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Old 07-02-2015, 08:30 PM   #1
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Biaggi impresses, but knows his limitations

People rarely, if ever, forget their first love, and Max Biaggi is no exception. At age 44, the six-times world champion decided to put his helmet and leathers on and challenge his supposed heirs, though just for a weekend. Despite his early comments, his participation as a wild card in the Misano World Superbike round, however, was far from playful. The Roman duly prepared for the occasion, both on and off the track, and altered the status quo in the Italian Riviera, bringing fans, insiders and rivals back in time.

First, Biaggi unexpectedly posted the provisional best time in Friday's free practice. Then, he took fifth place in qualifying, missing the front row by only 21 thousandths of a second. Finally, he finished both races in sixth position, challenging the factory Aprilia riders—and many others—on equal ground.

“I felt so many emotions that I can feed on them for the next six months,” said Biaggi after the races. “I'm satisfied with my performance, but I could have done better. It's not just speed, as I've shown I'm still fast and consistent, but practice and mindset. I'm not nearly as aggressive or hungry as I used to be. I'm still a rider, just a friendly one (laughs).”

Regardless, Biaggi's performance gave a headache to most of the competition. The Roman had beaten factory Aprilia rider Jordi Torres in all sessions but FP3 and both races. Leon Haslam also had a hard time against his friend—both named one of their children after the other—preceding him by only a tenth of a second in Race One and still trailing in terms of best lap time during the race. “I've never seen Max so hungry,” commented Haslam. “He's a great benchmark to measure my own performance, but beating him was not my main target. If the opposite had happened, it would have been a chance to learn how to do my job better. Also, it's reassuring to see him so fast. It means I have a good 12 years left in my career, maybe I should ask my father (Ron, a former 500cc GP rider) to try to race again as well (laughs).”

Biaggi indeed had a few regulatory advantages to take advantage of, as wild cards can use two engines for just one race weekend (compared with seven for the whole season for permanent entries) and, consequently, unleash the horsepower without using limiters or generally worrying about durability. Nonetheless, Biaggi has shown an almost unaltered speed despite not participating in an official race for 986 days. “When I put the visor down, it's still me against everybody,” he said. “But, I have less weapons in my arsenal and twenty years more on my ID. Compared with the past, I'm sweet as sugar.”

Still, the Corsair (the moniker under which he's known among the Italian public) could not resist the Sirens' allure, hinting an insatiable need for speed and adrenaline. “The first year after retiring was worse,” he confessed. “Seeing the races from the outside (as a co-host for the Italian television), an unusual perspective for me, it was awkward. It's hard to give up a routine that you followed for 20 years. (Luca) Cadalora (one of Biaggi's main rivals in the lower classes during the two-stroke era) once told me: 'I used to wake and reach for my helmet, only to realize I was in bed at home.' I realized it's all true.”

To be able to come back at such a high level almost three years after winning his last title in Magny Cours by only half a point after a rollercoaster race may leave room for hesitance, or even regret. “I decided to dedicate myself entirely to my family, and I didn't change my mind,” he observed. “This race was first and foremost a celebration. An Italian rider, on an Italian bike, in front of the Italian fans. My wife was skeptical at first, she kept questioning me about my intentions, but then realized how serious I was. Only then she gave me her approval, which was very important to me, but left the kids at home. One day I'll show them what I used to do for a living (laughs).”

Throughout his career, Biaggi's trademarks, beyond speed, have been meticulousness and sensibility. In Misano, he did not make an exception, pushing himself and his crew into debrief sessions that stretched late into the night. “The new rules castrated Aprilia's performance,” he commented. “Now, the RSV4 is less fast and harder to setup. The new engine, in particular, has a lower positioning that makes the bike more difficult to handle in direction changes. Aprilia only decided to stay in WSBK in late November, and that's a good alibi, but Kawasaki and Ducati took advantage of that.”

Compared with the past, Biaggi's body language is more relaxed, his gaze and gestures calmer. The fire of competitiveness, however, still burns strong. “People change, even just subconsciously,” he said. “Since I became a test rider for Aprilia, I haven't crashed out. It means I still haven't found the limit. I'm not saying I took it easy but, the more you ride, the faster you go.”

Perhaps, this is why Biaggi and WSBK are currently working the fine print on a contract to make his race again in early August in Sepang. After all, if someone is born a rider, he will always be one.

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