It’s a good job that we are here in Mugello. Normally, at the end of three back-to-back race weekends, riders, team members and journalists are all just about ready to strangle each other – some paddock insiders have colorful tales of intra-team punch-ups, which they will tell if plied with a few drinks – but this is Mugello, the one weekend each season which everybody looks forward to.
There is something very special about the setting, the track, the weather, the location which mellows everyone out. Maybe it is the spectacularly located Tuscan villas most of the teams stay in for the weekend – there is nothing quite like taking a dip in a private pool as the sun goes down behind the beautiful hills of Tuscany to calm the spirits. But the truth is that everyone seems to wear a smile around the Mugello paddock, no matter what hardship they have suffered in the weeks before the weekend.
It is to be a special weekend, just as every race at Mugello is special. And it will be important too, with several big announcements already made, and more to come. The biggest – and least surprising – was the announcement that Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez will ride for the factory Repsol Honda team for the next two season. Both signings had been long expected, despite some rumors that Valentino Rossi would be moved into the Repsol team in Pedrosa’s place. HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto explained to the press that the decision to sign Pedrosa had been because of the experience of the Spaniard. “A good rider with good experience,” is how Nakamoto described Pedrosa, saying that his signing was good for Honda.
And Honda was not Pedrosa’s only option. He had had other options on the table and been able to decide freely where he wanted to go, Pedrosa told Spanish media, the implication being that he had an offer from Yamaha, though Pedrosa refused to go into details. He had been a Honda rider throughout all of his career, Pedrosa said, and so to continue had been the best option.
At the Sachsenring, after the introduction of KTM’s Moto3 GPR production racer, we spent five minutes with KTM’s Head of Motorsports Pit Beirer. We spoke to him about a number of subjects, including the evolution of the factory’s Moto3 chassis, the company’s cooperation with Kalex, and whether two-strokes would be better than four-strokes for racing.
HRC has today confirmed the news that has been expected for several weeks now. Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez have both signed up to race in the Repsol Honda team for the next two seasons, 2013 and 2014. Both riders are long-time protégés of the Spanish petroleum giant Repsol, so the combination of Marquez and Pedrosa in the factory team was the logical choice.
Once the Rookie Rule had been removed – at the request of the Honda satellite teams, for whom Marquez would have caused problems with crew members and sponsors – Marquez’s move into the factory Honda team was inevitable. As for Pedrosa, the Spaniard has consistently won races every season he has been in MotoGP, and has been in the title race most seasons, though injuries have prevented him from mounting a serious challenge.
At Mugello, a large number of pieces in MotoGP’s Silly Season are expected to fall into place. The long-expected announcement of the Repsol Honda team will be made on Thursday, according to Catalunya Radio, with Marc Marquez taking his place alongside Dani Pedrosa, who has inked a two-year extension with HRC. Pedrosa acknowledged at the Sachsenring that there were only details left to clear up, and after winning Germany, the Spaniard appears to have cleared the final hurdles to a new deal.
Mugello also looks like being the deadline for Cal Crutchlow. The 26-year-old Coventry man has offers of two-year deals from both the Ducati Corse team and his current Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. What Crutchlow would really like is a seat at the factory Yamaha team, but with that seat probably unavailable – either being held open for a possible return to the fold of Valentino Rossi, or else retaining current rider Ben Spies – Crutchlow is instead likely to accept Ducati’s offer of a factory ride, believing that factory equipment is his only chance of winning races and a Championship. According to British motorcycling journal MCN, Crutchlow has been given until Mugello to make up his mind.
There was one glaring omission from the post-Sachsenring roundup I wrote on Sunday night. Well, two actually, but the biggest was that I neglected to give Dani Pedrosa the attention he deserved for a fantastic win, his first in over nine months. Pedrosa managed the race brilliantly, starting on a bike which had seen massive changes ahead of the race, and which he took a few laps to get accustomed to.
He did so by dropping behind Stoner, and following in the wake of the reigning World Champion, until he was comfortable enough to make a pass. He accomplished this with ease, and the pair engaged in some synchronized drifting until the end of the race, when Pedrosa upped his pace and forced Stoner into an error. The Australian may have believed that he had the pace and the moves to beat Pedrosa, but the fact that he crashed would suggest that Pedrosa was forcing Stoner much closer to the limit than the champion realized.
The win was important to Pedrosa, not just because he has not yet put pen to paper on the two-year extension of his Repsol Honda deal, but also because he felt he owed it to his team for all the hard work they have put in, he said. This year, he had felt very comfortable on the bike – chatter notwithstanding, from both the rear with the existing tire and from the front with new ’33’ spec tire – and he felt he had the pace to win. But every time there was always someone else who was faster on the day. Until Sunday.
The tire problems experienced by Valentino Rossi and Ben Spies at Assen, where great chunks of rubber came off the right side of the rear of the tire, slowing Spies up severely and affecting Rossi so badly he was forced to pit for a new tire, have been the subject of much speculation and discussion since the event. Spies was particularly shaken after the race, the tire problems bringing back bad memories of the 300 km/h tire failure and monster crash he had at Daytona back in 2003, which he still has the scars to show from.
Nearly a week on, and after examination by Bridgestone technicians back at the factory in Japan, we can start to draw a few preliminary conclusions as to the cause of the problems. Bridgestone have issued a press release and briefed the press directly, and the riders have weighed in with their thoughts and impressions of what happened. Before pointing fingers and apportioning blame, let us first walk through what we know of what actually happened.
Bold and fearless or brash and ill-advised? There was a lot of that sort of thing at the Sachsenring on Sunday, in all three classes. (Spoiler Alert — Ed.) The most obvious example begging that question was what would have been Casey Stoner’s last-corner lunge past Dani Pedrosa, had it not gone horribly wrong as he lined the pass up the corner before. We’ll come to that later, but with a Moto3 race run in drying conditions and a Moto2 race where one of the favorites had to start from well down on the grid, there were plenty more to choose from.
It poured at the Sachsenring on Saturday afternoon. It absolutely hosed down, rivulets of water running across the track to make the conditions treacherous. Ideal conditions for Ducati, you would say, given their form so far this year in the wet, with Valentino Rossi on the podium in the downpour at Le Mans, and a 1-2 during the first session of free practice at a drenched Silverstone. But Nicky Hayden is 7th and Valentino Rossi 9th, a second or more off the pace of pole-sitter Casey Stoner. What went wrong?
Silly Season has hit full swing in Germany, not just for the MotoGP class but for the support classes as well. And while movements in MotoGP are mainly about what is happening next year, in Moto2 and Moto3 – and even among the CRT machines – there is some serious rider swapping going on for the rest of this season.
In MotoGP, the next two key movements just got a lot closer. Dani Pedrosa is now very close to staying with the Repsol Honda team, telling Spanish journalists that he would sign a new two-year contract with HRC either here in the Sachsenring or at Mugello at the latest. His priority had been to stay on a bike he felt he could win with, telling the Spanish newspaper ABC earlier this week that Honda and Yamaha had been his only realistic options. The Ducati, he said rather pointedly, was more something a rider might consider before their retirement.
Much was expected of this Friday’s meeting of the Grand Prix Commission, but in the end, the decisions taken were relatively minor. Dorna, IRTA, the FIM, and the MSMA agreed on a number of proposals which had widely been expected, but made no real progress on the major rule changes expected for the 2014 or 2015 season.
The rule change with the biggest immediate impact was the dropping of the Rookie Rule, as we reported during the Silverstone round of MotoGP. The dropping of the Rookie Rule, which prevents new entries into the MotoGP class from going straight to a factory team, opens the way for Marc Marquez to join the factory Repsol Honda team next season. Contrary to popular opinion, however, the rule was not dropped at the request of HRC, but rather of the Honda satellite teams themselves, both Lucio Cecchinello and Fausto Gresini fearing the disruption that Marquez would bring for just a single year.
There is a danger to thinking any championship is a foregone conclusion, especially this early in the season. Just as there is a danger to thinking that a race will pan out the way you thought it would after practice and qualifying. At Assen, everyone was afraid of three things: the weather, Jorge Lorenzo, and Pol Espargaro. All three turned out differently than expected.
Best of all was the weather. After treacherous conditions on Friday, with rain falling, stopping, wetting the track just enough for Casey Stoner to bang himself up badly in the morning, though that did not stop him from blasting to pole, Saturday dawned bright and only got better: the big skies of flat-as-a-board Drenthe were mainly blue, with the occasional sighting of fluffy white clouds to provide a little cover and prevent egregious sunburn. But best of all, it stayed dry: no complications, just sunny, dry and calm weather.
Neither Lorenzo nor Esparagaro would prove too pose much of a threat either, Lorenzo through no fault of his own, but Espargaro would need no outside help in taking himself out of the equation. The crashes of Lorenzo and Espargaro – Lorenzo taken out by a boneheaded move from Alvaro Bautista, for which the Gresini Honda man will have to start from the back of the grid at the Sachsenring, Espargaro crashing on a bump at the Ruskenhoek – put an end to the domination of the two men in the MotoGP and Moto2 classes.
Espargaro had blasted every sessions of free practice, and only a blistering lap from Marc Marquez had denied the HP Pons rider pole. Lorenzo’s domination had been more subtle, his race pace clearly several tenths better than anyone else, though others on soft tires occasionally bettered the Spaniard during practice and qualifying.