The comparisons are inevitable. Both are Italian; both are multitime world champions fighting for the MotoGP title, as well as the favor of the mercurial and powerful Italian press. Their every move is studied, forcing both to seek refuge in foreign countries. Max Biaggi has learned to live with it. Four consecutive 250cc world championships--a feat never before or since accomplished--and three premier-class runner-up finishes don't lessen the volume.
And yet Biaggi will forever be defined by Valentino Rossi.
Biaggi once had the affection of all of Italy. It was his face you saw on sports pages and advertisements, and cardboard cutouts of his likeness could be seen in Italian storefronts everywhere. After Biaggi took his Erv Kanemoto-tuned Honda NSR500 to the pole, fastest lap and victory in Suzuka, Japan, at the start of the 1998 season (his rookie year)--beating then four-time 500cc world champion Mick Doohan--the Italian's elevation to hero status was assured.
The following year Biaggi moved to Yamaha and finished third in the MotoGP championship. Rossi won the 250cc title in that same season after grabbing the attention of the racing fraternity with his jovial postrace celebrations during his 125cc world championship two years earlier. By that time, Rossi's star was ascendant, and it was clear Biaggi had a serious rival for the Italian spotlight. Helping Rossi's cause was the happy-go-lucky teenager's penchant for sticking around after press conferences to mingle with journalists, and he soon became the darling of the paddock media.
Rossi moved to the 500cc class in '00. After following his usual modus operandi of learning the first year (he finished second to Kenny Roberts Jr.), he then trounced the field to grab the final 500cc world title in '01. Rossi has won every premier-class title since then.
Biaggi cannot win the war. Battles can be won, but winning public adoration and support can be a long, arduous and often fickle campaign. With his gaudy cache of five titles, Rossi is being compared to Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini as the best ever. Biaggi may beat him once or twice, but it would take a lot for the tide to swing back. Rossi's win in the season-opening South African GP this year brought new superlatives.
In a bold--and some thought foolhardy--move, Rossi had walked away from Honda after winning the '03 MotoGP title and gone to Yamaha. The company embraced Rossi and his team, and together they've transformed the much-maligned YZR-M1, the descendant of the first M1 Biaggi rode in '02. Somehow Rossi has transcended the bike's problems, to the surprise and dismay of his rivals, including Biaggi. "I was thinking it was more difficult, but then when I saw during the test that he was consistently fast, I realized that he can be fast all the time," confides Biaggi.
The irony is that Biaggi is partly responsible for Rossi's success. He and John Kocinski did much of the prerace development testing on the M1. The initial version was flawed, as can be expected. They both made suggestions that almost always went unheeded.
"I can tell you now without hair on my tongue," Biaggi begins, using an Italian vernacular for telling the truth, "that John [Kocinski] told me with no secret that he tests one year and from first moment to the last moment he tests they just did changes to the heaviness of the crankshaft, they change maybe five, six, seven times, but he ask for power difference or power delivery. He says to me, they never do anything." So Kocinski left, and it was a loss for Yamaha, Biaggi believes. "I think people can say John was a little bit different or difficult, but as a rider, I think there is not many like him out there. I can put my hand on the fire. I know what he can do."
The chassis was already good when Rossi moved from Honda. The Japanese engineers told Biaggi Rossi uses "almost the same of what [I] used." In '03, the Yamaha's main problem was its engine characteristic, and from the first test in '02, that's what Biaggi wanted to change. "We ask and ask and ask. When Rossi got there, he have the [revised firing order] engine to test and he said was much better. He had four chassis to test. We ask them so much, but we couldn't get what we ask them." When he follows Rossi, which is often, Biaggi sees that Rossi can pick up the throttle early in the corner while still leaned over. "It's very smooth, very easy to open earlier than the previous Yamaha."
The respect accorded Rossi is evident in his staff's size. "If you check how many people there are, there've never been this many," Biaggi says, a hint of jealousy in his voice. "How many Japanese people from Yamaha? So many. That means they try to win so bad."
Biaggi and Rossi both downplay the level of their personal competition, but neither is convincing for long. Biaggi includes Sete Gibernau, the only other MotoGP championship contender, among his rivals. "But the main one I think is Rossi, and it's important, it's a kind of goal. Now he's winning the championship, so he's the fastest, the winning guy. So I want to try to put my wheel in front of him.
"It's only a professional relationship, and during the press conference or working, but there is no relationship. It's just riders, like him, like me, then both of these two try to win and we try to go for our own way. To me there's no doubt he's a talented guy, that's for sure. That's also one of the things that makes me excited to prove my talent." Rossi has said he doesn't get more motivated to beat Gibernau, who he thinks is the better rider.
Still, no matter how well Biaggi rides, he cannot change the fact that he's not a factory rider. After Yamaha didn't re-sign him for '03, Biaggi was left out in the cold until finally landing in the Camel Pramac Honda satellite team run by Sito Pons. Repsol Honda's Alex Barros and Nicky Hayden, and possibly Gibernau, are ahead of him in the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) pecking order. HRC senior management rarely trumpets who gets what parts, for obvious reasons; they recently said that won't change, even though Biaggi and Gibernau are fighting for the world championship, while Hayden and Barros are fifth and sixth in points. Honda's contract with Spanish oil giant Repsol mandates that it supplies the first development parts to the Repsol team.
That team lost its direction when Rossi convinced crew chief Jeremy Burgess and most of his staff to follow him to Yamaha. Hayden doesn't have the experience to lead and Barros doesn't have the talent. A poll last year of the MotoGP paddock convinced Michelin to build a rear tire with more edge grip. When the season began, all the Honda riders struggled with a persistent front-end chatter brought on by the wider tire. A new frame and swingarm sorted that out, but not everyone has the new chassis--Gibernau's teammate Colin Edwards has been vocal about his status--and it takes several races for new parts to trickle down.
"Me and Gibernau tested this stuff like swingarm, suspension," Biaggi said of the early season tests in Spain, both of which were plagued by bad weather. "Maybe during the tests it was very easy to see that we had some problem and there maybe was time to change something. But unfortunately we only make one test and that test was wet. So not really time. And we had this surprise and the only guy that take advantage was Rossi, who did a great job, of course, but also we weren't 100 percent right away."
Actually, chassis issues have taken something of a back seat to the engine and electronics in the four-stroke era. "The [two-stroke] engine didn't make so much difference as the four-stroke," he said. "You have the engine brake is the first thing, on deceleration. You can have a lot of electronics make it easier to go into the turn. I can say 500 was more--how you say?--more up to the rider. The four-stroke is more up to the technology. I say this already two years ago, that with the four-stroke technology, we are going in the Formula One way. And even if you always beat someone next to you on brakes, if you have better system on deceleration it can make you feel ridiculous, and not because he learned how [to brake better], but just because he's got a better [slipper clutch] package to go into the corner faster. It gets very frustrating.
"It's like for example when you start launch control. If you have better kind of launch control, you can start much better. Doesn't matter if you're good or not with the clutch anymore. We are going in this area. And of course the rider is always important, but it's not as important as before."
Some doubt Biaggi's ability to develop a motorcycle because they believe he continues to ride the big bike like a 250, with an overreliance on high cornering speed leading to less control when the tires fade. Biaggi disagrees, as does Kenny Roberts Sr. "If Max ever fell off, 90 percent of the time he'd lose the front," he said. The upside, Roberts says, is that he has exceptional feel and throttle control. "When the back tire goes off, he may be better because of his corner speed."
"When I went from 250 to 500," Biaggi recalls, "I was the best 500cc non-factory rider out there. That means that was the only way to ride--to go as fast as the factory riders because nobody can do but me.
"Always was my strongest part, was when the tires go away. I'll never forget, 500 my first race, everybody was saying in Japan, `Oh Max, so much corner speed. For sure, the last 10 laps when the tires start to move around he will be lost.' It didn't happen. The bike was shaking and moving, but I keep my lap times. Slower, but still I got that advantage."
Spinning the tire brings unwanted temperatures. When he and the spin-happy Carlos Checa were teammates, Biaggi's times were better from the middle to the end of the race. "In Supermoto," says Biaggi, referring to the hybrid sport that combines dirt and pavement racing on refitted big-bore motocrossers, "you have to spin if you want to go. But then I spin less; of course visually, you've got to spin, but I make the wheel spin with less inertia and just pushing. So I feel I have more traction. If you speak with the Michelin guys, they will tell you the same. Anyway, I think it is an advantage at the end of the race."
Other than his old 250 habits dying hard, the other knock on Biaggi is that he sometimes rides dirty. Nicky Hayden said Biaggi made a point of cutting across his front tire in the first practice of most races his rookie year. Hayden dismissed it as kid's stuff, nothing like dealing with the established AMA dirttrack boys on a National shorttrack. Neil Hodgson was taken down in a final turn crash during practice in Brno. As the Brit was starting to accelerate, Biaggi swooped into Hodgson's path after belatedly deciding to pit. "I looked on the data and I was doing just over 100 mph because it is third gear and you are already lighting the rear up at that point," a bruised and battered Hodgson said. The live television feed showed Hodgson angrily confronting Biaggi in the Camel Honda pits. "He was lucky that we are in this situation because I know all the cameras were on me when I was in his garage, so it stopped me from doing something really, really stupid," Hodgson said. Biaggi was contrite, blaming it on gear problems. An indignant Hodgson asked, "`Do you realize how fucking beaten up I am?' I accepted his apology, but I just wanted him to understand that you can't go around doing shit like that because people are going to get hurt." Afterward, Hodgson was besieged by riders claiming Biaggi had done the same to them. "Sete said he's done it a couple of times with some really silly moves," Hodgson said. "It's not like he's a rookie, he's been doing this for a while."
Despite all the turmoil surrounding him, Biaggi shrugs it off and continues to fight hard for a factory seat, which he feels is a necessary component in a title charge. "For sure it is coming better, but as you know, the factory team always have something more," he said. "It's the little things, they've always had this. It doesn't matter which year or where. Because now [Rossi] change to Yamaha, someone at Yamaha is working 120 percent. Never did in the past. Not even when Wayne Rainey was winning, I believe. I was thinking in the past when Rainey was winning, they didn't put in the effort that they're doing now. Of course, you need to deserve this, but he always had. Doesn't matter where. The 250 was the same. Basically, it's already difficult to be the guy who is very talented, but if you always have little things less, it makes it more difficult. But this year is not ended and maybe something can change. That's my only hope."