MotoGP Preview of the Italian GP

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

There are a lot of reasons to love Mugello. First, there is the setting: a dramatic backdrop of Tuscan peaks and dales. A place so fecund you need only stretch out your arm to grasp the riches of the earth: nuts, fruit, wild mushrooms, stag and boar.

To the south, Florence, one of the marvels of the Renaissance and a city so beautiful it breaks your heart to look upon it alone. At every bend in the road on the way to the circuit, the view takes your breath away. And there are a lot of bends. Hypoxia is a real concern.

Then there’s the track itself. It snakes across the landscape like a discarded shoelace, a thin filament of tarmac hugging the hillsides of the valley into which the track is wedged.

It has everything a motorcycle track needs to make it truly majestic: long, fast corners like the Arrabbiatas; fast combinations like Casanova/Savelli or Scarperia/Palagio; a terrifyingly fast front straight where the braking point is blind; and a corner where front brakes and front tires are tortured, as riders dump their speed into San Donato.

No pass at Mugello is ever a done deal, there is always an opportunity to counterattack. No bike has outright superiority at the track, for the nature of motorcycle dynamics is compromise, and each manufacturer chooses to make their compromises in different areas.

Mugello rewards only perfection, and perfection is almost impossible to sustain for 23 laps at such blistering speeds.

Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud

There are a couple of reasons not to love Mugello quite so much either. It is easy to get swept up in the madness of the crowd, but the track invasion after the race leaves a trail of casualties in its wake.

Traffic out of the track on Sunday reaches epic levels of insanity, to the extent that it would be quicker to cycle to Bologna than to travel by car. Many a flight is missed by those foolishly optimistic enough to think they can fly home on Sunday night.

Those are just inconveniences, though. There are good reasons to hate and fear Mugello too. The glory of the track comes at a price, and a high one. There are points around the circuit which are worryingly dangerous, though no one likes to talk about it much.

The wall at the end of the straight is much too close to the side of the track, as Marc Márquez so deftly demonstrated in 2013. The wall at Poggio Secco is also way too close, as Valentino Rossi found out when he was taken out by Alvaro Bautista that same year.

Both those places are accidents waiting to happen, but this is Mugello, and so we turn a blind eye.

To be fair, the circuit has already made improvements. Smart changes to the junction between hard standing and gravel has made the run off at Luco and Materassi significantly safer. But the end of the front straight and Poggio Secco desperately need attention if they are to be made safer.

The circuit has its topography against it, as both those places sit hard up against a steep slope, and would take money to fix properly. But fixed they must be, if we are not to see a tragedy unfold, and then see one of the greatest racetracks in the world neutered the way Barcelona just has been.

The Doctor or Medicine Man?

Mugello has another, more mobile glory, of course. Misano may be literally within walking distance of Valentino Rossi’s home in Tavullia, but Mugello remains his real home race. Tens of thousands of fans flock to the Italian track to see their hero race, the hillsides awash with yellow.

Will they get a chance to see Rossi race this weekend? It is not completely certain. The internal injuries Rossi picked up in a motocross training crash are still causing him severe pain, and he faces a medical examination on Thursday.

Even if he passes that, he won’t know whether he can handle the pain until he climbs on his Movistar Yamaha M1 on Friday.

That Rossi arrives at Mugello not fully fit is a tragedy in many respects. There were a lot of positive signs that Rossi might finally return to the top step at Mugello, after an absence of eight years.

Two podiums in 2014 and 2015 left him believing he could win, and he looked set for victory in 2016, crawling all over the tail of his then teammate Jorge Lorenzo and ready to pounce. Then his engine broke, along with the hearts of tens of thousands of fans, and he was left out of the race.

Engines blowing up should not be an issue this year, as firstly, Yamaha will have learned the lessons of 2016, when both Lorenzo and Rossi suffered engine failures. And secondly, and more importantly, Yamaha won’t be tempted to raise the rev limit a couple of hundred revs in search of a few more horses.

The 2017 engine has more power than last year’s unit, and they are not chasing top speed quite so desperately. The bike should be more competitive than last year.

All Hail the “70”

Two more factors come into play at Mugello, however. Firstly, there is the question of whether Rossi and his crew have found a more permanent solution to his woes with the 2017 bike. Getting the balance right to give him confidence in the front end is proving harder than expected.

But not impossible, as he proved at Le Mans, crashing out of the battle for victory on the last lap. Will that be better at Mugello? A more neutral bike might just work there.

Then there’s the stiffer Michelin front tire. The “70”, as the tire construction is designated, provides a little more support under braking at the expense of ultimate edge grip, which should help Rossi.

But it will also help the Hondas, especially, who have been suffering badly with the front tire overheating during races. The stiffer construction should deform slightly less, and therefore heat up slightly less too. If Rossi gains from the stiffer front, then Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow stand to gain more.

But in current form, it is Maverick Viñales who remains the man to beat. Three wins from five races are a clear sign of his current dominance, and the way he held off a charging Rossi at the end of a tough race in France shows both his strength and his mental determination.

Mugello is a track where Jorge Lorenzo was always very strong on the Yamaha, and as Viñales’ riding style bears some resemblance to Lorenzo’s, he will be confident going into Mugello.

Relentless Repsols

There is one small problem facing Maverick Viñales, however. Or rather, several big ones, besides his teammate. To win at Mugello, first he needs to beat the Hondas, and after losing out by just a few meters, Marc Márquez is burning for vengeance.

He lost last year’s race because of the RC213V’s horrible acceleration, fighting to control it out of the last corner. This year’s Honda is better in that regard, though the question remains, exactly how much better.

Can Márquez win at Mugello? After crashing out of a race for the second time this season, and going from being 2 points to 27 points behind Maverick Viñales in the championship, Márquez’s first priority is to finish a race, and score some solid points.

Mugello is only a third of the way into the championship, and there is still everything to play for. But Márquez can’t afford to keep throwing points away by crashing out.

What about his teammate, Dani Pedrosa? Pedrosa has finished a frustrating fourth for the last three years, and is ready for something more.

A remarkable podium at Le Mans showed just what he is capable of when the conditions are right, and coming on top of his impressive victory at Jerez, Pedrosa has clearly got his season back on track.

What was behind Pedrosa’s result at Le Mans? The weather improved on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, rising temperatures creating grip for the tires to exploit. That came a little too late for the Repsol Honda rider, leaving him stuck in Q1 and missing out on a shot at obtaining a decent starting position in Q2.

The weather forecast for Mugello is much more stable than it has been at any of the races so far this season. That should give Pedrosa time to both work on a setup and secure a shot in Q2.

And if he’s in Q2, he should start on the first or second row. And if Pedrosa starts on the first two rows, well, people had better look out.

Consistency Needed for Learning

Stable weather will be a godsend for Jorge Lorenzo. It is hard to measure how well the Spaniard is adapting to the Desmosedici, as in reality, he hasn’t had as much time as you’d think.

Too often this season, the track has been cold and damp, yet still not wet enough for rain tires. That has left Lorenzo with no choice to go out on slicks in mixed conditions, a combination that remains his kryptonite.

Yet when conditions are right, and the weather is dry, Lorenzo has shown he has some speed in him. The Spaniard scored a convincing podium at Jerez, the result a combination of a track he loves and hot weather bringing him grip.

After a private test preparing for Mugello, and the prospect of a warm and dry weekend, Lorenzo has a shot at a good result once again. He needs it, but so do Ducati. Their sponsors will be packing the hospitality unit at Mugello, and they will want to see a return on the money they invest.

Perhaps their trust is better placed in Andrea Dovizioso. Italian riders gain something extra at Mugello, and with time at the private test, decent weather, and the roar of his home fans in his ears, Dovizioso will be primed to score a result.

As one of the great late-brakers, he is also one of the riders who stands to benefit from the stiffer front. Things could come together for Dovizioso, and if they do, that will increase his market value.

One item of curiosity is whether Ducati will have an aerodynamics package at Mugello. The smart money says no: there are not enough slow corners to get the benefit of the anti-wheelie properties of an aerodynamic fairing.

But the Ducati riders will be longing for a little help to keep the front wheel down at the end of the front straight.

Hitting your braking makers just right into San Donato is hard enough at Mugello, and the winglets were a big help in ensuring the front wheel kept touch with the tarmac, especially over the rise at the end of the straight, right where the riders start to brake.

Managing that manually is much trickier business without any aerodynamic assistance.

The Italian Factor

Mugello will be a big race for Andrea Iannone as well. In front of his home crowd, and at the race where he announced a year ago he would be joining Suzuki, Iannone will want to turn his so far lackluster season around. His big problem is that he cannot brake the way he wants to on the GSX-RR.

He wants to trail the brake deep into the corner, but neither the bike, nor the previous front tire – the “06” construction – were capable of doing that. Iannone will be hoping that the stiffer front tire will make a difference, and allow him to find a happy medium between his natural style and what the Suzuki needs.

It is an Italian race, of course, and that places extra demands on every Italian who suits up on Sunday. A dozen or so Italians will start in Moto3 all dreaming of taking victory, making an already torrid class even more frantic than usual.

Franco Morbidelli will be aiming to make it five wins out of six in Moto2, and make his path to the championship look even more inexorable. And everyone on a Ducati in MotoGP will be hoping, nay, expecting to get near to the podium.

The Pramacs probably stand the best chance. Danilo Petrucci having proved his mettle previously, but Scott Redding also having shown he took can perform on the bike, despite only having a GP16 at his disposal, rather than the GP17 his teammate has.

Alvaro Bautista will be out for redemption, after not finishing the last two races.

When Outsiders Become Insiders

But if there are two satellite riders that need to be watched, it is Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco. Zarco, as I’m sure I do not need to tell you, has made a devastating impact in his first five races in the MotoGP class.

He has already led two races convincingly, finishing on the podium at the last race in Le Mans. Zarco has looked every inch the wily veteran, outperforming the bike he is on, making huge progress and learning something different every race.

It is getting harder to imagine Zarco not involved in the podium fight, not what you would expect from a MotoGP rookie.

Zarco looks as experienced as Cal Crutchlow, and Crutchlow has been in the championship since 2011. Crutchlow is another rider who hopes to benefit from the stiffer front tire, and has been concentrating all season on using the hardest available compound.

His record at Mugello is not stellar, but a podium in 2013, back when he was on a satellite Tech 3 Yamaha, suggests he is more than capable when things go his way. There is every reason to believe that this is the weekend that happens for the LCR Honda rider.

Perhaps the most interesting tale will be much further back in the field, where the KTM riders are to be found. The Austrian factory has made huge strides in the last couple of races, the combination of time on track and a revised engine making a big difference.

Both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith have become optimistic, going from hoping to tag onto the back of the field to expecting to be fighting for the last few points.

They are still a long way from the front of the pack, where KTM believes they belong, but they are making progress at a rate of knots, and leapfrogging positions every race.

The fans are unlikely to be cheering a KTM on the podium at Mugello, but close observers of the sport will likely chalk up another minor victory for the factory, and another stepping stone on their way to success. The KTM story is truly one of the more intriguing tales to follow in the 2017 season.

In short, there is much to look forward to at Mugello, and much more than I could tell in my all too brief and far from complete introduction. Racing in Tuscany is always good, and this year should be no exception.

Photo: © 2016 Tony Goldsmith / – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.