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MotoGP Preview of the Italian GP

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Once upon a time, every Mugello press release started with the same words: “Nestled in the Tuscan hills, Mugello is the jewel in the crown of MotoGP race tracks.”

After a few years, that cliche became too much even for the writers of press releases. And yet the basic statements in those press releases are as true today as they ever were. There is, after all, a reason cliches come about.

For Mugello is arguably the most beautiful race track on the MotoGP calendar. The circuit is wedged in a valley, the track snaking its way around one side up towards the head, then off along the other side, and down toward the dip between the Arrabbiatas, and the track entrance.

It is set against a backdrop of steep Tuscan hills, covered in a mixture of woodland and pasture. It is a bucolic setting for one of the greatest race tracks in the world.

What makes it truly great, of course, is the fact that it is large enough for the MotoGP machines to stretch their legs. The official top speed recorded at the track is 356.5 km/h last year, but the speed trap is at a point where the bikes are starting to brake.

Dorna don’t like people to talk about just how fast the bikes really go at Mugello, and Brembo are said to be reluctant to state the real speeds reached. There is good reason to believe they are hitting around 360 km/h already, and it could easily be even faster.

Racing, Reflected

On the one hand, this is exactly what motorcycle racing is supposed to be all about. A measure of the ingenuity of engineers to squeeze every last drop of performance out of the machines they build. And a measure of the courage of the riders, to keep the throttle pinned while threading the needle of the fast kinks along Mugello’s massive front straight.

But on the other hand, the response of the engineers and riders to the challenge posed by Mugello is verging on becoming a threat to the circuit itself.

As the engines breach the 300 bhp barrier, and the aerodynamics help them get out of the final corner better than before, speeds inevitably creep up further, making that fast kink at exit of pit lane even narrower, the brow of the hill even trickier, and the room for error even smaller.

For as glorious as Mugello is, it is rapidly running out of room. The wall on the left-hand side of the front straight is too close, as, among others, both Shinya Nakano and Marc Márquez can attest. Run off at San Donato is adequate, but the question is for how much longer.

The tarmac and gravel have been modified at various points around the track by Jarno Zafelli’s Dromo Studios circuit design agency, to make the runoff safer, but at Poggio Seco and Borgo San Lorenzo, the barriers are very close, and difficult to move back without removing half of the hillside.

A Challenge at Every Corner

Like Phillip Island, it is unthinkable that Mugello would be removed from the calendar, despite the safety shortcomings. The track is simply too good, the riders willing to turn a blind eye to the dangers for the chance to take on a circuit which is so perfectly suited to motorcycle racing.

It has the long straight taken flat out, with the added challenge of a kink at the end – which is transformed almost to a knee-down corner at 360 km/h – and then the brow of a hill placed just about where riders normally start braking.

At the end of the straight is the long San Donato corner, which is big and wide enough that if you get passed on the way into the corner, you can still try to cut back on the exit and get the place back. The track then goes through a series of left-right combinations, which offer both the chance to attack and a place to defend, or counterattack if your rivals get past.

Climbing up the hill through Luco – Poggio Seco, and Materassi – Borgo San Lorenzo, you then sweep back down again through the viciously fast right-left of Casanova – Savelli.

It is easy to get carried away through here, washing out the front as you find yourself carrying a little more speed than intended as gravity gives you a helping hand.

Then come the two Arrabbiatas, long right handers which demand patience from the rider, though it is all too easy to get carried away in the so-called “enraged” turns.

Tempting You to Fail

Another right-left combo follows, the Scarperia – Palagio pairing another ideal passing place. Then another treacherous turn, the long right of Correntaio, a sweeping corner which runs down hill, and tempts you into asking a little too much of the front tire. Ignominy awaits if you succumb to temptation, falling in front of the packed Ducati grandstand, to be jeered either because you weren’t on a Ducati when you crashed, or because you were.

There is one more nasty combination to navigate, the fast left-right flick of the Biondettis. On a chilly Saturday morning in 2010, Valentino Rossi got caught out by a cold tire, and ended up breaking his leg, effectively ending his title challenge, and forcing the Italian to miss a race for the first time in his career.

And then the final corner, Bucine, still dropping down hill, another long left hander. The drive out of this turn can make or break your race, as Marc Márquez found to his detriment in 2016, when he just lost out to Jorge Lorenzo, who got better drive onto the straight and out-accelerated the Repsol Honda rider.

In Moto3, this is the corner where you can lose your race: lead out of Bucine, and you will be swamped by the horde who sit in your slipstream and draft you to the line. In MotoGP, you don’t have to fear the slipstream, but you do have to hook up the rear tire perfectly, and have more grip and more acceleration than anyone who might be near you. If not, you are lost.

Born to Ride at Mugello

Acceleration, mechanical grip out of corners, maximum speed, optimized use of aerodynamics: all that spells Ducati.

And Ducatis have won here for the last two years, with Andrea Dovizioso becoming the first Italian to win the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello on an Italian bike in the premier class in 2017, and then in 2018, Jorge Lorenzo getting the final piece of the tank ergonomics update which made him pretty much invincible at the Italian circuit.

Ironically, it came the week after Ducati made it clear they would not be renewing his contract for 2019.

Even before that, the Ducati was good. Andrea Iannone finished on the podium here in 2015 and 2016. In 2017 and 2018, there were two Ducatis on the podium, Danilo Petrucci taking his first dry podium in 2017, and Dovizioso finishing second behind teammate Lorenzo in 2018.

What can Ducati do in 2019? The pressure is on Andrea Dovizioso to win at Mugello. Pressure from all directions: from Ducati, to win at their home circuit, and the track which is the proving ground for the Desmosedici race bike. From the fans, who come to Mugello to see an Italian win, their worst fears being having another Spaniard on the top step.

Time to Step Up

But above all, from himself: if Andrea Dovizioso has any ambitions of winning the championship this year, then he has to win at the tracks where he is strongest.

First of all, he needs to at least finish ahead of Marc Márquez at Mugello, and start to claw back some points from his main rival for the title. Even better would be to win, and try to keep as many bikes between him and Márquez to maximize the points difference.

Dovizioso should get plenty of help in the department. Mugello has historically been a strong track for Danilo Petrucci, a place where he has consistently outperformed expectations. He has a podium on a satellite Pramac bike, and had the potential to do well last year, if he hadn’t been run off track early in the race.

Mugello and Barcelona will be key to Ducati’s decision on who gets the second seat alongside Andrea Dovizioso in 2020, and a good result – in practice, a podium or better – will go a long way to securing that seat for Petrucci.

That Ducati are keen to do something special at Mugello is borne out by the fact that they are bringing a performance update for their home race. Ducati management has been tight lipped about what exactly the updates are, but as the engines are sealed, it is likely either a new chassis or an aerodynamic update.

Given that going faster with more acceleration is key at Mugello, it is hard to see how it could not be a new aero package. But we will have to wait until Friday morning before we will know for sure.

Clean Sweep?

Ideally, Ducati will want to have three GP19s on the podium, and given how well Jack Miller has been riding recently, that is a realistic possibility. The Australian comes off a podium in Austin and a strong fourth place at Le Mans, and has made a step in his management of tires and the race so far this year.

Like Petrucci, Miller has his eyes set on the second factory Ducati seat, and so he too needs a podium at Mugello. He will have to put into practice the lessons learned behind Andrea Dovizioso at Le Mans, and try to extract everything he can from his Ducati GP19.

Mugello will be important for Pecco Bagnaia too. The Italian faces his first home Grand Prix as a MotoGP rider. All Italian riders face extra pressure when riding at home, but the step up from Moto2 to MotoGP always comes as a shock.

He also has to start improving his results. After a decent start at Qatar – a difficult race followed by a strong practice – Bagnaia’s results have gone backwards. He has made progress, cutting the gap to the leaders, but now he needs to put it all together in a race.

The Bad Place

For Marc Márquez, his priority will be damage limitation – though for Márquez, damage limitation can also include actually winning the race. He comes to Mugello better armed to face the massed onslaught of the Ducatis, the Honda RC213V now at least as fast as the Desmosedici GP19, but that advance has come at a price.

The bike may be faster, but it has lost some of the front-end feel which made it almost invincible on corner entry. That has already cost him once this year, crashing out of the race in Austin. Mugello has a lot of sweeping, downhill, slightly off-camber corners which can catch out the unwary, or the ambitious.

A fact Marc Márquez is all too aware of. He crashed out of his first MotoGP race at Mugello in 2013, washing out the front at Savelli. He crashed again in 2015, pushing the front too hard at Poggio Seco. Last year, he washed out the front at Scarperia, another of those deceptive downhill turns. He almost caught it and rejoined the race, but still. Of his six visits to Mugello, half have ended in crashes. He has won here only once.

So if Márquez has a bogey track, it is Mugello. The Repsol Honda rider grows more level-headed as he gets older, and knows he must score points if he is to keep his title bid on track. He should be wary, and treat the race with caution. But a leopard cannot easily change its spots.

Turnaround Imminent?

If Mugello is a bad track for Marc Márquez, it is one of the best for Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard has six wins at Mugello, including an impressive streak between 2009 and 2016 where he either won, or finished in second. After a brief hiatus in 2017, he was back on the top step last year, an emotionally charged win which reestablished him as a force to be reckoned with.

What can he do in 2019? He has yet to get comfortable with the Honda RC213V, literally and figuratively. At Le Mans, he went from a modified version of the seat he used at Yamaha to the standard Honda seat he had rejected very early after making the switch.

His team applies an ever-shifting patchwork of friction pads to his tank and seat, sometimes changing even between sessions. Clip-ons are adjusted up by a millimeter, and Clip-ons are adjusted down by a millimeter.

This is in part to help him keep his strength through the latter part of the races. But it is also to try to find him some sense of control with the front end of the Honda. It is not a natural bike for him, Lorenzo told us at Le Mans. That does not bode well for a track which he loves. And a poor result here would be a setback.

Cal Crutchlow will be a key rider to watch at Mugello. His choice of front tire will speak volumes of his feeling with the front. And whether he crashes during practice will be a warning sign too.

Crutchlow can go well at Mugello, but if the Honda is struggling at the track, the LCR Honda rider will be the first to show signs of it. He always pushes hard, and sometimes, that can have a price.

Yamaha Land

Once upon a time, we would have said that Mugello was a Yamaha track. It still definitely is, with one minor proviso: the Yamaha M1 does everything right at Mugello – it brakes, it turns, it carries corner speed, it accelerates – except for one thing.

The Yamaha has never been the fastest bike on the grid, but this year, with Honda and Ducati making another step forward, that deficit has gotten worse. The Yamahas have been 5 km/h or more down at most tracks, which at a place like Mugello, can easily grow to over 10 km/h.

The last time Yamaha came to Mugello with a speed deficit was 2016. They tried to compensate for that shortcoming by raising the rev limit on the M1, but that did not turn out as they hoped. Jorge Lorenzo was lucky, his engine blew during morning warm up, but Valentino Rossi was less fortunate, the engine letting go as he battled for the lead with Lorenzo.

The engine overrevved as they went over the crest at the end of the straight, the rear wheel losing contact with the ground at top speed, the electronics unable to catch it in time. Damage accumulated, and eventually, the engine gave up the ghost.

Engineers at the MotoGP level are not supposed to make the same mistake twice, and so a repeat is very unlikely. (As a rule, what engineers at the MotoGP level do is find new and exciting ways to make mistakes, but then, that’s why they go racing.)

The Yellow Sea

Valentino Rossi comes to Mugello in very good shape, currently fourth in the championship and still very much in the chase. This is his home race, far more than Misano (despite the Misano track being just a few minutes from his home town), and tens of thousands of fans make the pilgrimage, in the hope of seeing him win there one more time.

Beating the Ducatis with the horsepower disadvantage he currently has will be difficult, but if he can stay in the slipstream and use the agility of the M1, it is not completely impossible. But he will need little motivation beyond trying to win a race again, after nearly two years, and doing it at his home round at Mugello would be the best possible way to do that.

Qualifying will be crucial: so far this year, Rossi’s qualifying has been a very mixed bag, and his results determined in no small part by how well he goes on Saturday. If he is on the front two rows on Sunday, there’s a chance that anything could happen.

Maverick Viñales faces a greater challenge. Viñales has had less problems qualifying, but more problems in the races so far this season.

Each time he believes he has addressed one problem, such as getting a good start, or being able to push in the first laps of the race, a new one pops up. Viñales has to find a way to be strong from start to finish at Mugello, and like Rossi, the Yamaha could carry him to an excellent result.

Next Level?

But the eyes of the world will not just be on the factory team in the Monster Energy Yamaha garage, there will be much attention paid to the Petronas Yamaha SRT team too. Franco Morbidelli has been solid so far, and will hope to go well at his home race.

But Fabio Quartararo has been spectacular in 2019, becoming the youngest ever polesitter at Jerez, then losing a podium due to a mechanical issue, and following it up by topping practice sessions at Le Mans, and coming through the field very strongly in the race.

This could be a race where Quartararo finally gets onto the podium, but he faces an even bigger challenge than the other Yamaha riders.

All of them are faced with a top speed disadvantage, but Quartararo’s bike also has 500 RPM fewer than the factory-spec bikes, making it hard for him to challenge the blazing speed of the Ducatis.

Suzuki’s Secret Stronghold

If there is a dark horse at Mugello, it is surely the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir. In 2018, before an engine upgrade brought them much-needed horsepower, both Suzukis crossed the line in fourth and fifth place, just a second behind the battle for second place between Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi. This year, the bike has more power, more acceleration, and is as agile and sweet-handling as ever.

And Alex Rins really needs a good result. A disastrous qualifying at Le Mans saw him start from nineteenth on the grid, before slicing his way forward to finish tenth.

But that proved costly in the championship, Rins dropping from second to third, and going from being just one point behind the leader to being 20 points behind. If Rins is to make up ground, he needs to finish ahead of Márquez, and score a lot of points.

The outcome of that will be decided, partially at least, on Saturday afternoon. If Rins can overcome the streak of poor qualifying he has had in recent weeks – partly his own fault, partly a more general issue with the Suzuki, then he could be the one to take the fight to the Ducatis.

A Spaniard on a Suzuki beating an Italian on a Ducati at Mugello? That would really put the cat among the pigeons.

Simplifying matters for everyone at Mugello is the fact that the weather should be stable all weekend. The rain which disrupted practice at Le Mans, and ruined the chances of some during qualifying, is set to stay away.

Though it has been the coldest May in Tuscany in a hundred years, the sun is set to warm the circuit for the weekend, getting warmer as the weekend goes on. MotoGP will be hotting up at Mugello, in every sense of the word.

Photo: KTM

David Emmett

One of MotoGP's most respected journalists, David Emmett is the proprietor of the esteemed MotoMatters. We are very grateful to republish David's work here on A&R...though dread the day we ever again get in a car with him.

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