For a Japanese racer, Haga-san is something of an enigma. Most Japanese riders toe the company line and have the personality of a wet fish, beaten into submission by years of corporate sponsorship brainwashing. Haga is a refreshing change, with a superb sense of humor.
See him on the television before a race and he is totally committed to the job at hand. Try and get a word out of him before a race or qualifying session and, at best, you will be greeted with a curt nod. No smiles, no jokes, no playing around-a pure, single-minded focus on the task before him.
But once that is over and done with, Haga is open, friendly and ready to talk to you all day and night about his passion-riding motorcycles hard and fast!
When he arrived on the World Superbike scene in 1998, the world just saw him as another flash-in-the-pan, another kamikaze Japanese rider ready to upset the apple cart for one round, drift back into the lower top 10 positions and then back to Japan. How wrong could they be? Three years later Haga is still here, still looking out-of-shape but incredibly fast. Then in 2000, Haga had a chance at the championship.
But where does such a rider come from? What molded him into the type of racer he is today? What are his goals and plans for each race and the future? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Haga-san.
Sport Rider: When did you start to race?
Noriyuki Haga: I started to ride pocket bikes when I was four years old. [Pocket bikes, also known as Mini-Motos, are a small chain saw, two-stroke engine in a tiny chassis. You could fit three of these in the trunk of your average car, with room to spare.] My father bought me the first bike and we went racing every Sunday and enjoy the pocket bikes.
SR: Which pocket bike did you start riding?
NH: Er, a Jackson. Yes Jackson-30cc. Plenty powerful for a four-year-old! Quick enough.
SR: When you first started to race these pocket bikes, did you win straight away?
NH: No, I did not feel it was serious racing. It was more for fun. For the second year, sometime I win some race but I don't remember what position for many races. It was long time ago.
SR: How long did you stay on the pocket bikes before moving on to a different class?
NH: I rode these until I was 10 years old. Then, I moved on to minibike. These were 50cc. But it was impossible. I didn't have a license, so I had to wait three years before I could race them. So for three years I raced radio-controlled cars. It was much fun.
At 13, I moved to minibikes, but my birthday is March 2. So already the season start. The championship is going, so I not do all races.
[At the tender age of 15, when most of us are looking to our first girlfriend and moving on to the next school, Haga was concentrating on the next level of competition in Japan, the Sport Production series.]
SR: And from there?
NH: Sport Production, on a Honda NSR250. And then I got second in my first race at Suzuka. Because of my age I could only do four races toward the end of the season.
After the next season starts I get sponsorship from a company called Daytona. I had moved on to a Yamaha TZR250. Daytona are Japanese accessory company-now very big.
SR: Was it a big step from the NSR?
NH: No, the NSR was pleasure, but the TZR, with sponsorship deal, was more serious. Not difficult, but more serious.
SR: When did you move into the next class?
NH: 1993. The series start '92, but it was a beginner class. But I was too quick, so they moved me into the serious category.
I rode a TZ250 in 1993. It was now real racing on proper bikes, not like the TZR. Of the four races I won three, but one of the races was canceled because there was a big accident and one of the riders was killed.
SR: Did that put you off racing?
NH: No. If it had, I would not be here now. I would not have this type of job anymore. Then I moved to the All Japan Championship on the TZ, in the 250 class
SR: How long did you stay in the All Japan Championships?
NH: Five years-'93, '94, '95, '96, '97. 1993 is 250 class. '94 move Superbike class, start Superbike riding. So, I'm riding Ducati bike. So, '95 move Yamaha YZF with some kit parts. Not factory bike. '96 still Yamaha but bike with more kit parts. Special bike. '97 I sign factory deal so I'm getting factory bike. So, '97 I [became] Champion and move to WSB Superbike in '98.
SR: How do you compare the competition from the All Japan series to the World Superbike and who was your main rival in Japan, and now here, in WSB?
NH: In Japan, my biggest rival was rider called Sono. In the World Superbikes I don't think I have any rivals. [There are] many rival companies to Yamaha though. I find riding here more competitive than in Japan.
SR: Do you enjoy the Suzuka 8-Hour?
NH: Yeah. But of course, after race always very tired. But if we win, if, BIG money coming!I was so disappointed this year, winners gets much prize, that money was mine! Unfortunately we lose [much] time with crash.
SR: On the R7, you have spent a lot of time on both Dunlop and Michelin. Which tire do you prefer?
NH: I'm liking Yamaha R7 now. Last year I try Michelins, but not so good. The R7 was a new bike last year and I had different tires-the combination didn't work out very well. I have ridden for long time on Dunlops in Japan but I think that the Michelins really were not the best for the Yamaha.
Because the main difference between the Dunlop and Michelin is the turning; the Dunlops turn better for me and seem to work much better on the R7. I think the Michelin is a good tire but maybe not for the Yamaha.
SR: You can hold a tight line, tighter than most other riders. How can you do this?
NH: I have to ride much better in corners, particularly at fast tracks like Hockenheim [in Germany] and Monza [in Italy]. My only hope is to keep as close as possible to other riders because Yamaha [doesn't] have [as much] top speed. I have to make [it] up in infield sections. I can ride faster in the corners. This is what I did to [Colin] Edwards to win [a spectacular pass just before the final corner at Hockenheim, in an area where it was previously thought nearly impossible to overtake]. It was the only place I could win.
SR: When you set your bike up, what is most important to you, traction, steering or stability?
NH: All of them! Suspension setting is the only part of the R7 I can be responsible for. It is my decision, I cannot make decision for power. I like to set the bike up for steering. I need wide possibilities. I need to know I can use different lines because not always possible to make the line you want and sometimes you lose [the] line and have to be able to turn the bike and make a different line.
SR: What is the worst point of the R7?
NH: [Pauses for a few seconds, then answers with a sly smile, followed by a bellowing laugh.] Fuel consumption!
SR: In 1998, you rode at Suzuka on a 500 GP bike. Would you like to go back to 500?
NH: No. I don't like riding two-stroke. The four-stroke feeling is much better for me and my style of riding. So, also like riding in the WSB, it is more like me [than] the GP is. I would like to see only one race in the WSB though. Two heats uses too much of my brain power and I would like to be old and collect my pension without having a withered brain from thinking about riding two heats every weekend. Too much brain shortens my pension life.
SR: What are your feelings on the ephedrine controversy?
NH: If I had wanted to cheat and use ephedrine, if it made for better riding, then I would have taken a lot more and used a much stronger one!
We were using a diet supplement, but we did not know that there was ephedrine in it. There was nothing [about it] on the packet. Now I am a specialist in medicines since the tests. I have had many tests and know much more about the different drugs. Do you think that if Troy [Corser] took ephedrine he would be more faster?
After I was tested, many riders [are lining up] at the medical center and asking if they had a cold or an injury, what [medicine] they could take. Many riders now do not take medicines because they fear the tests. This is not good because maybe they need to have the medicines to make them better.
It is the one thing we find very difficult. As a privateer you never watch what you are eating or what there is in a diet supplement. [There isn't] testing in Japan, so we find this very difficult. Does this testing mean we should have a doctor with us and the team to make sure we are not going to eat the wrong things?
The FIM want to test us now between races and in the off-season. This is very hard and seems very strange to us. How can drugs make us faster? We are not runners, we ride motorcycles.
2000: 2nd, Superbike World Championship
1999: 7th, Superbike World Championship
1998: 6th, Superbike World Championship
1997: All Japan Superbike Champion; 13th, Superbike World Championship
1996: 8th, All Japan Superbike Championship; Won Suzuka 8-Hour Endurance race
1995: 10th, All Japan Superbike Championship
1994: 9th, All Japan Superbike Championship
1993: 13th, 250cc All Japan National Championship
1992: 2nd, Kanto Regional Championship SP250 class
This article originally appeared in the February 2001 issue of Sport Rider.