The Fate of a Roman Emperor
by dean adams
Thursday, November 08, 2012

Max Biaggi. Racer.
image thanks yamaha

Italian Max Biaggi, a six time world champion, announced his retirement from racing yesterday in Italy. This ends the career of one of the purest racers to ever slide on a pair of leathers. Just as unforgiving as he was talented, Biaggi saw his job as a rider to win races and championships and stopped at nothing to attain success. Max was the holy trinity of motocycle racers: fast, smooth and confident.

Max Biaggi's persona of "the Roman Emperor" was not just a nickname bestowed on him because of his hometown—Rome. No, Max was as close as a racer will come to the to the true personification of someone who could rule an empire. Inside every rider there is a belief that he and he alone is the most important part of a racing team but sometimes that belief gets whitewashed in PR doublespeak, but with Biaggi it never did. How would Nero, Augustus, or Caligula have been if they had raced? Probably exactly the way Biaggi was—aloof, unrelenting, self-assured and giving off the air that if things went wrong, unfortunately, everyone responsible was going to have to die. He softened a bit in the end but, for most of his career, Biaggi was not a man who accepted a mistake by anyone on his side of the garage. It wasn't that he didn't accept the mistake easily—he didn't accept them at all.

Where did this intense little man originate? Rossi, Lorenzo, and Hayden are second generation racers, taught by their fathers at an early age to race. But Biaggi never touched a racing motorcycle until his late teens. He did not grow up with posters of Marco Lucchinelli or Virginio Ferrari on his wall. Prior to discovering bikes, Max was a driven and talented football player in Rome. Someone gave him a motorcycle when he was 17 and he decided to try racing. He ascended to the Aprilia factory team quickly and then it was almost like watching a tragedy play out in front of your own eyes. Biaggi was young and fast and got results, essentially assassinating every one of the elder statesmen riders in the Aprilia system; Loris Reggiani, Frankie Chili and others were iced by Max's ability to win races and championships. Max put Aprilia on the map in Grand Prix racing.

As a racer, Max wasn't a huge personality with an only occasional ability to win, no, not at all. Max was first and foremost a rider. Biaggi won four 250 titles on the trot in the 1990s and then moved to the 500cc class. While then multi-time world champion Eddie Lawson predicted that a smaller stature rider like Biaggi would be "pulling straw out of his ass for a week" after he crashed a fearsome 500 the first time he raced it, Biaggi seemingly didn't recognize that riders like Lawson existed. He set pole and fastest lap in his first 500cc GP and convincingly won the race. Winning at his first try was to become a Biaggi trait.

Biaggi didn't ride a motorcycle until he turned 17. Not that many years later he signed to race for the factory Honda team. He was already a three time world champion.
image thanks, Honda

Max won four 250 titles and two WSBK titles, credentials any rider would be happy to retire with on his resume. The thing is, perhaps the most impressive facet of Biaggi's career aren't championships. It was his period as a factory Yamaha rider. Biaggi raced—and won on—the Yamaha 500cc GP bike (from 1999-2001) and was competitive on the first Yamaha MotoGP bike (2002), which was either barely a Superbike or a machine built by persons who forgot to fully read the rule book before building the bike (since it had carburetors and was built well under the engine capacity limit of 990cc). No matter, Biaggi won races on it and the M1 remains the GP bike he remembers most fondly of any he ever rode. Really? The Yamaha? It's just typical Max that exactly what you'd expect him to say is the exact opposite of what he will say.

The last third of Max Biaggi's GP career will forever be remembered for his rivalry with Valentino Rossi, The Rossi rivalry made great headlines and back stories, including, of course, their punch up while they walked to the podium after the Catalan Grand Prix . But Max was already an anti-hero before Rossi came on the scene and because of that he really didn't require or receive much sympathy at any point in his career. That's just the nature of the beast, or emperor, if you will. It wasn't that Max was solemn and angst-filled on race day, Max seemed to be made of angst all the time, every day.

Max was forced to come to terms with the difference between a true racer and a charismatic racer. He was forced to accept, grudgingly, that pop culture wanted a racer who was very fast and also a sort of funny gameshow host, exactly what Max was not.
If one examines the Rossi phenomenon from Max's perspective, it lends understanding to the schism. What is a rider's job, ultimately? To win races and win titles. Max Biaggi won four 250 world championships on two different makes of bikes. He switched to the 500 class and won races, and continued to win after the class changed to four-stroke, again on two different makes. So, even before Rossi came to the 500 class, Biaggi had done his job very well. In Italy he should have been the toast of the town—a veritable legend like Giacomo Agostini. In his prime, when Agostini was driving his signature flash car, people would actually pull over and let him pass if they recognized his car. And he could be assured of a table immediately in any restaurant he chose.

It didn't work that way for Max. Instead, while Biaggi was winning races and championships, a goofy-looking kid from one of the hill towns in Italy was coming through the ranks stealing Biaggi's thunder and then some. The social dynamic and Italian-based caste system is difficult to understand if you don't live there, but people from the hill towns or from the south of Italy are regarded by those in the more cosmopolitan Milan, Rome and Venice as—putting the best spin on it—earthy hippies. They call them "terrones". Being a child who grew up unconventionally, with hippy parents, was part of Rossi's charm. Fans responded to his antics and charisma, and he became a racing heartthrob, first and always in Italy, and then throughout the entire world.

For Biaggi, initially, this Rossi behavior just seemed in poor taste. One does not mug and wave to the cameras; one only smiles if one wins the race and by a decent margin too. One does not bring friends to the track and go hang out between sessions, laughing endlessly like they'd just had their first beers. If Max ever brought friends to the track he kept them hidden. Does a racer perform some kind of loose vaudeville act on the cool-off lap, complete with costumes and signs? Ah, no. Cool off laps were there so people could understand that Max had just kicked the ass of every rider who came to the grid that afternoon. He was photographed with a Supermodel and came to the track via private helicopter. He was a rider.

Ben Bostrom was in Italy when the Rossi phenomenon was just coming on pipe and he remembers that in a matter of months Rossi went from being a well-known racer to a major Italian media sensation. Bostrom said that Rossi was "like a rock star" but later qualified that description by saying it didn't ring true, because Rossi was bigger, almost overnight, than any rock star.

Biaggi now says of his rivalry with Rossi: 'I tried to slay a giant.'
image: wolf jay

Rossi was clearly very good on the track and had the charisma aspect handled as well, but either he or someone advising him—or call it fate—knew that for a compelling second act, he needed an enemy. At some point, Biaggi was designated as the villain in the Rossi saga, probably after circumstances could suggest to an observer that Max tried to kill Rossi on track. Max doesn't talk about it very often or in depth, but if you press him, ask him if he truly hated Rossi he will emphatically say "yes".

So put yourself in Max Baiggi's shoes for this. He's done his job; he has won four world championships and won races in the top class of motorcycle racing. Yet, suddenly, Max cannot walk down the street in Italy without seeing a life-sized poster of Rossi, turn on the TV without seeing Rossi mug for the camera on an Italian talk show, or see the TV news run a clip of Rossi before they talk about what the president of Italy did that day. Rossi was everywhere: on the radio, in magazines and in shop windows. Dorna saw that they had a real cash machine on their hands and did everything they could to promote Rossi at the track. So the weird looking kid from the hill town became inescapably omnipresent in Max's life. Max was forced to come to terms with the difference between a true racer and a charismatic racer. He was forced to accept, grudgingly, that pop culture wanted a racer who was very fast and also a sort of funny gameshow host, exactly what Max was not. After this onslaught, Max stayed at his place in Monte Carlo for longer periods and then bought a house in California where he'd spend winters. There were a variety of reasons he did so, but the lack of Rossi-mania in those two locales can't be understated.

On the other side of the generation gap, Biaggi wasn't great at forging relationships with older riders. He didn't have rider posters on his childhood bedroom wall, and at times you had to wonder if he knew anything about the history of the sport at all. But that was Max. His job, as he probably saw it, was to ride at a level that put those old fossils into whatever museum would take them. Hence, there wasn't a horse-mounted cavalry of elder statesman Italian riders coming to Biaggi's defense in the Rossi media battle. Even the racing aristocrat—and a trust fund rider if there ever was one-—Agostini, said on Italian TV once that Max was "too old" and that he should retire. This was in 2002.

Frankly, Max didn't have a lot of support anywhere as the Rossi battle grew. While Rossi had both friends and pets in the press, Max once walked into a media center somewhere with a magazine in his hand, and he found the person who had written something about Max that Max didn't agree with. The situation ended with Max slapping the scribe's laptop on the table and suggesting he get another job.

Biaggi in the garage. It's not that hard to imagine him watching as underlings feed Christians to the lions.
image: wolf jay

Max Biaggi would not agree with this assessment, but at some point late in his GP career, he probably began a descent into something like madness. Racing in a world enclosed with Rossi posters and Rossi fans, Max retreated into himself and when he came out from behind those sunglasses, his attitude wasn't always flattering. He was at war with everyone—Rossi and the rest, of course, but even with his own crew and representatives of the manufacturers. Normally very reserved Yamaha MotoGP race boss Lin Jarvis jokes now that the stress of having Jorge Lorenzo and Rossi under the same garage roof for multiple seasons was nothing compared to just one season of Max Biaggi. Seething with anger and frustration, Biaggi would call his crewchief, Erv Kanemoto, at home in the middle of the night, trying to vent it all out. More than once, Erv was sleeping and Erv's father, Harry, then something north of 80 years old, answered the phone. Biaggi would seethe and vent, either not knowing or caring that it was Harry, not Erv, on the other end of the phone.

Biaggi ended his Yamaha career, according to one of his mechanics, not speaking to his crewchief and several members of his team. In 1999, Biaggi returned to Honda, where he had won one of his four 250 titles, riding first with the Pons/Camel satellite team and later replacing Rossi on the Repsol Honda MotoGP team. Max won GPs on the Camel Pons satellite bike and it was expected that he could replicate what Rossi had done on the Honda RC211V—winning the title in undefeatable style, with nine race wins (even with a ten second penalty at Phillip Island) and showcasing Honda's technology. He was given Rossi's place on the factory team and had Erv Kanemoto as crewchief. Expectations were high.

But Max could not replicate what Rossi had done on the V5. Insiders say that the situation was exacerbated by Biaggi's suspicion that other Honda riders up and down the pit lane were adopting his set-up after his crew had entered the numbers in the team's computer. To combat this, Max would keep his final race set-up to himself and not share it with anyone, even his own crew, until just before the race.

Throughout his career, Biaggi rode—and lived—like he was the only rider on the track. He is, of course, the one who told riders who complained about the way he rode that this was motorcycle racing, not ballroom dancing. On track, Biaggi rode like a Roman Emperor. His now infamous mid-corner chop—having his rear wheel or bike come across the front wheel of any bike behind him—didn't pour the foundation for new bridges with other riders. Earl Hayden says that once he was sitting in Nicky's motorhome at a Jerez pre-season test when he heard a commotion outside—pounding on the wall of the motorhome. He walked outside expecting to find Spanish fans wanting to see Nicky, but instead found Nick with Max Biaggi pinned to the bus, warning him never to chop his front wheel again or the Kentuckian would give him a beating he would not forget. It bears mentioning that they were teammates and this was before the racing season had even started.

Max Biaggi's 2005 season was a complete disaster. Even under the best of circumstances—like when he won nine of fifteen 250 races—Biaggi could be demanding, cut-throat and combative, but by mid-season 2005 his team and Biaggi were at odds. By the end of the season he was as alone in the world as Robinson Crusoe was on that island. Reportedly, after the season closed, Honda said that Biaggi was free to ride any MotoGP bike, as long as it wasn't a Honda. To make matters worse for Biaggi, Rossi had won the world championship for the second time on the M1 Yamaha and now the entire planet was gripped by Rossi mania. Biaggi went home.

Spending a season away from the track, and with his girlfriend, Eleonora Pedron, a former Miss Italy, seemed to be the first step in re-setting Biaggi's neuro pathways. He wintered in California, riding his Honda Supermoto bike every day he could, or spending time talking to his neighbors, or just chatting with people in Starbucks. He met people who had never heard of Max Biaggi or MotoGP,. Biaggi never brought up that he was a major player in European racing. It would be an exaggeration to say that 2006 is the year that Max Biaggi learned to be a human again, but that was when people who knew him sensed that he'd actually learned to relax. Writer Eric Johnson mentioned that while Max was in California that they had been hanging out and that he and Biaggi were friends. This struck me, because I had never before heard anyone describe their relationship with Max as "friends".

A different, happier, perhaps more human Max Biaggi debuted in WSBK.
image: suzuki

Max Biaggi didn't race in 2006, but racing was still on his mind. He had offers from WSBK teams to race their bikes--and came close to racing for Alstare Suzuki several times that season but it never happened. Unable to decide what he should do with his future, Biaggi actually reached out to others and asked for advice. This was a period in which people who never expected to hear from Max again did so. Italian Michele Morisetti, who had previously worked with Biaggi as his press man, noticed an odd incoming number on his mobile phone that summer and picked up. It was Biaggi. "I am thinking about racing for Batta in WSBK, what do you think?" he asked. Morisetti was almost too shocked to answer. Not shocked by the question, but that Max had called him. Moreover, by some reports, Biaggi and WSBK kingpin Paolo Flammini were talking on the phone every day, trying to come up with a deal that would see Biaggi race WSBK. Soon after Alstare and Suzuki announced a deal for Biaggi to join the team in 2007.

Whereas in MotoGP he was unhireable, World Superbike teams and the series organizers wanted Biaggi. They were respectful and bent over backwards to get him to join the series. WSBK were, by and large, in awe that someone like Max Biaggi was considering joining them. When he did, they watched as he found his way in the highly informal WSBK paddock.

This was perhaps the first backwards fall in Biaggi's career, at least from a technological standpoint. He'd went from works Aprilia 250 to factory Honda 250s to works Yamaha 500s then factory Yamaha MotoGP and then to the factory Honda MotoGP team, each instance the bikes under him improving. Now he'd go from carbon brakes and a prototype engine to steel brakes and a production engine. Handmade Michelins to mushy WSBK tires. Could Max even do this, some wondered? In very typical-for-Biaggi form, he won the very first WSBK race he entered.

In the next six seasons Biaggi won the WSBK championship twice and became a much richer man, literally and figuratively.

Max was never going to be gregarious and empathetical—it just wasn't in his nature. Biaggi still sat stoically in the garage wearing those sunglasses, but on the podium he actually offered his hand in congrats to riders that had defeated him, and even pushed out a dry smile when he finished third. He still waged a low level war with some of the people who employed him, and could be impetuous, but there was now a human side to it. Francis Batta probably never came closer to a heart attack than when Max told him if he wanted a MotoGP rider on his team for 2008 then he should be prepared to pay a MotoGP salary. Max slapped Marco Melandri across the face after Superpole once, but apologized afterward. When Max's crewchief quit at the beginning of the 2012 season for reasons unrelated to Biaggi, Max called the guy and tried to lure him back.

Typical Italian race scene: Max talks to the press as hundreds watch his every move.
image: paolo scalera

Max has two children now and is more apt to talk about kids than he is racing. He's not warm and cuddly, but once, at the end of the day at Portima, I walked in the dark to find my car and found Biaggi huddled over his scooter talking casually to a group of people. At first I assumed that his scooter had run out of gas, but Biaggi was just enjoying the moment, talking and joking with fans. That this was the same tormented soul from 2005 was amazing to me.

Back then, Biaggi was one of those riders that you worry about after racing. They drift along, find nothing to replace the intensity of the racing life and begin a gradual downward spin into obscurity. Lacking normal life coping mechanisms, they seem unable to maintain relationships and everything just begins to crash. But Max is pretty grounded now; still a perfectionist and doesn't suffer fools very well; however not every set back pulls the lever on an eventual nuclear winter.

Even with four 250 titles and two WSBK titles to his credit, Biaggi will be forever linked with Valentino Rossi, their on-track battles, their handbag fights in the press, the fist-fight at Barcelona and the rest. Whereas it used to be a sore subject to bring up "46" around Max, now, Biaggi, if a friend or a fan asks him about Rossi, Max will just shake his head and say, "Yeah, I tried to slay a giant once ...".


Share |

Return to News


©1997-2016 Hardscrabble Media LLC