The first person you have to beat is your teammate. It is a truth universally acknowledged in the paddock. After all, they are on the same bike as you, with the same support, so the only difference between your results and theirs is down to ability – in theory at least.
Beat your teammate, and your team will prioritize you over them when it comes to contract renewal time, will pay you more money, will send more resources your way. If you’re in a factory team, the engineers will listen more carefully to you, and more likely to follow the direction of development you set out.
Teams use this same philosophy to motivate their riders. They encourage internal competition, hoping the two riders will push one another on to greater heights, to risk more for better results. Trying to win a race is motivation enough, but adding the frisson of showing up your teammate adds that little bit extra, the icing on the cake.
And reward enough should a rider fall short of winning. So far does this internal competition go that for most teams, the order in which rider quotes appear in the press release is determined by who is ahead in the championship, or who finished ahead during practice, qualifying, or the race.
Promoting internal rivalries is also playing with fire, however. Despite the smiling faces in the team launch photos and at PR events, the friendship is often feigned, the relationship often strained, teammates going out of their way to avoid one another.
That can lead to arguments over shared data, over updated parts, even over who goes first when speaking to the media. If the rivalry between teammates is not handled right, it can quickly become counterproductive, boiling over into internal warfare, hostility, and teammates actively working to sabotage each other, rather than serving the interests of the team.
A New Approach
But the value of intra-team rivalries is not quite universally acknowledged. After four years of simmering warfare between their two riders, Ducati took a very different tack for 2019.
Instead of pitting Andrea Dovizioso against a rider who will go to any length to beat him, they chose Danilo Petrucci, whose role it is to partner Dovizioso, to help him to win the 2019 MotoGP championship. They want Petrucci to score the best results he can, Ducati management said, but they want Andrea Dovizioso to bring home the title.
It is a fascinating change of direction by Ducati, and tells you two things about the Italian factory. Firstly, it seems in line with Ducati’s ongoing project to leave no stone unturned in pursuit of the 2019 title.
It is yet another break from tradition, an exploration of avenues which conventional wisdom inside MotoGP says are dead ends. Ducati are asking whether ideas like this really are dead ends, or just seem that way because nobody has been down them for a long while, if at all.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it also suggests that Ducati believe they cannot beat Marc Márquez with just one rider. Instead of pitching two competing riders against each other, and hoping their rivalry will push them to the level necessary to beat Márquez, they are trying a more strategic approach, designating senior and junior partners in the quest to defeat the reigning champion, each with a role to play.
Filling the Roles
Of course, it is all very well laying out separate roles for riders and expecting them to fulfill them, but it is not quite that easy. Appointing one rider as championship challenger and another whose role is subsidiary to the title candidate is one thing, actually finding the riders who are willing to submit to this division of labor, and of glory, is another.
So far, pairing Andrea Dovizioso with Danilo Petrucci appears to have been the perfect move. Dovizioso has taken Petrucci under his wing, helping him with training, nutrition, mental coaching, Petrucci having moved to Forli, Dovizioso’s home town, to better work together. Petrucci, in turn, has made big steps forward, being more consistently competitive, and being openly supportive of and cooperative with Dovizioso at the races.
The division of roles in the factory Ducati team seems to be going to plan. Last time out at Le Mans, both Dovizioso and Petrucci arrived at the last lap together, Petrucci clearly quicker than his teammate.
But not quick enough to make an easy and clean pass on Dovizioso: he took a look, but the gap never really opened up enough for him to dive through with 100% certainty he would come out on the other side without taking them both out in the process. Petrucci let Dovizioso finish second, while the man from Terni was content to settle for third.
But Mugello would be a greater test of Ducati’s plan. Mugello is not just another Grand Prix. It is the race which lives in the heart of every Italian rider, the one race they dream about winning.
For Italian riders on Italian motorcycles, that dream is all the more powerful. Having two Italians on Ducatis – bikes which are proven winners at the circuit, having taken victory in 2017 and 2018 – would quickly expose any tensions inside the team, any cracks in Ducati’s master plan.
Marc Márquez tried to drive a wedge into Ducati’s plans during qualifying. After being followed Michele Pirro on his first run out of the pits, and having set an acceptably quick time, the Repsol Honda rider noted that Andrea Dovizioso had yet to post a quick lap.
Instead of heading straight back out again and allowing riders to follow him, Márquez sat outside his garage on his bike, tire warmers on and waiting to go. He bided his time, and once he left the pits, he sought out the back wheel of Andrea Dovizioso.
He knew that Dovizioso could not afford to play games and had to push for a time, so he lined himself up behind the factory Ducati rider, waiting for the moment Dovizioso would have to concentrate on setting a qualifying time. On Dovizioso’s last lap, Márquez situated himself perfectly, lining up a hundred meters or so behind the factory Ducati, using the Italian as a target.
As Dovizioso hauled himself to a precarious ninth place, Márquez used the draft of the Ducati to fire himself across the line and into pole position.
Much to the chagrin of Fabio Quartararo, who had studiously avoided giving Márquez a tow on the first run, and was pushed down into second on the grid. Small comfort for Ducati: Danilo Petrucci lined up in third, the last man on the front row.
Make a Break
When the lights went out, Márquez’ efforts appeared to have worked. The Repsol Honda rider fired off the line first, and held the lead as the pack chased through the San Donato corner. Behind him, a grand reshuffle had taken place, the Yamahas going backward while the Hondas and Ducatis made their way forward.
Petronas SRT Yamaha riders Fabio Quartararo dropped from second back to eighth, after getting a horrible start off the line. Franco Morbidelli, starting from fourth, got away better, but after nearly colliding with his teammate, dropped all the way back into tenth on the entry to the first corner.
Cal Crutchlow had fared much better, getting superb drive from the outside of the second row to slot in behind Márquez, the LCR Honda rider ideally situated to run interference for the reigning champion. Márquez could use some help, as there was a horde of Ducatis behind.
Despite qualifying ninth, Andrea Dovizioso had sliced his way through the pack to grab third spot, while Jack Miller sat in fourth. The Ducati on the front row was the biggest casualty, Danilo Petrucci dropping from third to fifth, though he pushed past Miller and back to fourth in the second corner.
Pol Espargaro, meanwhile, had fired off the line from eleventh on the KTM and followed Dovizioso through the field, taking sixth spot ahead of Takaaki Nakagami, a spot which the LCR Honda rider would take from the KTM man in just a couple of corners.
Marc Márquez’ initial strategy was clear. Just like every race this year, Márquez was trying to win it from the front. The Repsol Honda rider push on early, trying to see if there was any way of opening a gap to the Ducatis and breaking the tow. Márquez’ best bet was trying to escape.
But Mugello was not Le Mans, or Jerez, or even Austin or Argentina. This is a track where Márquez has historically struggled, and the changes to the 2019 Honda had not improved his chances much. Sure, the bike had more horsepower and better acceleration, meaning he could comfortably hold his own on the front straight.
But the changes had come at the expense of front end feel. At a track like Mugello, with its long, sweeping turns up and down hill, with varying cambers, being able to trust the front was vital.
“I tried in the beginning like always to do my pace, but I already had two small moments,” Márquez said after the race. “I said, okay, today is not the day. I will follow and I will fight on the last lap.” After leading the first four laps, Márquez finally relinquished the lead as the front group howled down the front straight to start lap six.
By then, the group had shaken out behind him. Cal Crutchlow did not last long in second place, sliding back to sixth spot, his place taken by a bevy of Ducatis. Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci swapped places in second, Jack Miller mostly content to sit in fourth.
That was not a comfortable position for the Pramac Ducati rider, however, as he had to contend with a swashbuckling Alex Rins. The Suzuki Ecstar rider had forged his way forward from thirteenth in the opening laps to do battle with the leaders of the race.
Most observers had written Rins’ chances off on Saturday, after mistakes during free practice and qualifying saw him miss out on Q2 and starting from thirteenth. The unflappable Rins had been unconcerned, and rightly so. “The position at the start doesn’t really matter,” the Suzuki rider said after the race.
“For sure it helps if you start more at the front, but when you cross the finish line on the first lap after recovering a lot of positions, this doesn’t matter.” Given Rins was basically on the back of the front group by the end of the first lap, it is hard to argue with that statement.
Once the Ducatis took over at the front, all semblance of order collapsed. A fierce battle unfolded, with no one willing to settle in their spot for long. That battle helped slow up the pace, giving the group a chance to stay together, and riders to close from behind. The slower pace also helped everyone save some energy, a key factor round the punishing Mugello circuit.
Around half distance, the group settled on allowing Danilo Petrucci to lead. That gave the Italian a chance to settle and save his energy, Petrucci having been struck down with the ‘flu in the days before the race. “During the past days after four or five laps I always felt very, very tired,” Petrucci said after the race.
“At the start of the race, there were a lot of people trying to stay in the front. So I said, okay, the rhythm is not so high. I tried to stay in front for keep out the risk. After some laps I was able to take the lead. Then I said, now I ride in my possibility. I will try to save my energy for the final, for also the tires. Then I said, maybe five laps to go I will try to push.”
Dropping Like Flies
Behind Petrucci, the race became a war of attrition. Franco Morbidelli was the first rider to go, falling at Bucine, the final corner. He would not be the last one to go down there. Two laps later, Valentino Rossi crashed out at Arrabbiata 2, though he was already down in last place after coming together with Joan Mir.
At the halfway mark, Pecco Bagnaia joined Morbidelli in the gravel at the final corner, the Pramac Ducati rider outbraking himself trying to make up for ground lost to the leading group on the exit of Bucine, and running wide and onto the dirty part of the track. Bagnaia ended a promising race in the gravel, but when he crashed, he had been right on the back of the leading group.
There would be one more faller before the race was over. This one, though, was a result of the fierce fight at the front. A couple of laps after Bagnaia went down, his Pramac Ducati teammate found himself chasing Alex Rins.
The Suzuki rider ran a fraction wide at San Donato, but cut back to get back on line. Sensing a weakness, Miller came for Rins, closing in and hoping to make a move as the track flicked left and right up the hill.
Miller thought his chance had come at Materassi. Rins braked a fraction harder than before, the rear moving about as he did so. Miller believed he would run wide, and open the door for him to stick his Ducati GP19 under Rins’ Suzuki at Borgo San Lorenzo.
But that plan required him carrying just a fraction too much speed through Materassi, and the front got away from him. He tried to hold the bike up, but ended up in the gravel and out of the race.
“I wanted to pass him in Turn 1 but it was going to be a little bit hairy that lap,” Miller said after the race. “I knew I had a little bit of time on my side, so I just planned it to be patient. And yeah, he just had a big lateral slide on the entry to Turn 4, where I crashed.”
“So as he had that slide, he sort of lifted the rear first up, so I braked a little bit harder in a straight line. And then I thought he was going to run it a little bit wide and lose the momentum on the exit, so I was going to be able to square it and drive underneath him there.”
“But as I released the brakes, I released them a little bit earlier, and there was obviously a little bit too much lean angle with it, and that was enough to just upset it. I tried to hold it as much as I could on the elbow, but it wasn’t to be today. It’s a real shame.”
Miller had been caught out in part by the incredible agility of the Suzuki. He had been surprised by the ability of Alex Rins to put the GSX-RR exactly where he pleased. And not just surprised.
“That Suzuki can turn on a dime piece, because the first time Rins passed me, I had a meter, not even a meter between myself and the kerb, and he was able to make it fit and scared the **** out of me as he went past. And he did the same thing to Dovi.”
“The chassis is unreal, you saw today,” Miller said. “The engine ain’t the best, but it’s not bad either. But the chassis and the tire consumption looks really good. I said to the boys, it was kind of hard to sit behind him, because he seemed to be able to put his bike wherever the **** he wanted to. He’d be right on the left side and be, ‘I’m going in there’, and be able to just do it. With us, you have to kind of think, plan, and then do it. You feel out of form.”
Despite Miller’s crash, bringing a disappointing end to the race at the Pramac Ducati’s team home Grand Prix, the Australian proved his worth on the Ducati. For the second race in a row, Miller challenged strongly at the front.
And for the second race in a row, he proved his worth as a Ducati rider, and as a strong candidate for the second factory Ducati seat next year. Unfortunately, however, for the second race in a row, he was outshone by the current occupant of that second factory Ducati seat, Miller’s future looking more likely to be with his current team than anywhere else.
Alex Rins may have been able to put the Suzuki almost wherever he wanted, but the one place he couldn’t put the bike was in front of the Ducatis and the Repsol Honda along the straight.
As the laps ticked off, Rins became more firmly ensconced at the back of the leading group, leaving Petrucci, Dovizioso, and Márquez to fight over victory. Petrucci still led for most of the race, though he was constantly challenged by the battle between Márquez and Dovizioso which raged behind him.
War Breaks Out
With four laps to go, Andrea Dovizioso took over the lead from his factory Ducati teammate, flying past Petrucci along the straight and on the way into San Donato. He would only lead for half a lap, Petrucci diving back underneath Dovizioso at Scarperia in a clinical pass.
Ducati’s intention may have been for Petrucci to help Dovizioso beat Márquez, but that was reckoning without the fact that this was Mugello, and all bets were off the table. They could be fairly sure that Petrucci would not risk bringing Dovizioso down, but it was equally obvious that even if team orders had been issued, they would have been utterly ignored. This was for fame, for glory, for pride.
There was also the added complicating factor of Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider was still right there with the two Ducatis, and clearly fast enough that under the right circumstances, he could snatch the win. As they started the penultimate lap, he pushed Dovizioso into the first corner, clearly wanting to find a way past.
He was saving it all for the final lap. Stationing himself right on the tail of Dovizioso, Márquez was ready to pounce as they howled down the front straight. Dovizioso, too, had worked on positioning himself for the drive onto the front straight, the Italian flying past his teammate before they even crossed the finish line.
In doing so, however, he also gave a slingshot to Márquez, who fired past the pair of factory Ducatis and into the lead, lining up for the first corner on the outside of the straight.
The double draft from the Ducatis had left him with a fraction more speed than he would have liked, however, and Márquez had to run a little wide into San Donato.
That opened the door for Andrea Dovizioso to come up inside him, and try to snatch back the lead. But like Márquez, Dovizioso was also carrying a fraction more speed, leaving just enough space underneath for Petrucci to come back at him, holding the tighter line through the long corners which he had used all throughout the race.
There may have been enough space for the three of them to enter the corner almost together, but their lines were quickly closing, Márquez coming from the outside and squeezing Dovizioso up against Petrucci on the inside.
Dovizioso saw Petrucci coming, realized his predicament, and was forced to pick up the bike. Not a lot, but just enough to allow Márquez to take second behind Petrucci.
The question now was would Petrucci be able to hold the lead all the way to the finish line. There was no doubt that Marc Márquez was going to try to find a way past, using the agility of the Honda to look for a gap through the double flicks from Luco to Borgo San Lorenzo, and pushing hard through Casanova – Savelli and the Arrabbiatas.
At the same time, he also had to keep the charging Dovizioso at bay. Márquez was caught between the rock of Petrucci and the hard place of Dovizioso, his bucking and sliding Honda RC213V bereft of the grip which would have allowed him to make a decisive pass.
As the group exited Correntaio and flicked through the Biondettis, Petrucci started to eke out a gap. All he had to do was hold on out of the final corner and get on the gas early enough to prevent the Honda from flying past. At stake was his first ever win in Grand Prix racing, and his first since the Italian championship back in 2011.
Petrucci opened the throttle and drove out of Bucine, tucked tightly behind his screen and hoping that Márquez was not close enough. As they hared toward the line, Márquez closed, inching ever nearer in the slipstream of the Ducati.
But Petrucci had done enough: he crossed the line 43 thousandths of a second ahead of Márquez, the Honda only overtaking him as they reached the end of the pit wall.
Victory at Last
Petrucci could hardly believe he had pulled it off, even in the press conference an hour earlier. “The last lap I tried to push,” he told us. “I went into the last corner. When I went out from the last corner using the fourth gear I said, now if I have to follow the story of my life I will exit from the last corner in the first position and I will finish in third. Then I put fourth gear, fifth gear. I waited for Marc and Dovi, and then I put the sixth and in that moment I crossed the finish line.”
Sometimes dreams come true. But they only come true if you are prepared to put in the long, hard slog towards achieving them, clinging on even in the darkest moments, when all seems lost. “I said many times in the past I would quit my career, because I said it’s not my world,” Petrucci told the press conference.
But he did not quit. He seized the opportunity as a test rider at Ducati, then a ride on the IODA CRT bike in MotoGP, the least competitive machine on the grid, in the team with the worst financial situation in the premier class. While the rest of the grid got faster, the IODA got slower, switching from a BMW powerplant to what was in effect a stock Aprilia RSV4.
In 2015, he was offered a place in the Pramac Ducati squad, and from there, he blossomed. He took his first podium in a downpour at Silverstone that same year, improving his results as each iteration of the Ducati Desmosedici got better.
In 2018, his perseverance finally paid off, earning promotion to the factory Ducati team for 2019. When he started in MotoGP, he never dared to dream of getting a factory ride, let alone winning a MotoGP race. At Mugello, those things he hadn’t dared to dream became reality.
Boys Do Cry
That achievement, winning his first Grand Prix at his home round on a Ducati, unleashed a flood of emotion for the Italian. Relief, pride, but above all, sheer unbounded joy. Petrucci wept tears of joy through the entire cool down lap, for much of the time he spent in parc fermé, and sporadically through the rest of the day.
Above all, there was a sense of disbelief, a sense he expressed continually, not least by apologizing to Andrea Dovizioso for the pass he put on his teammate to take the win.
“I’m so sorry for that pass,” he told the press conference, repeating it three times on separate occasions. “Andrea was the last person in the world that I want to let the bike pick up. But today I think I had a good chance to win. As I told you, it was my target for this year.” The apology was accompanied by a dedication: “For sure I would like to dedicate my first victory to Andrea my teammate that adopt me this winter like a brother.”
The dedication was an acknowledgment of the huge role Dovizioso has played in Petrucci’s success. Petrucci has moved to Forli, to live near his teammate and train with him. Petrucci is using the same nutrition specialist, the same trainer, the same mental coach, all with the help of Dovizioso. But the win came from Petrucci himself, Dovizioso said.
“I think Danilo improved this season because he believed more in himself and he understood his potential,” Dovizioso told the press conference. “In the past he didn’t really believe in that, and really didn’t analyze and realize the good points he has. To train together, yes is like Aldon Baker in a different way, unfortunately because in our sport we can’t train on the MotoGP.”
“We have to find something different. But every time we’re going flat track or motocross we push each other. This puts us on the limit. We take the risk, but it’s a part of our sport. I think it works because fortunately both we came from motocross, so we have this similar base.”
“So in motocross we are quite fast. Flat track we are similar. So we can really every time try to beat each other, and this is good. Yes, the consequence is the risk, but I think can help both because he’s really talented. I think it’s really positive.”
The Value of Confidence
Dovizioso had also helped to take some of the pressure off Petrucci, which Petrucci had been putting on himself. “At the beginning of this year I said I will try this year,” Petrucci explained. “I have no contract for the next season. So I put some pressure on myself and after the first three races the races have been not so good.”
“Another time it was Andrea that helped me in this period, telling me don’t think about the future. Think about now. Try to enjoy what you are doing. Focus on your strong points, work hard. From Jerez I just start to think, okay, I will do my best for this year. If will be enough is okay. If not, if I cannot win with this bike, I’m not able to win with any other bike, so it’s not my world. But today I won and maybe I will change my program for the future.”
Dovizioso took finishing third relatively well, despite losing points to Marc Márquez, who he had to beat at Mugello. “I’m really happy about the race,” he said. “We did the race we wanted. We struggled a little bit during the weekend, but at the end the feeling came back yesterday.”
“We worked in the right way for the race most of the time. In the race we are there. I did a perfect start. I put myself in a right position. I saved the tire. I rode in a really good way for the condition because it was very difficult for everybody. The temperature was so high. I did a good strategy, I think.”
His plan was to start the last lap in first position, Dovizioso explained. “I wanted to be first in the last lap from the first corner, but Danilo overtook us very aggressively. I had to pick up the bike and Marc again closed the door and I had to release the throttle. I lost position.
The grip was very low In the last lap to make something crazy. I try to analyze and make some strategy, but I couldn’t. In the last corner Rins almost overtake me. Bad for the championship. We lose some points. But overall the race was good.”
Is this a failure of Ducati’s strategy? Though it undoubtedly would have been better for Dovizioso’s title chances if he could have won the race, or at least finished ahead of Márquez, things could have worked out a lot worse for the Italian factory.
If Petrucci doesn’t make the aggressive pass, then there is every chance that Márquez wins the race, as he entered the first corner with an advantage. And by finishing first, Petrucci took maximum points, stealing a valuable point from Márquez.
If Márquez and Dovizioso finished first and second, Márquez would have picked up five points from Dovizioso. With Petrucci ahead of them, the difference was just four points.
Petrucci’s win could be more important down the road. With a win under his belt, his target for the season has been achieved. In the press conference, he emphasized that his priority now is to help Dovizioso win the championship.
“[Winning a race] was my target for this year. Now we can focus on our target for the season. Now I think I’m more, let’s say, not safer, but relaxed. We can think about improving the bike and try to win the championship with Andrea.”
And the bike needs improving, according to Dovizioso. “I’m still not happy in the way we ride, because if Marc is here in this race and battling with us, this means still in the middle of the corners we are too slow. In the acceleration for the layout of the track and acceleration and braking we are really good, but the only reason why Marc was able to stay with us is because he’s strong, but in the middle of the corners he’s faster than us.”
“He was able with a worse tire than us to stay with us until at the end. This is the bad part of the championship because we have to improve something if we really want to fight for the championship. We are there. We never give up until at the end, but it’s not enough. We need something more.”
Marc Márquez professed to be delighted with second place, though is face betrayed a sense that he could have won the race. “Of course I’m happy, because in our worst race we finished second,” Márquez told the press conference.
“And with this feeling during all the season we finished second, so this was a good race, a good twenty points. I tried in the beginning like always to do my pace, but I already had two small moments. I said, okay, today is not the day. I will follow and I will fight on the last lap.”
Márquez played his cards at the start of the last lap, but went just wide enough to let Petrucci underneath. “I just missed the apex on turn one, but then when I saw on the last lap that Danilo was first and me second and Dovi third, I said, okay, I will not try. I will just defend.
If I try and both we go wide, Dovi won the race and then it’s worse for the championship. So for that reason just I stay behind Danilo. I try on the last with the slip stream, but I knew that it was very difficult. But apart of that, happy with the twenty points.”
Alex Rins ended the race slightly disappointed, despite pulling a fourth out of the bag from what seemed like an impossible starting position. “Before I started the race, we already knew that this track would be difficult for us because of this long straight,” the Suzuki Ecstar rider said.
“For sure after crossing the finish line in P4, I was disappointed, because I think that I had the rhythm to win the race. But anyway, we finished in fourth position in a track where we struggle a lot because of this long straight. So nothing more to say.”
Fourth place meant that he had lost valuable points in the championship, Rins said, but Mugello was one of the toughest tracks on the calendar. “For sure it’s hard for the championship, because now Marc and Dovi have opened a gap a little bit, now we are 88 points and I think Dovizioso has 103.”
“But anyway, a lot of races to do, we are always strong in the second part of the championship. So I will try to do my maximum, I try to do my 100% every race. Here and Qatar were two very difficult tracks, and we finished in fourth position. We beat some Ducatis and we beat some Hondas, so it’s OK.”
Despite the lack of top speed, Rins remained confident of playing a role in the championship. “It’s very difficult to improve the speed in our case, because we have sealed engines and everything. But we can improve in the aerodynamics, for example In the wheelies, in air resistance.”
“So for sure Suzuki are working on that, and they will bring new components, but we knew that it’s difficult to improve the engine until the last race. We are able to ride fast with this bike, and I will try to do my maximum. If we don’t win the championship, then we will win next year for sure!”
Old Is Better Than New Sometimes
Six seconds behind Rins, Takaaki Nakagami crossed the line to finish fifth, his best result in MotoGP. He took fifth spot by remaining consistent and fast throughout the race, catching and passing his LCR Honda teammate Cal Crutchlow. The result highlighted the issues with the 2019 Honda RC213V, a bike that seemingly only Marc Márquez can get the best out of.
Nakagami may have suffered from a lack of top speed with his 2018 machine, but the chassis handled Mugello’s flowing layout better than Crutchlow’s 2019 bike. Where Nakagami finished fifth, Crutchlow crossed the line in eighth, a further seven seconds behind.
Whether the bike helped or hindered, it was a strong result for Nakagami. The Japanese rider has taken a huge step forward in 2019, no doubt helped by the fact that the 2018 RC213V is a massive improvement on the 2017 bike he rode last season. But Nakagami has also grown in confidence, and this is allowing him to score results he hadn’t imagined possible.
The Yamaha Blues
Maverick Viñales was the first Yamaha to cross the line, finishing the race in sixth, a second behind Nakagami. The race had gone wrong right from the beginning. Starting the race from seventh, Viñales was down to twelfth by the end of the first lap, and left to fight his way forward from there. It took him all race, the end result being that he finished one position ahead of where he started from, seven and a half seconds behind the winner.
Viñales was dejected, as you might expect, reflecting a general disaffection among the Yamaha riders. At Mugello, a track were acceleration in the top three gears is crucial, they had suffered badly. “It is the same story as always,” Viñales said.
“The bike becomes difficult to stop, difficult to turn, no acceleration so the same as many races ago. Positive and negative points as always. We have to improve and the bike needs to be improve to be on the level that our competitors make, they make great steps and we are waiting for improvements.”
Valentino Rossi, who had crashed out of the race on lap 7, backed up Viñales words, and added some of his own. “A very difficult weekend and one of the worst for a long, long time because we were never fast,” was how Rossi summed up his weekend.
“We ride here knowing it would be difficult but we expect it to be strong here in Mugello but it was not like this and in all the practice I was not so fast.”
Rossi acknowledged there had been mistakes along the way – running wide on his fast lap in FP3 putting him in Q1, for example – but he lay a lot of the blame at the door of the Yamaha M1. “In general a very difficult weekend for things that happened, but also because we were quite slow,” Rossi said.
“We struggled in the race when we had to ride with other bikes and we are not fast on the straight or acceleration. A race like this is very difficult. We have to try to do something.”
At a Standstill
Where was the Yamaha slow? “Everywhere!” Rossi said. “From the start. I didn’t make a fantastic start but then 3-4 bikes overtake. This is the big difference because in acceleration from one corner to the other we suffer. It is not just top speed but also acceleration and now the gap is quite big.”
Rossi was not optimistic about any progress being made, feeling that Yamaha’s development was not making the continued progress of the other manufacturers, something which had been happening for several years now. “I think this happened in 2016, 17, 18 and also now.
For me it is because the opponents bring a lot of new stuff , and they need some races to set-up. Usually we are more ready at the beginning because we have a lot less stuff, so we use the advantage at the beginning because the others are not ready yet. When the others fix the problem then it becomes a problem for us.”
Rossi pinpointed the start of the decline at the second half of 2016. “In the first half of 2016 the Yamaha was the stronger bike,” the Italian said. “With Bridgestone in 2015 I fight for the championship with Lorenzo and we both scored more than 330 points, so it means 650 points in the manufacturers championship, which is an incredible amount.”
“From the second half of 2016 the others make a huge improvement, and again at the beginning of 2017, half 2017, beginning 2018, half 2018, and it looks like we are behind, sincerely because in the last years if you look at our performance and lap times we are more or less the same. For me this is the problem.”
Were the results disheartening enough for Rossi to start considering retirement? “Austin was maybe one or two months ago and I was very close to win. I was very happy, for sure we should not give up, try the maximum and remain concentrated: make the maximum like this.” So no reason for Rossi’s fans to be worried? “No is the answer: no worries.”
Though he started from the front row and dropped back through the field, Fabio Quartararo was the one rider who wasn’t concerned about acceleration. His problem, he said, was inexperience.
He had let the front tire overheat, unused to how it would react once he got caught in traffic. Stuck in the draft of other riders, there was fresh air to cool the front tire, and tire temperature and pressure went through the roof.
“I struggled from the beginning,” the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider said after the race. “I made a not bad start, but I made a wheelie and went to the right and lost some positions.”
“And unfortunately we had the front tire pressure went really high, the temperature of the tire was also high, so I was struggling from the first laps, and also in the end I couldn’t manage to turn, to find the feeling on the front.”
The increase in tire temperature was a consequence of the bad start he got, Quartararo said. “During the weekend we never rode behind anybody, and the temperature and the pressure went really high from the beginning, and the last laps it was really difficult to manage the tires.”
It had also been a learning experience for the Frenchman, he explained. During practice, he had spent time lapping on his own, and as a result, had no idea what would happen once he started to ride in a group. “I prefer to ride alone, but I should ride with people during the weekend,” Quartararo said.
“We saw many riders like Marc, yesterday he was riding behind Dovi. He knows how to ride behind people and I think it’s good to know also for the temperature and the pressure of the tires.”
This was a lesson which the other Yamaha riders had already learned. Maverick Viñales recounted how he had learned to deal with rising tire temperatures when riding in a group. “I always try to go out of the slipstream,” the factory Yamaha rider said. “I had to do that last year and I learned this lesson. Only when I want to pass do I follow if not then the front tyre pressure goes up, I cannot stop and I start understeering.”
Leaving aside the comments of Fabio Quartararo – as a rookie, the Frenchman is more focused on what he can learn at every race in this stage of his career – the comments by the Yamaha riders are quite worrying. That the Yamaha M1 lacks acceleration is a given, as is the fact that the engine has been sealed and cannot be updated.
For more worrying were Rossi’s comments on a lack of progress through the middle of the year. While the other factories all make a step forward after the first few races, Yamaha’s progress seems to stall. More needs to be done in Japan if Yamaha are to catch Honda, Ducati, and now even Suzuki again.
Yamaha’s problems are not as great as those of Jorge Lorenzo and Johann Zarco, however. Despite going back to the standard seat of the Honda RC213V, Lorenzo continues to struggle to ride the Repsol Honda. “I knew before the race that it was going to be a difficult race,” Lorenzo explained.
“Because of the feeling, and the comfort I feel on the bike, because of the heat, and because of the position I started today. The most positive thing of today has been the start, I finally understood the way to make good starts with this bike. But I kept more or less the pace I expected to do, I arrived more or less in the position I expected to be, not better and not worse. But we cannot be happy.”
Drastic measures were being taken to address Lorenzo’s problems, the Spaniard flying to Japan on Monday afternoon to work with HRC engineers directly on his seating position and his support from the bike at HRC headquarters. “The solution is to travel to Japan, stay some days there,” Lorenzo said. “We will travel there to work really hard on that aspect and see if we can find a good solution as soon as possible.”
It is a bold move, and a sensible one, as Honda engineers will be able to try a number of different solutions in very short order. They will also be able to react directly to Lorenzo’s input, instead of having it filtered through crew chiefs and engineers at the circuit.
In Japan, they can work on Lorenzo’s seating position, and creating support for him under braking. That will also include getting a new fairing made, which he will be able to use to support himself on his knees with. That fairing could get an outing as soon as Barcelona, either at the race or at the test.
Johann Zarco, on the other hand, is fighting more with himself than with a need for new parts for the KTM RC16. At the end of each day, he wears the expression of a deer caught in the headlights, as he wonders how to cope with his situation.
At Mugello, he found a novel solution, starting the race with the soft tire, even though he knew the tire would probably not last the race. But his finishing position was less important than learning more about riding the bike, he explained, and so it was worth the risk.
“I wanted a bit more consistency so I chose the soft tire, but by the end it was finished,” Zarco explained after the race. “I wanted to be able to fight at the beginning and understand what my opponents can do better than me or not. I was able to get some good information, even though I suffered a lot at the end of the race and I finished slowly.”
“We know we are suffering a lot and I must wait to have some new things on the bike. I know I need to change my style but even by trying to do this I have the same limits as before. We finished last for the first time and there is always a first time for everything!” Unfortunately for Zarco, it probably won’t be the last time either.