Just before he announced his retirement from racing after 21 years at the high end of world championship contention, 2012 WSB champion Max granted an audience to MCN Sport
n the modern era of motorcycle racing, Max Biaggi’s stats are unprecedented. His world championship career spanned 21 years. He won 63 races and was on the podium 181 times during his 368 races in either 250GP, 500GP, MotoGP or WSB. And he won his first 250GP world championship in 1994 – the first of a run of four such titles. He’s seen some of the hottest young talents of the last two decades come and go - arriving in a blaze of glory, only for their fire to burn out a few years later – while he himself remained a benchmark in the paddock.
At a press conference in Vallelunga in early November, the recently anointed 2012 WSB champ made the shock announcement that he was retiring from racing, despite having an offer to race for another season in WSB with Aprilia.
At least he’s going out at the top of his game. There were times in the last 21 years when he might have made a more ignominious departure.
Biaggi’s winning of the WSB championship for the second time in 2012 was in contrast to his dominant 2010 WSB title – this year’s campaign and eventual win was his least convincing. Outgunned by his main rivals in 2011 and with any bike advantage he enjoyed in his 2010 title-winning year seemingly over, Biaggi’s attempt to be crowned champion again in 2012 looked a big ask, even for the insatiable Roman. With three rounds to go, his early season form was a distant memory and he was staring down the barrel of being beaten to the title by arch rival Marco Melandri. In the end it was Britain’s Tom Sykes who emerged as the true contender, following the disintegration of Melandri’s title charge with five DNFs in the final six races.
Biaggi’s valedictory year had it all. Sublime individual race performances such as his ride from last place to second in Phillip Island, or his emphatic Misano double, were nullified by under-par rides, especially at Brno where he had previously dominated, and an uncharacteristically high number of race crashes. You could argue he only won the title thanks to his obliging team-mate Eugene Laverty and Aprilia’s clear use of team orders, but the facts remain that he is world champion – even if it was only by half a point. His victory is a clear example of just how every aspect of the bike, package and even team structure and mentality can ultimately be the difference between success or failure.
“This was the most difficult championship of them all. I feel lucky to have won this one – and to win by just half a point makes the victory even sweeter. I came to Magny Cours with a 30.5-point lead, but after race one I saw things were going in a very bad way. The three hours after the crash and before race two was one of the most psychologically difficult moments of my career. The other big challenge for me is that two months before the start of the season I had no crew. (Biaggi’s long-standing team left Aprilia to work for the Ioda Racing Project in MotoGP.) We had very little time, so straight away we began talking to people. We chose Aligi Deganello (Marco Simoncelli’s former chief mechanic) as my crew chief. Thankfully he accepted – he is a very good man and brought with him a calm way to work which was the opposite to what I was used to.
“We made the package and it’s a nice story right from the start, because in the first round at Phillip Island we won straight away at a track where we have never won before. That’s the proof that you need the bike, the man and a good team. It shows you can win even if the team is fresh – I believe we made something very special this year.”
Having started racing at world championship level in 1991, Biaggi’s career is a shining example of a rider being able to learn and adapt. From 250 and 500GPs, MotoGP and WSB, he’s won races wherever he’s competed. He took victory in his 500GP debut, beating Mick Doohan in the process, and his win in Brno during the same season saw him execute the best over-the-line wheelie celebration ever.
He became Valentino Rossi’s arch enemy in one of the last great GP rivalries. Yet despite his achievements, his own actions and deteriorating relationships with the manufacturers caused him to be exiled from the GP paddock. But he would not go away quietly. Instead, after a year out in 2006, he came to WSB armed with the unwavering focus and zero compromise that epitomised his career.
“When I was in GPs, I would watch WSB and saw these guys racing side by side, jumping the kerbs. I was really thinking at that time that Superbike riders are crazy – look at what they are doing to win races! In MotoGP it’s different; if you do anything like this on track, you get away with it the first time, but the second time race direction will give you a 10-second penalty. In WSB you race handlebar-to-handlebar – and if you touch, no problem.
“I left MotoGP in 2005 and started in WSB, and in this time I have won two world titles and had many good results. I have to put this down to the man that brought me here, the man that started me in WSB – Francis Batta from Alstare Suzuki and his wife Patricia. They made me feel wanted. They told me I still had too much to give to racing.
“When I arrived, everyone was saying that Max Biaggi has a very clean riding style and he will never adapt to a Superbike. There was so much talk, but in my first race in WSB at Qatar I won straight away.”
There’s also the small matter of age. With the new crop of top-flight riders getting younger each season, Biaggi was 41 when he won the 2012 title – 41 and 103 days, to be precise, making him far and away the oldest-ever WSB champion.
“I don’t know why it was possible for me to still win – for sure I have a devil inside! It’s something I’ve always had inside me before I even started racing 21 years ago. Until I was 20, I didn’t have any thoughts or passion for two wheels. I didn’t have a bike – nothing. So if you don’t have the things that some guys have at four or five years old until much later in life, maybe your mind and your body is still fresh.
“For sure, someone like my friend Jorge (Lorenzo) cannot do this. There is no way he will still be able to win at the top level when he is 40 – never. He told me this. He has been racing from when he was very young, all his life, but for me it is different. When I was 18, all I had in my life was the football pitch, training and athletics – no motorbikes. When I discovered my love of motorbikes, it opened up a new world for me. It gave me energy, passion and curiosity. Twenty years on, I still had it.”
Pictures Fabio Lovino, Matteo Cavadini, Gold and Goose