Reliable sources tell it like it was. Max Biaggi has been having a hard season. He’s been unhappy with the bike, unhappy with Honda and unable to win races or even appear consistently on the podium.
I had a brief interview with Max in Australia where he said at one point, “My problems are not because I have forgotten how to ride. The problem is the bike and the problem is Honda.” But then he realized that the interview was being recorded by an HRC PR
“minder” and backed away from the statement, cut short the interview and fled the scene.
Off the record he said enough to get him fired, I suppose, but what’s off the record is off the record, at least with me.
In Turkey he is said to have told his team what he thought of the bike in no uncertain terms and implied that he didn’t want to ride it again. That was enough for a Honda executive who called Japan. A couple of suits of Repsol Honda leathers appeared briefly in Valencia with the name Ukawa on them according to unimpeachable sources. Italian journalists had, by then, printed remarks very similar to those that I had been hearing “off the record.”
Honda officials denied that there was a problem with Max, but, in fact, Ukawa would have replaced Biaggi at Valencia had not IRTA (the International Racing Teams Association) objected that an uninjured rider could not be replaced on a whim.
Biaggi rode and although Honda executives denied that they had banned Biaggi from riding Honda machines in the future, it turns out that they ordered Sito Pons, who had been working for some time on bringing Max back into his Camel team in 2006, to refuse the ride to the four time 250 World Champion.
Pons couldn’t do that without losing Camel sponsorship so he appealed to HRC to accept Max and was refused. Thus Camel, determined to stay loyal to Max (who retained personal sponsorship for Camel even in the Repsol Honda team this year), announced in Valencia, long after sundown on race-day that without Max in the package they were leaving the Pons team.
All day long we had been hearing about this and fully expected either Honda to back down and accept Camel’s millions along with a repentant Biaggi as rider, or for Camel to back down and stay with a Pons team consisting of either Checa or Barros along with the 20-year-old Casey Stoner who had been linked to Tech3 Yamaha until it became clear that the Tech3 team had no sponsorship. (Yamaha now seems to have no young riders in training for the post-Rossi period and won’t be able to sign any unless they can run a second team).
In the worst-case scenario, we reasoned, Camel would sponsor the Suzuki team and Max would be a third rider. There was also the possibility that some kind of green and yellow canary color scheme could be worked out with Kawasaki and that Max could join Shinya Nakano and Randy de Puniet on the improving kwackers.