There are a lot of things that make Mugello special. Its location, in the heart of Tuscany, a sumptuously beautiful part of the world; its layout, fast, flowing, winding naturally up and round the valley it is set in.
The wide open nature of the track, all third and fourth gear combinations which require the perfect combination of intelligence, talent, and sheer courage that make it close to the perfect test of skill. It is fast, it is flowing, and it is undulating.
Even the front straight isn’t really a straight, but a rolling sinew of asphalt that winds down to the first corner. You come down out of the last turn, hammer on the gas, shifting up to sixth as you go, and ride up the rise towards the crest.
Drift right then left through the slight kink in the straight which becomes something resembling a 330 km/h chicane, then just as your front wheel floats free over the crest, you need to get it back down again and get on the brakes for the first corner, the 90 km/h San Donato.
The straight and the braking area are immensely difficult to get right, and a simple error can leave you hurtling into the gravel. Or, in the case of Marc Marquez, drifting towards a wall.
Each rider has their own technique, but subtlety is the key to getting it right. Jorge Lorenzo told the press that he does not really brake over the crest, nor does he use rear brake to keep the front down, but instead Lorenzo rolls off the throttle a fraction.
This puts the front tire back in contact with the tarmac, and allows him to brake at full force for San Donato. Dani Pedrosa’s technique is slightly different, but achieves the same result. “You never really hit the brake at once,” he said, “you squeeze and put the pressure a little after.”
So far, so good. That seems to be the story from the first day of practice at Le Mans. A full day of dry weather – except for the last few minutes of FP2 for the Moto3 class, where the rain turned briefly to hail, only to blow out again as quickly as it came – means that everyone had a chance to work on their race set up.
With the top four separated by just 0.166 seconds, the top five are within a quarter of a second, and Alvaro Bautista, the man in ninth, is just over seven tenths from the fastest man Dani Pedrosa.
A good day too for the Hondas. Dani Pedrosa was immediately up to speed, as expected. Marc Marquez was also quick in the afternoon, which was less expected. Unlike Jerez and Austin, this was the first time he rode a MotoGP machine at Le Mans, and getting used to hauling a 260 hp, 160kg bike around the tight layout of the French track is a different proposition to riding a Moto2 bike with half the horsepower here.
He took a morning to get used to the track, asked for a few changes to the base set up inherited from Casey Stoner, and then went and blitzed to second in the afternoon, 0.134 seconds off his teammate.
More important than Marquez’s speed is his consistency, however. In the afternoon, he posted seven laps of 1’34, which looks to be the pace to expect for a dry race. Only two men did more, Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo having posted nine laps at that pace, with both men also consistently a tenth or two quicker than the Spanish rookie.
For the past couple of years, it has seemed as if there is some kind of unwritten law which states that any MotoGP weekend must be accompanied by rain. The weekends without the threat of rain or some other form of ill weather have been few and far between, so it is both a relief and a joy to come to Jerez, and have the prospect of a full weekend of stable and dry weather.
That’s not to say that no rain has fallen: this morning, as we walked to the car, we felt three or four large drops, but that was all. From the forecast, this looks like the entire quota of rain for the weekend, and the paddock is duly grateful for small mercies.
A consistently dry track still posed problems for the riders, however. The last time MotoGP was here, back in March, conditions were far from ideal. It rained, every day, with plenty of sunshine in between, leaving the track treacherous and difficult, with low grip levels and a patchy surface.
Though the teams collected plenty of data at that test, very little of it is usable this weekend, with much higher temperatures and better grip. Until the afternoon, that is, when the warmer temperatures meant that grip levels started to drop again, a perennial problem at Jerez. The bumps, too, are an issue, with many riders running wide after hitting them as they braked for the hairpins at the circuit.
The first day of practice at the Circuit of The Americas was summed up with eloquent brevity by the headline of the press release issued by the RW Racing GP Moto3 team of Jasper Iwema and Jakub Kornfeil: “No grip in Texas.” Despite the awesome facility, a fascinating and difficult track, and clear blue Texan skies, the times set by all three Grand Prix classes in Austin were a very long way off what had been expected, as the riders struggled to find any grip anywhere.
Why was the grip so low? The heavy rains from the previous day didn’t help, washing any rubber that was on the track away. Not that there was much, on a track that has seen very little bike use in its short existence so far.
Then there was the cool temperatures, with thermostats showing just 13°C/55°F in the morning, and a strong wind blowing away any heat the sun managed to get into the tarmac. “Like riding on ice,” was the common consensus in the morning, with times some five and a half seconds off that set by Marc Marquez at the previous test back in mid March, at which conditions were far from ideal.
Three free practice sessions in the morning, a little less wind and a full day of sun worked wonders in the afternoon, with all three classes taking big chunks of time off their lap times from the morning. By the time the day had ended, all three classes were some three seconds or more faster than they started off. Tomorrow, most riders said, should be even better now there’s more rubber on the track. Warmer temperatures should help too, as will the wind dropping off.
If there is one rider in the entire MotoGP paddock who recalls the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is Marc Marquez. Around the paddock, speaking to the press, at public appearances, the Spaniard is soft-spoken, polite, friendly. When he speaks, he speaks only in commonplaces, his media training having expunged any trace of opinion or controversy from his speech (in either English or Spanish). Put him on a bike, however, and the beast is unleashed. He is merciless, in his speed, in his ownership of the track, and in his disregard of anyone else on the track.
So it was unsurprising that the Spaniard should find himself in trouble once again. During the afternoon practice, Marquez slotted his bike underneath an unsuspecting Simone Corsi going into turn 10, sending the Italian tumbling through the gravel in the process.
The move was reminiscent of the incident at Motegi, where Marquez barged past Mika Kallio with similar disregard for the consequences, but unlike Motegi, this time Marquez received a penalty from Race Direction, for contravening section 1.21.2, a section Marquez by now must now almost by heart. That part of the Sporting Regulations which governs ‘riding in a responsible manner which does not cause danger to other competitors’. For his sins, Marquez is to start from the back of the grid on Sunday, regardless of where he qualifies.
The punishment has been coming for a while. Race Direction has been working this year on taking previous behavior into account, and that, above all, was the reason for Marquez to have his wrist slapped.
The list of incidents involving Marquez is long: starting with the collision with Thomas Luthi in the very first race at Qatar; the clash with Pol Espargaro at Barcelona, causing Espargaro to crash out; the collision with Kallio at Motegi; and now this incident with Corsi at Valencia. There were numerous other minor incidents in which Marquez featured, the Barcelona incident, for example, coming at the end of a race which had seen a fair smattering of other questionable moves.
When Casey Stoner was asked on Thursday about the key to his speed through Turn 3 – now renamed Stoner Corner in his honor – he refused to answer, saying only that he might tell everyone after he had retired. To anyone watching Stoner scorch around that corner and the rest of the track, the secret was plain to see: the Australian is completely in his element, totally comfortable and confident in every move he makes at the circuit.
Stoner left thick black lines round most of the left handers at the circuit, including daubing them all over the inside of the kerbs at Turn 3. It was a display of mastery that left even the injured Ben Spies in awe, watching at home on the computer. “I gotta say without a doubt Casey Stoner does stuff even GP racers watch and scratch their head at!” Spies posted on his Twitter page. Stoner ended nine tenths of a second up on second-place man Dani Pedrosa, the only man to dip into the 1’29s (just, his fastest lap being 1’29.999), and the only man bar Pedrosa to hit the 1’30s.
There is little that motorcycle racing fans more than a good conspiracy. No mishap, contract dispute, or rider swap is ever the result of chance, error, greed or incompetence; there are always darker and greater powers involved, be it Dorna, Honda, or a major sponsor. They do not let the fact that their theories bear little resemblance to reality in 99.999% of the cases spoil the fun, and rightly so, moving happily on to the next dark conspiracy.
It took less than 10 minutes of the first session of MotoGP free practice before they had plenty to get their teeth into. Casey Stoner barely made it out of the pits before his Honda RC213V packed up, and he was forced to park it up by the side of the track, the bike felled by a mystery electronics issue. Stoner lost a lot of time in that first session, working with just a single bike as his mechanics tried to find out what had caused his first bike to fail. In the afternoon, an issue with the brake caused Stoner similar problems, losing valuable track time he needs to get back up to speed again.
A plot to prevent Stoner from interfering with Dani Pedrosa’s shot at the title? An entertaining idea, but in the reality stakes, somewhere beyond the moon landings conspiracy. Stoner’s problems are the kind of issue that every team has from time to time, with minor technical issues conspiring to work against them.