Carl Fogarty's house would be a pushover if featured on Through The Keyhole. Sitting on top of a Lancastrian hill, with astonishing views across the plains to Blackpool Tower, it is what greets visitors as the man himself opens the front door that gives the game away.
There, in the hall, surrounded by mirrors and theatrical quantities of spotlights, is a bright red, gleaming motorbike - not a model or a replica but the very beast of a Ducati on which the master of the house won the world superbike championship in 1999.
"I've got the road version of that and all if you want to have a look," Fogarty says.
But this one is not in the garage, it is in his study: bang in the middle of a room stuffed with more trophies than have passed through Maine Road in a century, standing there snarling on the parquet. So what sort of person would live here? It would be fair to say, David, a man who likes his motorbikes.
"Oh aye, always loved them," says the most accomplished rider Britain has ever known, the winner of 59 world superbike races, 32 more than anyone else. "My dad was an amateur competitor and every year we went to the Isle of Man for the TT. I loved it because I got a week off school. When I was about 13 he entered me in a road race and I come in second. But I got disqualified: I'd used the electric starter because I was too small to kick-start it."
Such is his long affection for two wheels it has come as no surprise to followers of the sport that, since retiring as a rider at the end of the 2000 season, Fogarty has not been able to walk away from the things. In fact he has not been able to do much walking at all for the past few months after breaking his leg last September. Inevitably it was a motorbike accident. "It's about the worst break I've had," he says, hobbling into his kitchen to make a brew. "I was messing about with some mates in the woods and fell off. Unbelievable."
Far from putting his damaged feet up in retirement, however, just before Christmas the man universally known as Foggy announced his return to world superbikes at 36, this time as the owner of Team Fogarty. In view of what has happened to Alain Prost in formula one, whose outfit recently went belly-up with debts of nearly £30m, this seems a risky venture even for a man used to thrills and spills.
"Don't worry, it's not my money. I've worked hard, risked me life for 20 years racing bikes to earn all this," he says, gesturing round his estate. "There's no way I'm going to waste it all now. Because if I lost it, I'd never get it back."
Instead Fogarty's name and reputation have attracted significant sponsorship. Backed by the Malaysian manufacturer Petronas, the Foggy FG1 will make its debut at the Laguna Seca meeting in the United States in the middle of June, three months after next Sunday's opening event in Valencia.
"It's the biggest thing to happen to superbikes," he says. "Since they changed the rules on grand prix bikes, basically allowing them to be the same as superbikes, a lot of people were predicting the end of the sport. This will give it a huge boost."
There is just one slight drawback to Fogarty's modest proposal: at the beginning of March his bike is no more than a clay model, albeit a full-scale clay model, with real wheels, a prototype which the man himself sat astride only last week. It is a clay model none the less and, since superbikes are production machines, the rules of the competition insist that at least 75 are built and ready for sale to the general public by the deadline of a month before any race a team wishes to enter. As timescales go, the three months available to Team Fogarty makes the prime minister's promise to have a world-class health service by the next election look luxurious.
"Seventy-five bikes," says Fogarty, pausing for a moment to reflect on the immensity of the task he has set himself. "They don't have to be sold but they have to be there, finished; someone is going to have to walk into a warehouse and see 75 bikes lined up. When that happens, I just want to see the pictures all over the bike magazines. Put the finger up to the world and say: 'See, we've done it.'"
He sounds as if he has a point to prove.
"The bike press have been surprisingly negative," he says. "I can't believe it. It's the biggest thing to happen to an English guy in motorbike racing, not just to have your own team but your own bike with your own name on it. But the press have been running stories on it every week saying it's doomed to failure. Everyone's saying it can't be done, wheeling out legends of the sport to say it can't. But it's going to happen. Simple as that."
If the only fuel necessary for the team is willpower, then its figurehead can supply that by the gallon. Blessed with the most intense stare in world sport, Fogarty exudes determination. He says that when he used to finish a race he was completely exhausted, not so much from the physical labour of throwing a large motorcycle around a track for two hours as from a self-inflicted mental stress.
"I became trapped a little by this thing I'd created," he says. "If I didn't win it was a total disaster. That said, I was always the world's worst loser. When I was a kid and people said, 'Never mind, it's only a game', I couldn't understand what they were on about. If it was just a bloody game, how come it hurt so much? And when I lost when I was racing, the pain would just go on and on right up to when you could put it right by winning again. That's all I ever wanted to do, win. That's why I'm so determined that this will work."
He has much to do. Instead of merely lending his name to the project Fogarty, who says he had no interest at all in how a team worked when he was riding, has involved himself in everything: from the corporate hospitality provisions ("this is going to be formula one standard, none of your old truck and a caravan") to the bike's styling ("I may not be as clever as some of these computer guys but I know what a bloody nice bike looks like"). Yet, never mind the bike; the workshop near Burton on Trent in which it is to be assembled has not even been completed.
"Every day that goes by I have more meetings and it slowly sinks in: Jesus, this is massive," he says. "Maybe people can't take in how big this is going to be, so they're laughing at it. And because we're keeping details of things secret, notletting anyone see the plans, people are filling in the gaps. Someone come up to me the other day and said, 'Oh I hear Petronas have pulled out.' Not as far as I know, they haven't. I've got a five-year contract with them. But I like all that. I love proving everyone wrong."
What seems a bit odd about this us-against-the-world stance, though, is that Carl Fogarty is that rarity, a man whose popularity transcends his sport. Foggy was always, rightly, the people's champion. Now not a day goes by without him being recognised everywhere he goes, not bad since he spent most of his working life hidden behind a helmet. On the morning of this interview he had been stuck in a jam and the man in the car alongside had wound down the window and thrust a copy of Fogarty's autobiography in his direction asking him to sign it - which caused a few problems when the traffic started to move.
Surely his personal popularity will transfer to the team and his many fans will be queuing up, if not to hand over £25,000 to buy the Foggy FG1, then at least to wish him well?
"I'm talking about people within the sport, the press and so on. Maybe because I've always been outspoken, they're looking for me to fail," he says. "But the fans, no, everywhere I go they say they can't wait for the bike. Which, by the way, will be so fast it ought to come fitted with a government health warning. I can't wait to get on it myself."
Does this imply that an Alex Ferguson type change of heart is about to be announced and Fogarty will top his own spectacular achievements by becoming an owner-rider?
"That won't happen," he says. "Injury finished my career: I didn't want to stop, I had to. I've lost movement in my left shoulder; physically I'm not up to competitive racing. But I'll get on one and have a wobble round. Actually I can't wait."
Talking to Fogarty it soon becomes clear this is not a man made for retirement: the trademark goatee and stare would never seem right topping off pipe and slippers.
"It's come around at the right time for me, it really has," he says. "I was the best out there in the world of racing bikes and, all of a sudden, you can't do it any more. Ducati threw me this three-year contract to be the face of Ducati or whatever and I did a year but I just didn't like it. I hated it actually. I just felt a spare part, useless. I wasn't doing anything, just turning up and standing around, signing autographs. I'd turn up and the mechanics were doing their thing, the riders were getting ready and it just wasn't mine any more.
"I think I'd have walked away from the sport completely, to be honest. I didn't want to be in an environment that wasn't mine. But the next best thing to winning the world title as a rider is winning it as a team owner. Got to be. I can't wait to get on that middle step of the podium again, lifting the trophies, this time as an owner."
So only winning will satisfy him?
"What else is there?" he says. Before pausing for a moment. "Mind you, just getting the bloody bike out there for the first race will be the biggest achievement of my career."
Credit: Jim White (The Guardian)
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AN EVENING WITH CARL FOGARTY FRIDAY 8th OCTOBER