Two of the greatest Roman gladiators return home to their very own Colosseum, the Mugello Autodromo, this weekend. Nestling between those green Tuscan Hills, Max Biaggi and Valentino Rossi take centre stage once again. Biaggi to be inducted into the MotoGP™ Legends Hall of Fame, Rossi to herald the retirement of his legendary number 46 from Grand Prix racing. Thirteen Grand Prix World titles and 157 Grand Prix victories between them but there is so much more to this story.
After an alleged argument in a restaurant when Biaggi was 250cc World Champion and teenager Rossi was on his way up, they fell out. That is putting it lightly. They fell out big time to produce a rivalry the sport has never witnessed before or after
It was such a bitter personal feud that spilled out way beyond the confines of a racetrack. Two high-profile gladiators who really did not like each other and were happy to admit it to everyone. Both were brilliant riders and World Champions. Both were super confident and proud with Italian temperaments. Something had to give. In the past there had been Read and Ivy, Rainey and Schwantz, more recently Rossi and Marquez, but this all-Italian gladiatorial duel witnessed by tens of millions was something else.
Who could forget the 220kph collision between the two of them racing down the main straight at Suzuka in 2001? Five Grands Prix later, Biaggi was dabbing a cut over his eye in the after-race media conference after finishing second to Rossi in Barcelona. He claimed he had been stung by a mosquito but others felt an altercation on the steps from the podium may have been the cause. Who could forget the battle of Welkom in 2004? Rossi’s making his debut for Biaggi’s former employers at Yamaha and winning by just 0.210s from his bitter rival.
Biaggi deserved to win a 500cc World title but perhaps he arrived in the premier class at the wrong time. After winning 29 Grands Prix and four successive 250cc World titles, his long-awaited arrival in the premier class was sensational. He became only the sixth rider in the history of the sport to win on his debut at Suzuka in 1998. Surely the next step was the World title? But despite 12 more wins it was never to be. So much was down to the arrival of the 125 and 250cc World Champion, Rossi, on the scene
His biggest chance came in that first year in 1998. Biaggi was leading the Championship with three rounds remaining and crossed the line at Barcelona in first place only to be disqualified for ignoring a black flag. He finished runner-up to a fired-up Mick Doohan, who won the last four races. Two more runner-up spots and three third places followed but Rossi was now in charge. Biaggi departed to World Superbikes and had great success.
Rossi loved beating Biaggi almost as much as winning World titles. Riding with that legendary 46, which had been his father Graziano’s racing number. he followed up the 125 and 250cc World titles with seven premier class crowns thanks to 89 wins on both Honda and Yamaha machinery. Only eight other riders in the 74-year history of Grand Prix racing have had their race numbers retired from the entry lists: Kevin Schwantz (34) and Loris Capirossi (65), while Jason Dupasquier (50), Luis Salom (39), Shoya Tomizawa (48), Daijiro Kato (74), Marco Simoncelli (58) and Nicky Hayden’s (69) race numbers were withdrawn in a tribute to their memory.
Biaggi and Rossi return to receive their well-deserved accolades this weekend. All those centuries ago the Colosseum in Rome would have been proud of those racetrack battles. The only thing that was missing in their own modern-day gladiatorial contests, there were no lions in with them. I promise you they really did not need them.