profile; Carl Fogarty; A demon on wheels

Andrew Baker analyses a no-nonsense motorcyclist who has the world title in his sights
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AS THE minutes tick away before the start of the third round of the World Superbike Championship at Donington Park this afternoon, many of the riders will be going through their pre-race routines: focusing, concentrating, fingering lucky charms. But Carl Fogarty - "Foggy" to his legions of fans - the present world champion and Britain's most famous rider since Barry Sheene, won't be going to much trouble. "I can't really be fussed with that stuff," he says. "I just get on the bike and do it."

"Carl's not the type to wear lucky underpants," a fellow competitor confirms. "He relies on 100 per cent self-belief." His self- confidence can only have been boosted by the assured start he has made in the defence of his title. He goes in to this afternoon's two races leading the championship by 31 points, thanks to two comfortable wins in the opening meeting at Hockenheim in Germany, and two second places last weekend at Misano in Italy (each round of the championship has two legs). What is more, his closest rival in the title chase is his Ducati team-mate, Mauro Lucchiari of Italy; Fogarty's arch-rival, the American Kawasaki rider Scott Russell, is off the pace.

Fogarty's apparent willingness to settle for second place in the Italian races is seen by many observers as evidence of a new-found maturity: the mark of a man whose sights are set on retaining his championship rather than seizing glory in a single race at the risk of a possible crash. While refusing to accept that he "settled" for anything at Misano ("they weren't voluntary second places") Fogarty admits to taking the long view. "You learn by your mistakes," he says, "and I'm happy to pick up championship points wherever I can."

The Blackburn-born Fogarty brought the town a championship before Kenny Dalglish did, and was presented to - and acclaimed by - the fans at Ewood Park. He certainly doesn't mind that his local fame has been a little eclipsed by the football team: "It's all great for the town," he says.

Now 28, Fogarty started his biking career as a schoolboy moto-crosser, and first came to national prominence in 250cc racing, the traditional stepping-stone to 500cc grand prix racing. But a couple of nasty crashes left him uncomfortable with the smaller machines, which require an exaggerated crouch position from their riders, and he switched to larger bikes. Three wins at the Isle of Man TT, on a terrifying circuit considered too dangerous for grand prix racing, proved that Fogarty was a rider of rare class. Experts speak of his high-speed kerb-hopping exploits on the Manx roads with awe.

Julian Ryder, the Sky motorcycling commentator, is convinced that Fogarty ranks with the great names in the sport's history. "The really amazing thing about Carl," Ryder says, "is his versatility. It is very unusual to be so good on closed modern circuits, and also demonic on road circuits like the Isle of Man, which demand a completely different approach. He can master both, and that is almost unparalleled. It verges on blasphemy, and a lot of old buffers will splutter when I say it, but I compare him with Mike Hailwood."

If Fogarty is that good, why is he riding in the production-based Superbike championship rather than mixing it with the likes of Mick Doohan, Daryl Beattie and Kevin Schwantz on high-tech bikes on the grand prix circuit? The answer seems to be as much about marketing as skill. Grand prix racing appeals chiefly to fans in the US, Australia, Japan and Spain, a fact reflected by the team sponsors, who want riders from those countries on the best bikes. The Superbikes, heavier, less sophisticated machines than their grand prix counterparts, none the less have a substantial - and growing - body of fans. Fogarty's often-expressed view that Superbikes are in the ascendant while the grand prix series is in decline is not just self-justification: fans enjoy watching bikes in action on the track which are similar to the machines they will ride home at the end of the day, and manufacturers are queuing up to support the series. Fogarty undoubtedly makes a tidy living from Superbike racing, and while rumours circulate linking him with future grand prix rides, he may not need them.

The latest story suggests that Fogarty may replace Kevin Schwantz in the Lucky Strike Suzuki grand prix team for 1996. "The criteria for the job are fast, fast and fast," the Suzuki team manager Garry Taylor told Motor Cycle News. "Fogarty meets at least two of those."

He certainly would not welcome the hustle and bustle of grand prix life. Even on the Superbike circuit, he does not relish being the centre of attention. "After the race I just want to get home as soon as possible," he says. "I'm not one for hanging around - I like to get away from all the cameras and the people."

The home he cherishes so much is a restored 17th-century farmhouse at Tockholes, near Blackburn, which he shares with his wife Michaela and their daughters Danielle, three, and Claudia, nine months, as well as a menagerie including horses, pot-bellied pigs, a Great Dane and a chihuahua. It is the kind of image that PR people love sports stars to project, but Fogarty has no time for that sort of promotional nonsense. His friends confirm that there is nothing feigned in his devotion to domesticity: Fogarty is simply never happier than when pottering around at home, cutting the grass or scooting up and down his native hills on a dirt bike.

But such contentment has not reduced his appetite for competition. His gaunt, craggy appearance and piercing stare radiate commitment, and he looks every bit the northern folk hero. "He's Mr No Bullshit," says the broadcaster Andy Kershaw, who has a library-full of Fogarty videos. "He's quite frightening to look at. That stare - he looks like a sparrow-hawk going in for the kill." Kershaw is another who speaks with reverence of Fogarty's achievements on the Isle of Man, and he feels that the rider is at the height of his powers right now. "At Misano last week," Kershaw recalls, "his bike obviously wasn't handling right - it was almost throwing him off in the corners. But his attitude was: 'All right, this is a bit of a dog of a bike but I'm still going to get a result with it.' "

"He's not the best rider in the world for setting a bike up," Julian Ryder observes, "but with his present elevated status that doesn't matter so much." Such shortcomings are more than made up for by his never-say- die attitude. One of Fogarty's most abiding qualities is stubbornness, Ryder adds. "Carl is prepared to just get on a bike and wring its neck."

Fans relish tales of Fogarty's unwillingness to mess about making adjustments in practice: like the time he was sharing a bike with two other riders in an endurance race. His team-mates honed the machine to suit their styles, but Fogarty declined the opportunity. Come the race, he was every bit as quick as the others, but a lot more tired than they were after his stint in the saddle.

Early in his career, that same stubborn quality was manifested in an unwillingness to listen to other people's opinions, in the unshakeable conviction that nobody knew better than he how to extract the best from a bike. "Carl wasn't keen on advice," Julian Ryder recalls. "The mechanics used to put his engines together with a great deal of safety built in." But when he got hold of a proper works ride, with Ducati in 1993, he seemed to loosen up a little, to accept that other members of the team were in the business to help him out.

With the responsibility of riding for a top team has come a refinement in Fogarty's technique. Not that he is ever going to be boring: "He's still terrifying to watch," Andy Kershaw says. "I sometimes have to shut my eyes. But he's acquired a degree of polish." There was a time when sages such as Barry Sheene dismissed Fogarty as wild and inconsistent, but even his harshest critics now have to admit that he has gained self-possession without sacrificing speed.

The Yorkshire rider James Whitham, who will be competing against Fogarty this afternoon, sees more of him than any of the other riders. The two came into the sport at about the same time, and now live just 45 minutes apart. They frequently get together for dinner or an afternoon's dirt- biking in the hills. "Carl is very much the same man off and on the track," Whitham says. "He's not one of these mild-mannered types who suddenly turns into a monster. Whether we are playing pool in the pub or dicing on the track, he is ultra-competitive. He just wants to win."