It seems a long time ago that Max Neukirchner was being touted for great things following a breakthrough World Superbike campaign in 2008, but after a myriad of injury problems and an ill-fated attempt to chance his luck in Moto2 during the ensuing years, the German is back for another go at Superbike racing in 2013.
Beginning his career at the age of 14 in his native country, Neukirchner dabbled in the German 125cc Championship under his own ‘Team Neukirchner’ banner before progressing to 250cc machinery in both the German and European series’.
Success on the domestic scene came fairly quickly, Neukirchner developing over three years to finish 10th in 2000, fifth in 2001 and then 2nd in 2002. During that time, Neukirchner made his first appearance on the world stage as a wild-card in the Sachsenring German Grand Prix, although three attempts yielded just a single point.
A third place finish in the European 250cc series, still for Team Neukirchner Honda, could have smoothed Neukirchner’s path to a full-time berth in the world championship, but he instead chose to side-step his way into the World Supersport Championship with the Klaffi Honda outfit.
With Klaffi tasting success during the latter stages of its maiden Supersport season with Sebastien Charpentier, Neukirchner had some pressure to perform well. He stepped up to the challenge with aplomb though, scoring in all but one race and reaching the top five on two occasions. He would end the year ninth overall and as the second best placed rookie.
With Honda returning to World Superbike competition in 2005, Klaffi graduated to the series, taking Neukirchner with them and adding the experienced Pierfrancesco Chili.
Neukirchner instantly flourished on Superbike machinery, reaching the podium in only his fourth race at Phillip Island. However, a high-speed accident soon afterwards at Valencia left Neukirchner with a broken hand, an injury that hampered his progress throughout the summer.
A mid-season littered with DNFs didn’t help Neukirchner’s cause, but a run of seven solid top ten results would lift him up to a respectable 12th position in the overall standings, just two places and eight points behind his more coveted team-mate.
With Chili opting for a switch to DFX Honda at the end of the season, Neukirchner looked almost certain to secure one of two initial spots at Klaffi. However, when it became apparent there was only sufficient budget for one entry, Neukirchner was ousted in favour of MotoGP refugee and Honda favourite Alex Barros.
The late announcement left Neukirchner with little opportunity to source the high-profile ride many commentators felt he deserved after his impressive maiden year in the category. Neukichner eventually landed at Team Pedercini, a move which also prompted a switch to Ducati machinery.
Neukirchner didn’t gel with the twin-cylinder machine, however, and save for a tenth place finish on his debut in Qatar, a run of disappointing results would see him part ways with the team after just five rounds.
Sat on the sidelines for almost two months, Neukirchner was thrown a significant lifeline in the shape of an offer from Suzuki. Replacing the out of favour Fabien Foret, Neukirchner was brought under the umbrella of the factory Alstare team, even if he ran a different specification bike to that of counterparts Troy Corser and Yukio Kagayama.
Despite this, Neukirchner made an immediate impression with sixth at Assen and while his results weren’t quite so notable from that point, he had done enough to find favour within the Suzuki family.
Competing as a satellite Suzuki competitor under the ‘Team Germany’ banner in 2007, Neukirchner grasped the opportunity to work closer with a manufacturer than ever before by proving a regular top ten finisher.
Significantly, Neukirchner kept his failures to finish to a minimum, scoring top twelve results in 19 consecutive races before retiring for the first time, ironically, at his Lausitz home round.
Neukirchner’s big moment came at the end of the 2007 season, however, after being called up to the replace the injured Yukio Kagayama during the Magny-Cours season finale. Denied pole position by just two hundredths of a second, Neukirchner went on to finish fourth, ahead of team-mate Max Biaggi, all but assuring himself of a contract extension in 2008.
Paired with Suzuki committed Kagayama and big signing Fonsi Nieto, although it was strongly rumoured that Neukirchner’s GSX-R1000 wasn’t quite to the same specification of his team-mates, he turned the tables by quickly establishing himself as a team leader.
After strong results during the first four races, Neukirchner was on course to take a maiden victory at Valencia when he was agonisingly torpedoed out of contention on the very final corner by an over ambitious Carlos Checa. Despite leaving him with a broken collarbone, Neukirchner was back on the podium for the first time in more than three years at the very next round in Assen before getting his belated maiden win at Monza.
Kick-starting an impressive run of mid-season form that would lift Neukirchner to as high as second in the overall standings, a further victory at Misano followed, but he would eventually be overhauled by both Yamaha riders and Checa on the way to fifth in the overall standings.
Even so, Neukirchner was a firm favourite at Suzuki now and he began the 2009 season as a mooted title contender. It was a status he reinforced at the opening round when he was marginally beaten to victory by Noriyuki Haga, but while he was on the podium again at Valencia, Neukichner’s season would take a dramatic downturn from Monza.
The scene of his maiden WSBK win a year earlier, Neukirchner was a mere skittle to Brendan Roberts’ rider-less Ducati, which skated across the grass and into the path of Neukirchner as he rounded the opening chicane in the lead. The severe impact left Neukirchner with a badly broken leg and a recovery time of at least two months.
Returning to action during a mid-season test at Imola, Neukirchner would suffer a further fall, breaking his vertebrae and sidelining him for the remainder of the year.
The injuries created problems for Suzuki too who, having taken up an option on Neukirchner for 2010 earlier in the year, began to exercise caution on the basis that he couldn’t prove fitness.
With Suzuki not satisfied with the second opinion of Neukirchner’s doctors, who suggested he would be fit to race well in time for the 2010 season, the contract was duly terminated. Nonetheless, Neukirchner was already seeking alternative employment and was quickly snapped up by the Ten Kate team.
Marking a return to Honda machinery, Neukirchner began the year facing continued questions over his long-term fitness, but it soon became clear that his biggest issue was finding a comfortable set-up on the CBR1000RR. Indeed, while team-mate Jonathan Rea was winning races on the bike, Neukirchner found himself struggling to simply make it into the points.
Cracking the top ten just once over the entire season, it was telling that Neukirchner scored more points in the four pre-injury rounds he participated in during 2009 than he did in 2010’s full 13 events.
With few Superbike options forthcoming for 2011, Neukirchner embarked on a change of direction by joining historic marque MZ Racing in Moto2. Riding a bike considered to be one of the least competitive on the grid, Neukirchner enjoyed a respectable season, making the top ten on five occasions and proving a match for more experienced team-mate Anthony West.
His reasonable 2011 form, coupled to his German passport, was enough to convince Kiefer Racing to sign Neukirchner as the replacement for its title-winning MotoGP-bound starlet Stefan Bradl in 2012. Riding the more competitive Kalex, much was expected of Neukirchner but he would go on to endure a torrid year, managing just a single seventh place finish in the wet at Le Mans before a hand injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year.
Turning his attentions to 2013, Neukirchner will attempt to rediscover his form again on the Superbike stage by setting up his own private team under the guidance of former engineer Mario Rubatto. Securing brand new Ducati 1199 Panigale machinery, Neukirchner’s return is certainly one of the most anticipated features of the upcoming 2013 season. Career Highlights:2012: Moto2 World Championship, Kiefer Kalex, 26th
2011: Moto2 World Championship, MZ Racing, 20th
2010: World Superbike Championship, Ten Kate Honda, 18th
2009: World Superbike Championship, Suzuki Alstare, 16th
2008: World Superbike Championship, Suzuki Alstare, 5th (2 wins)
2007: World Superbike Championship, Suzuki Germany, 9th
2006: World Superbike Championship, Pedercini Ducati / Suzuki Alstare, 19th
2005: World Superbike Championship, Klaffi Honda, 12th
2004: World Supersport Championship, Klaffi Honda, 9th
2003: 250cc European Championship, Team Neukirchner Honda, 3rd
250cc World Championship (one race), Team Neukirchner Honda, 31st
2002: 250cc European Championship, Team Neukirchner Honda, 10th
250cc German Championship, Team Neukirchner Honda, 2nd
250cc World Championship (one race), Team Neukirchner Honda, N/C
2001: 250cc German Championship, Team Neukirchner Honda, 5th
250cc World Championship (one race), Team Neukirchner Honda, N/C
2000: 250cc German Championship, Team Neukirchner Honda, 10th
1999: 125cc German Championship, Team Neukirchner Honda
1997: ADAC Junior Cup, Aprilia