Italian superstar Max Biaggi finally hung up his leathers after winning his sixth world title. Mad, mercurial or just Max?
BENJAMIN ‘ B J ’ KUBAS CRONIN
APRILIA, HONDA, REPSOL MEDIA, YAMAHA
Where do you start with somebody like Max Biaggi? A man loved and loathed in equal measure, yet one of the brightest lights in motorcycle racing over two decades. You could say this is similar to saying farewell to Casey Stoner – except Max is someone special, more than a mere pilot. In a similar vein to the wonderfully bonkers John Kocinski, Biaggi had a habit of confounding rivals, teams, the media and everyone else with the way he acted. Despite this, and before the Valentino Rossi era, Max was the darling of the fans.
With little experience on bikes beforehand Max’s life had been all about football, racing began almost by accident. But when it did it took only two years until he was scrapping in Grand Prix. That’s a meteoric rise even Rossi can’t match, and though he had a few big learning-curve experiences, it wasn’t long before Max owned the 250GP class. And he did own it, by winning four titles back to back, from 1994 through to 1997. Classy, brave and utterly imperious, this was Max hitting his first racing peak, one of three in his career.
And Biaggi was the first to be brought down by Rossi, even though the pair weren’t even racing in the same class. It’s a pity for Max that he’ll be most remembered for his ‘rivalry’ with Valentino Rossi – and this had begun before the two had even been properly introduced...
Rossi is no fool; he realised that to be the best and the most loved, he had to take down Max Biaggi. At that time, Max was the crown-prince, the joker, who clearly enjoyed his racing the most and mixed wild riding with that super-smooth style. He was a superstar.
Rossi began to usurp him the moment he joined the GP ranks, and this began to get heavy after Max’s impressive final 250cc title and his stunning debut season in 500s. Unable to come to a deal with Aprilia for 1997, Max returned to Honda and legendary tuner Erv Kanemoto. Max swapped the all conquering Aprilia for the under-achieving NSR250, and won the title for the fourth consecutive time. He retained it after changing manufacturers – sound familiar?
His first race at Suzuka on the NSR500 was incredible – he smoked the field, and even Mick Doohan binned it trying to catch him. He would go on to record another win and finish second in the standings, before being poached to ride for Marlboro Yamaha. “When I was young, I have a poster on my wall of Wayne Rainey, Marlboro Yamaha number 2. Now, my dream has come true,” Max said at the time. But the dream didn’t immediately bear fruit, as the Yamaha still couldn’t match the NSR’s pace.
By the following season, Max’s verbal nemesis was racing in the same class, as Rossi moved up with Honda to 500GP. The year culminated in a titanic scrap between Max, Valentino and Loris Capirossi at Phillip Island, which Max won. It was also, incidentally, the first all Italian 500cc podium since 1972!
2001 saw the battle intensify, as the opener at Suzuka showed when Max appeared to barge Rossi off the track. It would also bookmark the second peak of Max’s career, even though it may not have looked like it. He finished second to Valentino that year in a hard fought season, but the truth was Biaggi was losing the battle on all fronts. As Rossi’s status grew exponentially, Max’s diminished, as did his relationship with many fans. The infamous ‘punch-up’ at Catalunya did nothing to help Max’s cause either, and only served to boost Rossi’s already heady stock.
A lot of what happened in that Catalunyan corridor scuffle has never been printed. Why? Politics. The true story didn’t suit the narrative the media were busy building, and this was the one the fans wanted to hear. The subsequent story that emerged was grossly unfair on Biaggi, though even then he knew making it public would have been pointless. So when questioned in the post-race conference about the red welt on his face, Max simply responded that he’d been ‘bitten by a mosquito!’ but the real story was what wasn’t said that day...
It was a tiny victory for Max, in a world quickly turning against him on all fronts. But his riding had never been better. He was racing at his absolute peak and this continued when GP went four-stroke in 2002 – even though he was on inferior machinery. What’s not well known is just how poor the first ever Yamaha M1 was. Partially developed by the aforementioned John Kocinski, little John left the project proclaiming it a brilliant ‘superbike’, but not a GP machine. It wasn’t even anywhere near the maximum capacity either, losing nearly 100cc to the Honda. It’s a testament to his skill that he was able to win at all on the M1, something no other Yamaha rider managed on it in that first season, even beating Rossi on a few occasions.
Eventually, the strain of pushing a bike beyond its limits began to weigh on Max, and by 2003 he’d left Yamaha for Sito Pons’ privateer Honda squad. Biaggi wanted a bike equal to Rossi’s, but he never got it. The customer RCV211V was good enough for a handful of wins and podiums, but it was simply not good enough to trouble the factory’s top man. Max’s second peak was coming to an end.
If Max thought Rossi moving to Yamaha would improve things so that he’d inherit the crown, it really didn’t as by the time Yamaha signed Rossi the M1 had already made big strides forward – thanks in part to Biaggi’s hard work. He won a couple of races in the next two seasons, finishing both in third position. This was enough to earn him a factory ride with Repsol Honda, but the writing was already on the wall. “I tried to slay a giant once,” Max is quoted about those times, and it showed in his demeanour and body language.
The Repsol Honda year was a disaster; he even had a coming together with team-mate Nicky Hayden in the pitlane during testing, which set the tone all season. This, while Rossi reached even loftier heights…
By the end of 2005 Max was virtually unemployable, so bad had his relationships around him become, and he was unable to secure a top ride for 2006. Many won’t know he nearly moved to WSB that year, but Alstare Suzuki couldn’t find the budget. So, he took a year off and with a lot of time on his hands, he became ‘Max’ once more. By the end of the year the deal to run with Alstare in WSB was nailed down, and Max’s ‘new’ career took off.
And it took off well, with victory in his first ever WSB race at Qatar. Max quickly acclimatised to the series, and became fairly vocal in his defence of it and its riders. The MotoGP paddock was full of scorn for WSB for years, but now Max defended it to the hilt. When asked by us in 2007 about GP riders looking down on WSB, his response was nothing short of scathing.“If you watch what Troy Bayliss did at Valencia last year (he won as a wildcard – Ed), they need to reconsider everything. Starting with his team-mate – if I was Loris Capirossi, I would never go out of the pits again. Bayliss is three years out of GP, never used the Bridgestones, but is fastest all weekend with pole, the fastest lap and the race win, and has destroyed you, someone who has ridden the bike all year. If I was Loris, I would have pulled in,” he said.
More telling, was Biaggi admitting he should have made the switch to WSB long before he was effectively pushed there. “Yes, maybe from 2003 or 2004 I should move, but then I had too much fog in my eyes and couldn’t see well. Now is blue sky, and I am focussed,” said Max on his new racing life.
However, he didn’t initially rule WSB. In fact it took four years and three different manufacturers for it to happen. After a good first season, he found himself on a privateer Ducati and carrying a lot of injuries. Ducati actually wanted him to ride for its factory team in 2009, but Max declined and instead returned to his spiritual home, Aprilia. Pairing Max and the new Aprilia V4 was a marketing match made in heaven, with title-winning history to back it up. Max even managed to reunite his crew from 250GP. At the time, we dubbed it ‘Team Geriatric’ but it heralded the final glorious peak in Max’s riding career.
Far from just taking a wage, like many who find themselves in WSB, Max was incredible in 2010, securing four double wins on the way to claiming Italy’s first WSB title for rider and constructor. And in 2012, Max took his final title by just half a point from Britain’s Tom Sykes, in what many consider the best WSB season ever. A truly fitting farewell to a mercurial man with an ultra-special talent – going out on top, which so few are lucky or clever enough to manage.
Like Casey Stoner though, many will be happy to see him retire. Max’s alleged unfriendliness with fans is one potential issue and, yeah, he could have been better in that regard. But that’s the professional in him, the man paid to do a job. Talk to him away from the track and you’d really like the bloke, trust us. “I am totally within myself from Thursday to Sunday, and am released when I race,” he said to us, and that is generally our experience of the man. And let’s not forget that without Max, just how big would Rossi have been? Their battles on and off the track cemented Rossi’s status as top dog, but that’s not what we’ll remember Biaggi for. We’ll remember the ‘Corsair’ taking no prisoners in 250GP, the man who wiped the smile off Doohan’s face, who slapped Marco Melandri across the mush and the man who on his day was faster than anyone else in the world. Ciao, Max…