and his sterling ride in the second race did not disappoint. Having strived to find traction on a circuit covered in a fine film of dust, the result of the previous day's downpour, Fogarty - like Corser - switched to an untried wider rear tyre. It proved a critical improvement to his bike's handling and Fogarty was soon making rapid progress from the third row of the grid.
On the third lap he flashed past the Suzuki rider James Whitham on the Brabham Straight, his trademark glare now locked firmly on Edwards' rear wheel. His dogged trailing of the lean Texan quickly reaped dividends as a pressured Edwards missed a gear change, allowing Fogarty to roar past and into second.
By the race's midpoint, Fogarty had begun to shave fractions of a second off Corser's lap times, cutting the deficit to 3.6sec by lap 15. Shadowing Fogarty's determined pursuit was Whitham. The Britons were making good progress, but the Honda of Edwards was closing the gap with the second and third-placed riders. Yet just as it seemed he must pounce Edwards ran wide at Paddock three laps from the finish.
Fogarty was unaware that his friend Whitham was applying pressure on his precious second place - "If I'd have known it was him I'd have been really nervous," he admitted afterwards. Whitham was rewarded with a lap record and his first podium finish of the championship.
Fogarty's comments before yesterday's round were interpreted as a signal that he may retire. However, after the second race Fogarty's mood had transformed from one of earlier frustration to glee and he promised to be back at Brands Hatch next year.
"I never said I was going to retire," a grinning Fogarty said. "What I did say was that I've been racing a long time and I've won a few world titles and lost a few races. I never said I was going to quit. Right now I want to be racing next year because I know I'm still good enough to win races."
The first race testified to the Castrol Honda team's correct choice of tyres. After leading from pole, his sixth this season, Corser rapidly began to fade as Edwards found grip where the others found only frustration. The Honda rider had taken the lead by the fourth lap and in tandem with Slight, the pair edged further from the chasing pack.
Fogarty then mounted his attack, drawing Neil Hodgson's Kawasaki with him. Hodgson paid dearly for his enthusiasm on the 19th lap as the bike see-sawed from under him, leaving the Briton in a gravel trap.
As the race moved to its close, Edwards and Slight extended their lead, while Russell brushed aside Whitham. To further emphasise the Hondas' superiority, Slight set a lap record on the 19th lap, later bettered in the second race by Whitham.
The day, however, belonged to Fogarty and the showman's last act before climbing on to the podium after the second race was to hurl his helmet, gloves and boots into an ecstatic crowd.
If that should prove Fogarty's final act at a British circuit then it remains a popular gesture typical of a racer who prizes winning races above all else.
l Katja Ponsgen has became the first woman to win an international motorcycling title. The 21-year-old German took the Supermono Cup with two races to spare at Brands Hatch yesterday, finishing second on a 750cc Suzuki to clinch the title, after the only two men who could still catch her both retired.
Results, Digest, page 19