Max to Supermax

Four years into his 500GP career, and Max Biaggi still hasn't won the ultimate prize the sport can offer. In a couple of years, he lost to riders he is rated higher than by most. When will Max become more than just another factor?

For a bloke with four Grand Prix World Championships to his credit, Max Biaggi has been having a bit of a slim time in the last few years.

During his run of four straight aces, from '94 to '97, Max was the sublime 250 GP entity, winning a hat-trick of Aprilia crowns before proving his quarter litre brilliance with another successful campaign on a relatively ordinary NSR250 Honda, and earning himself a promotion to the upper deck of Dorna's Magic Bus as a result. But could he become a winning 500 rider, especially against the 'best-ever' Mick Doohan and a whole legion of experienced 'best of the rest' vee-four competitors?

Max answered swiftly and emphatically with a win in his first ever 500 race, at Suzuka. The significance of securing pole position and the race win was nothing short of earth-shattering, arguably one of the greatest single achievements in the modern history of GP racing. Or am I hyperventilating on the old hyperbole?
To put it into context, it took all - and I mean all - of the post Roberts Senior World Championship contenders, even the greats like Rainey, Lawson, Schwantz, Gardner, Doohan and (whisper it) Rossi, a lot longer than a single 500 race to leapfrog onto motorcycle racing's highest podium step. No home-town advantage, no special one-off factory missile, no spur of external expectation was driving Biaggi that day, but he still won a clear victory.

The honeymoon didn't last, even if Max did put up the most credible fight against Doohan that year, and won another race.

Armed with a factory Yamaha the year after, Max was expected to be an even stronger challenger, and then a real championship favourite, especially after Mick Doohan's career ended against the trackside signage at Jerez.

For Biaggi, it simply never happened (any more than sporadically) from then to now, with first Criville (time-servingly), Roberts (cleverly), and Rossi (comprehensively) outperforming Max, the great competitor who for some reason frequently failed to compete. For most observers, that was due to his inability to change from his devastatingly perfect 250 style on tracks like to Suzuka and Brno, to a more 500-friendly point, slide and squirt technique when it was the only way to go fast for 25 laps on the plethora of Scalextric tracks the GP classes scoot around.

Max denies it. He denies a fair few things really, as the following interview explains. And he is still firm believer in Max Biaggi, even if Max has, at best, enjoyed in the bittersweet status of second most successful 500GP rider for the past four seasons, the best man Yamaha have had for the last three of them, and yet still not on the same plateau of dominance he first ascended to and then dominated in the 250 championship.

We spoke to him only four days after the final Rio GP, and despite being prodded in a language other than his own, Max's often bamboozling eloquence was set on a full power, as was an underlying defiance which burns on through his crystalline clarity of thought, expression and gesture.

Is Max crushed after his latest disappointments and Rossi's stellar season? If he is, he's disguising his pain behind a Praetorian Guard of impressive power.

Let's just say that self-belief is obviously not a commodity the Biaggi company store is about to run out of anytime soon.

Max Biaggi Interview

GR: Was 2001 your hardest year in 500GPs?
MB: On 500 this is maybe the best year that I did, but I am 100% satisfied with what I did because I cannot do more than what I did - and nobody else was able to do this - so I am really satisfied.

But my satisfaction is not enough, because I am looking for target number 1. Winning the championship. Because we won three races and Rossi won 11 that means also there is a technical gap that we have to close as soon as possible.

GR: You mentioned this technical problem with chassis earlier in 2001. Is that why you crashed so much at the end of the season?
MB: The crashes were because I tried to go over this problem but for sure the front of this bike is quite light. It is not as strong as we need. This is a problem, but there was more than one main problem. Because why was only Max Biaggi able to win when there are eight bikes like this? So maybe when I don't have (the chance) to win, some other Yamaha has to win.

Max Biaggi has something special compared to other Yamaha riders? No! Does Rossi have something special compared to Barros and Capirossi? Yes. But that is not Yamaha's policy. So that is why.

GR: Do you feel that there is more pressure on you compared to the other Yamaha guys? Because you are the only guy who can win on the Yamaha?
MB: Just because I am using my ability. I am nothing special compared to the other Yamaha guys. That I want to state clearly. But Yamaha has what they need. A rider. They have what they need, a test rider. Now they must focus on one or two riders - maximum. That has always been the Honda policy; focus on one rider for development.

If somebody show you the way, and this way gives you success, why do you not follow?

GR: Yamaha have too many riders then?
MB: Too many riders. But no one to step up on the technical side. Too many, and too many the same.

GR: Will that problem now go away when you have only two riders on the four-stroke machine?
MB: That is what I said. With the new regulations Yamaha realise that they cannot do more than two riders. Which is good, so for at least year one only two riders can use this prototype. Always there is good and bad, because when it is brand new - you never know...

GR: But your initial feeling from the M1 is good?
MB: If the final machine is higher compared to the 500, then we can be optimistic. But then again you have to face - I guess - Honda's new prototype. But there is no point to be unhappy or unsatisfied because I am full of enthusiasm and happiness to move onto the new four-stroke project. This new project gives us the opportunity to change many things around. Chassis, or engine position, or whatever. Now we can do this. We have a little time, so now if we make hard work...

GR: Are confident that you can win this year?
MB: If I said that I would say that only because already I had been on different racetracks and broke the lap record - but I didn't. So the bike is in development, the bike is not ready yet. They make an idea, they produce some parts and now they want me testing each part. Theoretically they are good things but on the track we have tested twice. One time was better than the other but we didn't break that wall of the 500. We are not sure which one is better because we don't know yet. It means we need to make so many tests and be precise on development.

I want to say this because that is what I feel but then the group now that is developing this project is the group that is really appreciate and have esteem for this group. In this group the project leader and engineering people I have known for a long time in 500 and I respect their ability - so I know that Yamaha put in the best they have. In Yamaha they have many division and I know this group is the heart of Yamaha, is something really clever, people who know racing. They have been working in 250 Motocross, in many areas, with big success. When I joined 500 the people who were in charge keep on changing from last year, the year before that, so it is not the same group. Now the people who make this bike 18 months ago are the same group who will carry on for next year. It is more easy understand and we can have direct questions and answers.

GR: How much different does the four-stroke feel from the 500?
MB: Well it is a little bit heavier, but the handling is not worse. The power band is wider, because the characteristic of the four-stroke is to have the power deliver easier and smoother. Of course now we know this is the character but now we have to work on a few details which makes the bike faster and easier to ride.

GR: Many years ago when you first moved to 500GPs it seemed that your riding style did not change very much. Do you think your riding style and approach to the set up of the machine is very different now from when you first rode 500?
MB: I think it has changed a little bit. But nobody has made a big change from when they started racing motorcycles. You always keep your distinct style. That is what I did. But I can tell you that it is good enough.

If I can compare my riding style to someone who is a great rider I can only say Eddie Lawson. Not Rainey or Doohan, but Eddie Lawson had a similar style to myself. He was very precise and when you need to, you know how to spin the rear tyre. But when you don't have to you're just losing time to do it.

Also I want to say now, just to clarify. Yamaha have eight riders now on 500s, and you have Max Biaggi style, Checa style - which is a little bit dirty (indicating sliding of the rear tyre rather than foul riding) then McCoy, which is wheel spinning the rear tyre a lot, and then you have Jacque and Nakano. Then you have Abe who is also quite used to spinning the rear. So there are many different styles of riding. But if you ask the question "why only one can do this?" (win races) because there is one who has each of everything. That is the key. You know how to race on rain, on dirty tracks, on smooth circuits, on bumpy surfaces. There is only one answer. So I think my riding style is very efficace? How you say in English, effective? Yes, effective.

GR: For the first time in many years there are not just one or two but three Italian riders fighting it out for the World Championship, with no other serious challengers. Does this bring much pressure at home in Italy?
MB: Sure there has always been pressure, but for me I care about the image that I give to the outside. For the people involved in the two-wheeled world. I like to be the guy I am. I am always seen as the guy who always tries to beat whoever is in front, and I like just to work. The other subjects are just not relevant. I know in racing that on Sunday at two o'clock when the lights have gone from red to green, on this bike there is only myself. Nobody of my team, nobody of my family. So when I am on the track on Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning the only goal is to make this bike more easy to ride, more easy to do whatever I want. All the other things are just something to change your focus. My focus should only be on preparing to race.

I can understand sponsors' appearances and manufacturers sponsorship commitments or whatever, and I do this, but my mind is always in the other way - the racing. That is the only way to succeed in the sport. And then if your name is like Rossi, and you have all the soup ready, you can do whatever you want...

GR: There has been a lot of controversy, especially this year, about you and Rossi and the dislike you have for each other. How much is genuine and how much is media hype?
MB: I tell you it always comes from his side. I never reply but it is always Rossi complain and say, 'Max is not nice, Max I don't like, blah-bla-blah.' He is always keeping saying the same soup.

If I don't like you I can tell you once or twice, but there is no point to go around this paddock and say again and again 'I don't like this guy, I don't like this guy, I don't like this guy.'

This is quite - I don't want to say bad words - but this is not clever. And it makes people tired. People who want to write about motorcycles - (we should) give them the possibility to make something nice once or twice - but then always the same soup, always the same stuff.

I think he will kill himself if he keeps going on this way because - I don't reply (to it) and I don't care (about it) - but I think a lot of the fans and a even lot of his fans wish me some good things. Sometime when we are on the racetrack they stop me and say "we like you even if you wear red, not yellow. We think you are a great rider, keep going." That is what really re-charges my battery, not the other stuff.

Max's assertion that part of his problem this season was fighting not just Rossi but the package of Rossi and the NSR may be about to change, and thus we may just see the balance of GP power swing closer to parity - but only if Yamaha make a fully competitive M1, and Honda's RC211V is only its equal. There is also the (hardly universal) preconception that over a full season any new four-stroke will be capable of taking the title at the first go.

The good news for us all is that despite being beaten by the Nastro Azzurro kid in the first fully competitive showdown between the two, Max has apparently focussed all the energies and motivation within his enigmatic and complicated character to the goal of beating Rossi next year. Whether he can or not is open to conjecture, but it appears that Biaggi's formidable reserves of motivation have yet to be exhausted, and no matter how busy his M1 testing schedule becomes in the new year, the man most likely to topple Rossi is probably still the four-time 250cc World Champion. And if Biaggi ultimately has only a quarter of the success he enjoyed when he ruled the 250 roost, that still equates to a single MotoGP World Championship - sooner or later.