Thursday, November 8

MAX BIAGGI RETIRES

By Michael Esdaile

MASSIMILIANO 'Max' Biaggi, newly crowned 2012 Superbike World Champion, has announced his retirement after a long and illustrious career.

Biaggi has had many nick-names: 'Roman Emperor", "Mad Max" and more recently "the Corsair" (pirate). Over the course of his 21 years of world championship competition, he has infuriated team managers and mechanics, engaged in fiery debates with fellow riders, produced some inexplicable riding behaviour and produced some miraculous results to delight his fans.


Like him or loathe him, Max Biaggi has been his own man, not a contrived creation of media hype.


His record includes four World 250 Championships (1994, '95, '96 and '97) plus the 2010 and 2012 Superbike World Championships.


All but his 1997 250 title were won with Italian manufacturer Aprilia.  


He raced a Honda NSR250 to win the 1997 250 world title and continued with Honda into the World 500 Championship in 1998.  He started the year by beating Mick Doohan at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.  Not a bad debut in the premier class!  He also won the Czech GP at Brno and finished runner-up to Doohan in the 500 title chase.  The next year he scored only one win, at Welkom in South Africa, and finished fourth in the World 500 Championship before leaving Honda to join Yamaha for the 2000 season.  Although he won again at Brno, and also won the Australian GP at Phillip Island, Biaggi was third in the 500 title chase, behind Kenny Roberts Junior (Suzuki) and a youngster named Valentino Rossi (Honda).


The 2001 season, the last of the World 500 Championships, saw Biaggi score wins at Le Mans, Assen and Sachsenring to finish a distant second to Rossi, 219 points to 325.


The 2002 season saw the start of the new MotoGP class, with 990cc four-strokes racing against the 500cc two-strokes.  Honda had the new RCV211 - a V5 that went on to become the most successful machine in MotoGP - a record it holds to this day.  With Rossi aboard, and only one other V5 Honda in the field (Toru Ukawa) for the first half of that season, it was hard to beat - especially as the original Yamaha M1 was not fuel-injected - it ran carburettors.  Biaggi was up against it but in his typical never-say-die approach, he won the Czech GP and won again at Sepang.  Honda riders - Rossi, Ukawa and Alex Barros - once he was supplied a V5 - won all the other races.


Working on the 'if you can't beat them, join them' approach, Biaggi switched to a satellite Camel Honda in 2003 and 2004, finishing third in the title chase behind Rossi and Sete Gibernau (Honda) both times.  He scored race wins at Donington Park and Motegi (2003) and at Sachsenring (2004).


For the 2005 season, Rossi joined the Repsol-backed Honda factory effort but failed to score a single race win.  The only win for the Repsol Honda factory team that year was at Laguna Seca win Nicky Hayden took the first of his three MotoGP wins.


HONDA BAN

Biaggi was never an easy rider to work with and the HRC bosses were so infuriated with him that they issued an edict at the end of 2005: no Honda supported team was allowed to sign the Italian.

So Biaggi was sidelined from Grand Prix racing and spent a year away from racing before Francis Batta signed him to race a Suzuki GSX-R1000 in the Alstare Corona team.  Biaggi started the year with a flourish, winning the first Superbike race of 2007 and taking two more race wins over the season to finish third in the title chase.


For 2008, Biaggi signed for the Sterligarda Go Eleven Ducati team alongside Rueben Xaus only to finish seventh in the championship, and failed to score a race win.


But Aprilia was working on a new V4 machine for the Superbike World Championship and race team engineer Luigi Dall'Igna, remembering the successful partnership with Biaggi in the 1990s, pushed for the man known as the 'Roman Emperor' to join the new Aprilia Superbike team.  Biaggi was duly signed and in the V4's debut 2009 SWC season, Biaggo took the podium nine times, including a race win at Brno.


That was just the start.


In 2010 Biaggi raced to no less than ten race wins on the Italian V4, and scored four other podium finishes to clinch the Superbike World Championship while Aprilia took the manufacturer's title.


A year later, it was as if Biaggi had lost his edge completely.  He started well enough, with two second places behind eventual champion Carlos Checa at Phillip Island, a track Biaggi had limited success at previously, but then the wheels fell off his title defence.  He was to score just two race wins that year, at Aragon and Brno, and finished a distant third in the championship.


In the off-season, there were rumours that his mechanics had quit, upset at Biaggi's behaviour toward them in the garages at various race circuits.  He had a new team around him at Phillip Island at the start of the 2012 season, and after winning the first race, he ran off in the first corner of the second to stage a come-from-behind charge that would take him all the way back up to second place at the chequered flag.  It was a stunning achievement and perhaps this gave Biaggi renewed confidence. 


CLIFF-HANGER

In one of the toughest season in the Superbike World Championship, Biaggi maintained the series lead for a big part of it, aided by a pair of wins at Misano and the first race victory at Aragon.  But at Moscow, he crashed out of the second race and title rival Marco Melandri won to take the series lead with three rounds remaining. 

Biaggi responded in the best possible manner - winning the very next race at Germany's Nurburgring, and, to the delight of the Italian factory, led home an Aprilia 1-2-3, while Melandri crashed his BMW.  Back in the title lead before the second race started, Biaggi gave Aprilia another fright when he crashed on a damp piece of crash in the second race.  However, he recovered the bike and restarted, eventually finishing 13th to grab three points that would ultimately prove vital to his championship aspirations.


With Melandri also crashing in the second race at the Nurburgring, Biaggi headed for the final two rounds with a slender 9.5 point championship lead over his fellow Italian, with Englishman Tom Sykes (Kawasaki) emerging as a third force.


After the penultimate round at Portimao, which saw Melandri crash out of contention in the first race and sustain kidney bruising that kept him out of race two, Biaggi was looking stronger.  His 4-3 tally for the weekend saw him lead the championship to the final round with a 30.5 point lead over Sykes.


But the Aprilia team had another moment of doubt when Biaggi crashed out of the first race at Magny Cours, cutting his championship lead over Sykes to just 14.5 points.  The championship now hinged on the final race.  If Sykes won, Biaggi had to get fifth or better to maintain his points lead.


Tom Sykes did what he had to do at the start of the final race. He shot into lead and stayed there to the end.  Biaggi meantime made a cautious start and was tenth at the end of the first lap but little by little he moved ahead, keeping the Aprilia pit crew on tenterhooks as he did so.  On a wet track Biaggi was taking no chances but just after half way through the 23 laps he made it to fifth place.  All he had to do was stay on, and maintain that placing and he was world champ.


He did, and he was, by just half a point over Sykes.


RETIREMENT 

Joking later, he said to Sykes, "maybe next year is your turn."

Few picked up on that at the time but in the days following when it was revealed he had not signed on again with Aprilia for 2012, the retirement rumours started.  Biaggi confounded those by turning up to a Pirelli test session at Aragon to test the new 17-inch tyres on the Aprilia, ending the day second fastest to Sykes on the Kawasaki.


But he still had not signed a contract for 2013, perhaps enjoying watching the press speculating as to his future.


But there had been inklings of retirement well before that.


In mid-August, three days prior to the first ever race at Moscow, Biaggi hinted he may retire at season's end. "This is the starting point," he said of the new Moscow track. "There can be many races here. Unfortunately I will not race longer," he said.


However, he ended any uncertainty about his intentions by calling a press conference at the Vallelunga race circuit near Rome where Biaggi first began motorcycle racing, at the age of 18. 


"I was a young guy who had nothing to do with the world of motorbikes, but something 'sparked' in me and what followed has been a kind of dream that has taken me a very long way."


Max Biaggi, looking more relaxed than anyone can remember, 
announces his retirement at Vallelunga, near Rome.
"I really wanted this press conference because today is an important moment for Biaggi as a person; he abandons this world as world champion, a man of sport, to make way for a Biaggi maybe very few people know really well," he said. 

"I chose Vallelunga because everything began here for me. It began by chance many years ago, a sort of magic world for a young guy who had absolutely nothing to do with the world of bikes.

"All of my life in the last twenty years has been part of a very contorted world, full of joy and difficult moments, ups and downs, but what made the real difference was the passion that has pushed me towards always giving my best and my all.  This passion for racing has taken me onto some great achievements.  I have had many companions along the way, but one that truly stands out is Aprilia, with whom together we have written some important chapters in racing history.  It was true love!  We got together, we left each other, we hitched up again...  And for this reason it is right and I am happy that I am retiring as world champion with Aprilia".

He revealed he had a contract ready to sign from Aprilia, and he still felt competitive, but he felt it was the right time to leave.  Many riders had been forced by injury to retire, but being able to leave while still healthy was an important factor, Biaggi said.

"It wasn't an easy decision to make, and last night was the longest night of my life.  For sure nothing will be the same as before but I am serene because it was a decision I wanted to make, not one I was forced into making.  In any case together with Aprilia we are discussing about a project in the not too distant future and I hope I will be able to give you some more information soon."

At 41 years of age, Max Biaggi, is the second oldest world road-racing champion.  The only man to win a world championship at a greater age was the late Fergus Anderson, who won the World 350 Championship in 1954 at the age of 45.