|2003||3||9||2||3||MotoGP||Honda||Camel Pramac Pons|
The beginning of Max career
It’s hard to summarize Max’s story in just a few lines, as is the case with any interesting personality. Here we will try to accomplish that feat through the words of the people who were close to him before his life was in the public eye, before Massimiliano became Max, and the people who witnessed the start of his career, almost as if by chance. Then we will hear from the man himself, as we discuss the most vivid memories of his career that perhaps very few people even know about. Just as very few people outside of his immediate family have seen the exclusive photos that appear on these pages. Be honest, how many of you would have recognized Max in that little blond (!) baby that’s smiling on the beaches of Fregene? Everyone who knows him agrees on one thing: he is an extremely reserved person. He’s very serious, but he is not anti-social and he is capable of being very lighthearted when surrounded by his longtime friends. Max is different from the stereotypes that are often associated with his name.
Here we find a young man full of energy, able to sleep just four hours a night, not because he is nervous or upset about something, but simply because he likes to be involved with everything going on around him. Determined and precise, right down to the smallest of details, he was very different from his sister Vanessa, who is two years older. “They shared a room together as children”, recalls father Pietro, “And you just had to glance at them to understand how different they were. They seemed to be divided by some invisible line. On Max’s side things were immaculate and organized, and on Vanessa’s side there was chaos. They fought all the time, but they were also very close.” Indeed, family has always been very important for Max, and Pietro still travels with him to all of the racetracks around the world.
"He was a calm boy”, his father continued, “but absolutely radiating energy. He always played a lot of sports, starting with football, which he was very passionate about. At 7 years old he started out with the youth club of Trionfal-Doria, the team from our neighborhood, Prati, for whom I was the coach. In the winter he entered ski races on Mount Terminillo, and he would fly down the slopes like a cannonball. Speed never scared him. Quite the contrary!” Few things actually scared this young firebrand, and while it’s true that thanks to family tradition football really ignited his sporting instincts, his passion for racing was written in the deepest parts of his DNA, ready to appear as soon as it had the chance, which it did. Indeed, Pietro added: “His biggest mishaps were all related to engines: at six years old he got into a car parked in front of a small fountain of some sort. The transmission was in gear and somehow he managed to start the engine. He destroyed both the car and the fountain! I shouldn’t have left the keys in the ignition, but he was so small, how could I have known?" With a start like this, who could have imagined that Pietro would become his son’s very first race mechanic? But that’s exactly how it went.
Max’s adolescence was similar to that of other kids his age: the girlfriend, the scooter, the parties and, naturally, football. While his best friend Daniele was really passionate about motorbikes, our Max was happy to pursue his football career. How did his friend Daniele, who had already been going to Vallelunga, a somewhat forgotten circuit just outside of Rome, for quite some time, convince Max to accompany him that summer Sunday afternoon? Or did Max somehow hear the call of his destiny? Most likely he was simply bored, with school out of session, his football training on pause for the summer, and only the usual Sunday family lunch for an alternative.
Neither of the two remember exactly what was said, but the fact remains that they found themselves at the track, one of them already more familiar with the practice of having fun for a half hour on a bike, for the cost of roughly one week’s allowance, and the other looking on a big awestruck as his friend suddenly looked a lot cooler than he did. And that was all it took. But Max hadn’t realized just how afraid his father Pietro was of motorcycles. The result: no money to buy a helmet and leathers. But, in turn, Pietro hadn’t realized just how determined his son was to ride. The result: five weeks of work for the Pony Express courier service, and ten hours a day negotiating the hectic Roman traffic. Some financial support finally arrived, when the elder Biaggi understood that it wasn’t merely a passing fad, but something more important, and that Max had, at seventeen years of age, found his path.
"He was a little lost his first time on track”, Daniele recounted. “He didn’t know what lines to take, and I was faster than him. But that didn’t last long. The next time out he was already ahead of me. The best part is that he still didn’t have a license to be riding. My father would go and get track entry sticker to put on the bike, and then Max would take his place out on track.”
The next logical step was to race, with his father acting as his mechanic. It was 1989, Max was 18 years old, and he competed in his first race at Magione, in the Italian 125cc Sport Production championship, on a Honda. He crashed. “I stopped following him around a few years ago. I have a young child and I can’t be traveling around the world”, Daniele continued, “But up until his first years in Grand Prix, I saw all of his races: his first season in Sport Production he was always on the ground. He was impulsive, and not in the least bit calculated. However when he finished, he finished well.” The next year, 1990, the tune changed completely. Maurizio Vitali, a "real" mechanic from Rome, who years later would become the crew chief for Gary McCoy in the 125 world championship, contacted Pietro Biaggi to talk about taking his place in Max’s garage.
"They referred to us as those guys with the Fiat Uno and the trailer”, Maurizo remembered with a smile on his face. “All of the others had campers and trucks, but Max had to get changed in the car. After we won six out of seven races, they all stopped laughing.” Max and his fantastic season had garnered a lot of attention, and even if he had been using tuned production machinery, he was offered the chance to participate in the one round Italian prototype championship, at Vallelunga, his track of destiny. It was the first time he would mix it up with the “big boys.”
This is how one journalist, who at the time was covering Grand Prix racing, remembers it.
"Two dark and disbelieving eyes appeared on the podium, with a head of shaggy hair sitting above them. When the anthem stopped playing, and amidst a group of people patting him on the back, he didn’t know where to go next. He had just finished his first fantastic race on GP machinery, finishing third behind Fausto Gresini and Doriano Romboni. Loris Capirossi had just won his first 125cc world championship, yet Biaggi managed to stick right behind the newly crowned champion, who eventually crashed, and two wily veterans, the first time he was placed atop a Grand Prix motorcycle. A star was born.”
The rest would be written in the motorcycle racing history books. Indeed, in 1991, Max won the European 250cc title in his first attempt, racing for Team Italia, with Mauro Noccioli as his crew chief. The only thing left to do was the World Championship.
The Grand Prix World Championships. A new universe waiting to be discovered, where Max arrived in 1992, after having competed the previous year as a wildcard in France, scoring points (13th) on a privateer machine. He would ride for Team Valesi, on an Aprilia 250cc, with Pierfrancesco Chili as his teammate. Max wore a fuchsia pink helmet, and showed that he wasn’t afraid to race with the more experienced competition. During the Italian Grand Prix, at Mugello, he scored his first career podium thanks to an incredible last lap, where he actually made contact with his teammate Chili (who then crashed). That same season he won his first Grand Prix, in South Africa, during the final round of the season.
"In my first complete Grand Prix season I finished where I had hoped, and I felt like I did well, very well”, Max recounted, talking about his first steps onto the world stage.
”It was all completely new for me, I had to learn English, and the first time I spoke with foreign journalists I barely understood a thing. But those were details. The tracks to learn, the new team, the races, those were the important things: everything was important to me, everything. I remember my first mistakes, the many discoveries I made, and then the emotions of my first win, at Kyalami in South Africa, for the last race of the season. I felt like I was on top of the world, and it was a truly unique feeling.”
Max wasn’t very talkative back then, also because, unlike most of the other youngsters coming into Grand Prix racing, the paddock wasn’t his natural habitat. After finishing the season in fifth place, he signed with Honda for the following year, racing in the Rothmans colors for Erv Kanemoto’s team. He won just a single Grand Prix, but he improved his championship position by one place. There were many issues with the Michelin tires (he was the only 250 Honda using them), but the best was yet to come.
The big transformation came in 1994, when he returned to Aprilia. That season marked the start of his 250 reign, as he won his first world championship (making him the first Italian ever to do so on an Italian Aprilia).
Also unforgettable were the 1995-1996 championships, where he continued his dominant march by winning many races and demolishing the competition. This run included ’97, the year in which Aprilia chose to go with Harada (a Japanese rider) and Max went back to Honda, again with Kanemoto. Despite changing teams, bikes and engineers, Max defended his title with authority, taking the climactic 1997 championship. (A title that had eluded Honda since back in 1992).
His 29 wins and four consecutive titles were an absolute record for that category of racing. They are full of wonderful memories for Max, but perhaps some more than others.
"Of the four championships, the first was the realization of a dream! The real reason why I undertook this huge challenge.
But the last one (1997), was the most emotional one for me. During the final race, at Phillip Island in Australia, everything was on the line. The tension was incredible. I played billiards the night before with my crew. I was very nervous and I lost. I had trouble getting to sleep, but I still woke up fresh as a daisy. I got out of bed, took a shower and opened the curtains. It was still pitch black, and I had slept for 53 minutes. There was nothing to do but laugh, and along with my physiotherapist, Marino Laghi, I stayed awake until dawn. That same morning, perhaps even thanks to a bit of magic, we celebrated our fourth world championship title.”
500 Class and the Moto GP
The move to 500cc, in 1998, made quite an impact: again with Honda, again with Kanemoto. First race, pole, victory, fastest lap; only the legendary Jarno Saarinen had managed the same feat, 25 years earlier in 1973, and in the process Max managed to handily defeat Mick Doohan, the established 500cc World Champion, in his debut race.
Perhaps Max could have even won the title, were it not for a disqualification he received after ignoring a 'stop and go' penalty at Barcelona, the punishment for violating a questionable rule that would be changed the following year in the wake of that incident. In any case, he finished second behind Mick Doohan. Not bad if you imagine that Max was riding a private bike.
"Of the two wins that season, the most emotional was Suzuki, and I’ll never forget it. But I also remember the one at Brno, with the crazy wheelie that people are still asking me for pictures of. It wasn’t intentional, at least not to that degree, but it worked out alright… When I realized I was vertical, I slammed on the rear brake to bring the bike back down, and she obeyed immediately like the good girl that she was. When I saw the replay on TV, I couldn’t believe it. It gave me chills!!!".
The 1999 season was his first of four at Yamaha, highlighted by some less than brilliant moments, but also by some satisfying results achieved with determination, passion and sacrifice. They were also the years in which he suffered his biggest crashes, including the one at the ’99 French GP for which he still bares scares on both of his hands. But there was plenty of pleasure to go along with the pain, like the breakaway win at Phillip Island in 2000, which secured the Constructor’s World Championship for Yamaha. Max didn’t manage to win the premier class title that he wanted most, despite the fact that his two second place championship finishes were the best results for a Yamaha rider in over ten years.
"I walked away from a great group of workers when I left Yamaha. I have wonderful memories of my Japanese engineers, and I gained a lot of respect for them over the years, especially the group that worked on the M1. We started in 2002 with a bike that needed to be completely revised, since it was the first year of four-stroke engines, and in the second half of the season we scored two races and were runners up in the championship. It wasn’t a bad result if you consider that I was seventeenth in the standings at the start of the season!” The next year saw Max’s big return to Honda, with Team Camel Pramac Pons. Despite the satisfaction of two wins in 2003, and a victory in 2004, there were plenty of difficulties in adapting to the 'client' version of the RC211V.
Third in the standings at the end of these two seasons was not exactly what Max was hoping for, but it was hoped they could be the prelude to a more important 2005 campaign.
For the first time in his premier class career, Max was going to be the lead rider for HRC: Honda had finally given in and given him a factory seat with Team Repsol, alongside Nicky Hayden. The season began amidst tremendous uncertainty because of a left ankle injury he sustained while riding a supermotard. A bone as small as it is insidious, the talus, put not only his physical health in jeopardy, but also his career as a rider. However, thanks to a perfect surgical operation, managed by his longtime physiotherapist Marino Laghi, and especially his tremendous determination, Max was out on track for the winter tests in Malaysia. If there is such a thing as destiny, it appeared as though Max was meant to be there racing.
He was also reunited with his old friend Erv Kanemoto, his ally in so many past battles, who took on the role of technical director. The expectations were high. Max promised his fans that he would give his all, as always…
Max’s return to racing came in SBK, riding a Suzuki GSX-R 1000 for Francesco Batta’s Team Alstare Corona. Right from the start Max showed that he was up to the task, scoring a win in the season opening race at Qatar, and second place in Race 2, in his SBK debut after a year away from racing. With 14 podiums and three victories (Qatar, Brno and Vallelunga), Biaggi was fighting for the title until the very last race, which James Toseland managed to win, however, securing the championship. Biaggi wound up 3rd in the standings. But Biaggi has never had an easy time of things, and after the season Batta lost his title sponsor and the ability to retain a top rider like Max.
For 2008 he moved to Team Ducati Sterilgarda, after an attempt was made by Gresini to bring Max back to MotoGP. He didn’t score any wins and managed just 7 podiums, meaning Max finished the season in 7th place, but he was still the best of the privateers. Not a bad result, especially considering that he missed a month of the season after fracturing his right arm in a crash in Australia.
The following season saw a big homecoming: a contract with Aprilia and the chance to ride the newest bike from Noale, the RSV4. That season was marked by ups and downs (as you would expect with a brand new bike that still needed development), with a difficult start in Australia followed by two podiums in Qatar. At seasons end he counted 10 podiums and, thanks to his “usual” victory at Brno, Max and the still teething Italian motorcycle were fourth in the championship. But that year was supposed to be seen as preparation for a title assault in 2010. Indeed…
The first world championship for Max in SBK was the perfect portrait of the Roman champion: extremely fast when the track and machine allowed for it, smart and solid where it was clear that pushing for a win would entail too much risk. The battle with Leon Haslam and his Suzuki would end with a victory for Max Biaggi, the first Italian champion in the history of SBK thanks to 10 race wins (4 of which were doubles) and 14 podiums. The triumph was sealed in his native Italy, at Imola, while Max’s win in the final race of the season, in France, also secured the Constructor’s World Championship for Aprilia.
In 2011, his second season on the Aprilia, highlighted by wins at Aragon and Brno, as well as 10 podiums, a foot injury forced him to miss three rounds of the championship. At the end he was 3rd in points, witch Carlos Checa having taken the title.
The 2012 season secured Max Biaggi’s place in motorcycle racing and SBK history. It wasn’t all easy, but, among his own struggles and competitors who weren’t giving an inch, Max and the Aprilia RSV4 managed to win 5 races along with 6 other podium finishes. These results, along with a carefully managed lead over his rivals (most notably Melandri and Sykes) allowed him to win his second SBK World Championship by just a half point in the final race, at Magny Cours. That half point which brought so much joy to millions of fans and viewers. Thanks Max!