“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” -- Niccolo Machiavelli
Max Biaggi is an enigma. The man they call the Roman Emperor is outwardly charming and friendly but is best known for his darker side -- a career punctuated by trackside punch-ups both public and private, a reputation of playing team politics for keeps and a proclivity to slag on his current employer in the press, an unfortunate trait that ultimately earned him the bum's rush out of the MotoGP Paddock.
At age 38 and with a new baby, Mad Max may have mellowed a bit off the track, but the drive and talent that saw the Italian take four 250cc world championships and three runner-up positions in the premiere class hasn't abated noticeably. With last year's move to Aprilia, Max gained a new lease on racing life on a machine that was widely regarded to have been designed, if not expressly for him, then with considerable imperial input. That lease was renewed yesterday with Biaggi's double win at Portimao, his first in WSBK and Aprilia's first since 2001, when Troy Corser did the deed at Valencia.
Last year's RSV4 was arguably the second biggest story in the WSBK paddock in 2009, and Noale looks to have improved the package for 2010. The knock against last year's machinery was that while the engine was among the most powerful on the grid, the handling, specifically getting the beast to turn, was not up to snuff. Although Biaggi managed a win at Brno and eight lesser podium spots, getting the RSV4 to go where he pointed it was a struggle at times as evidenced by the sometimes wonky, oddball lines that he was forced to run.
All that seems to have improved in 2010. The power is still there, even without the use of the controversial gear-driven valvetrain, as evidenced by the ease by which the big V-4 pulled the GSXR1000 of Leon Haslam down the start/finish straight to turn one at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve. What's new is the ability to get the Aprilia to go where the rider wants it to go. There were still moments where Biaggi ran wide or took a different line than the pack, but those could be ascribed to the ferocity of the battle at the front. Biaggi poo-pooed the idea that the prodigious power of the RSV4 was the determining factor in the double victory, citing instead the handling prowess that enabled him to get a drive off the last corner onto the home straight.
Both races were similar in beginning and end -- Biaggi got the holeshot at the start both times and battled tooth and nail, swapping leads with eventual second-place finisher Haslam most of the way to eventually take the win. The Pocket Rocket called his day "frustrating", citing a lack of grip from his Pirelli rear tire that kept him from that elusive "little extra" he needed to put Biaggi away. Polesitter Cal Crutchlow made a self-admiitted "stupid mistake" and crashed out of race one with three laps to go but atoned for his transgression in race two, holding off Althea Ducati's Carlos Checa to take the final step on the podium.
Going into the next round at Valencia, Haslam holds a 16 point advantage over Biaggi, a gap that is not nearly as comforting as it might seem, given the events that unfolded this weekend in Portugual. Biaggi reportedly has a series of four stars emblazoned on his leathers, supposedly standing for his four world championships, followed by a question mark that stands for the WSBK World Championship he'd like to attain this season. Although it's admittedly early days, if this weekend's racing was any indication, Biaggi's rivals for the championship will be forgiven for being afraid -- very afraid.