Round 6 of the 2017 MotoGP season plays host to the Italian Grand Prix and the start of a run that sees 4 races in 5 weeks, and that can only mean one thing… Mugello.
Quick disclosure: Mugello was my first real love in racing and it’s been my home race for years, so if you think I’m biased towards it, you’re absolutely right; I am.
The Autodromo del Mugello is settled in a breathtaking Tuscan valley just north-east of the equally beautiful Florence and in terms of aesthetics, only Phillip Island’s gorgeous coastline can come close. But Mugello is so much more than it’s surroundings.
A ribbon of asphalt that wraps itself around the hills, it has everything you could ask for from a circuit.
Fast sweeping corners? The Arrabbiatas at turns 8 and 9 have you covered.
A long, (very) fast straight with a blind braking point into turn 1? Mugello has the best in the world, although the wall is a little too close for my liking.
Off-camber, downhill corners or fast changes of direction? It has those too, with turns 6 and 7 of Casanova and Savelli, along with Scarperia and Palagio at 10 and 11 creating two of only three main overtaking opportunities around the track.
For bike setup, this weekend is often a case of compromise. Handling is key at Mugello, with the fast changes of direction main components of a good lap, so concentrating too much on the entry into turn 1 and it’s harder braking will cause problems later. In general, bikes will be set up longer for this Grand Prix and as Tom Jojic of KTM says they’ll be “calmer” to keep them stable, with stronger springs one of the options to achieve this.
“al Mugello non si dorme..”
The characteristics of Mugello bring fast, exciting racing (it has the lowest percentage of braking time on the calendar, just 26%), especially in front straight battles, but what really makes the Italian Grand Prix is the fans. Unsurprisingly, the majority tend to wear yellow at a track where Valentino Rossi has won 7 times in MotoGP. They’re loud and fairly partisan, but there’s nothing quite like the roar of a Mugello crowd. Although, word of warning; if you ever decide to camp at the track, don’t expect to sleep. They keep the noise up all night long, because “al Mugello non si dorme..”
Those fans could prove to vital to The Doctor this weekend, after a motocross accident last Thursday left him with bruising to his liver and kidneys. His condition has improved a lot in the last week, with breathing, in particular, a lot easier for the Italian but he’s still in a fair bit of pain. Valentino did try a couple of road bikes on Wednesday to evaluate how his injuries would affect him this weekend and found that he could move without too many problems, which did make him optimistic, although he acknowledged that “the stress is not comparable” to MotoGP.
“I think that after this crash my motocross career is maybe over” – Rossi
For Rossi, Mugello is a vital event on the calendar.
It’s his home Grand Prix and after the disappointment in Le Mans, it was where he needed to take back control. Now, he needs to first evaluate how his injuries will affect him on the M1, with the fast changes of direction and the harder breathing from exertion the main areas that could cause him issues. Valentino intends to start Friday as normal and then see if it will be necessary to maybe do fewer laps to save energy and recover for Sunday. The fans at Mugello could be just the boost he needs, plus a healthy dose of adrenaline always helps.
On motocross itself, the Italian admitted with a smile that “I think that after this crash my motocross career is maybe over” as he feels very lucky not to have broken something at this stage of the season. Motocross is undoubtedly brilliant training for MotoGP riders, both physically and mentally, with Dovi explaining it best; “we play with the limit every time (in MotoGP), you have to train in that way, you can’t stay at home and train in the gym and go racing.”
But ultimately, each rider has to weigh up the benefits of the training, with the risks of crashing. Perhaps one option is to follow Dani Pedrosa, who doesn’t use mx tracks with jumps.
But while Rossi is on the back foot physically, his team-mate Maverick Vinales comes to Mugello perfectly placed. Leading the championship, Maverick brings a lot of confidence into this weekend, although he admits “the next rounds will be decisive and it will be crucial to take the victory in Mugello”. MotoGP’s Top Gun has also won 3 of the first 5 races, making him only the fifth rider to do so after Rossi, Stoner, Lorenzo and Marquez. Interestingly in the seasons that those four achieved it, they all went on to win the title.
Despite his great start to 2017, there’s still room for Vinales to improve on the Yamaha, namely in braking. Maverick says that he still brakes too hard, which doesn’t always work with the M1 and for Mugello he’ll be trying to emulate Jorge Lorenzo’s riding style as much as possible, helped by the data Lorenzo left when he moved.
Of course, another rider who will hope to bring some of the Spartan’s style this weekend is Tech 3 Yamaha rookie Johann Zarco, who took over ownership of Lorenzo’s 2016 M1.
The Frenchman is obviously motivated after his first podium last time out and is looking forward to experiencing Mugello on a MotoGP bike. If he can continue his form from the French Grand Prix, he has every chance of making it back to back podiums in Italy.
The Italian Grand Prix is unsurprisingly a big weekend for the Ducati team that Lorenzo moved to. Along with his team-mate Andrea Dovizioso and test-rider wildcard Michele Pirro, the three men in red will be wanting to put on a good show for the home fans. The team tested at Mugello before Le Mans and the general feeling is that it was mostly positive, while the test at Barcelona last week also helped Lorenzo find some “good solutions” with the front tyre. The Spaniard’s record at Mugello is incredible; he has finished 1st or 2nd for the last 8 years in Tuscany, with 5 wins in the last 6 attempts. I don’t expect to see him on the top step on Sunday; realistically Ducati aren’t there yet, with Dovizioso’s target of a podium finish holding a better chance.
But if Ducati are hoping for a podium at Mugello, they’ll have strong opposition from the Hondas on Sunday.
Dani Pedrosa is second in the championship after his brilliant podium in Le Mans and with better weather conditions expected, the extra setup time and higher tyre temperature make him a strong contender this weekend. On the other side of the box, Marc Marquez has work to do. His 58 points are his lowest amount after 5 races since he moved into MotoGP, with Pedrosa ahead of him in the championship for the first time since Assen 2013 (Dani broke his collarbone at the next race in Germany).
Marquez might just see a turnaround this weekend though, and it comes in the shape of a new Michelin front tyre after riders voted to swap to a stiffer construction. The “70”, as it’s designated, brings more support under braking for the riders which Marc says gives him less movement and therefore, more confidence. His fellow Honda rider Cal Crutchlow is also likely to reap the benefits of the new construction, along with Valentino Rossi who was one of the first riders to ask for it.
For the other factories of Suzuki, Aprilia and KTM, Mugello will be an important opportunity to take another step forward. Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone is still struggling with braking, and while he waits for new parts from Japan, a good run at his home race could prove a vital confidence boost. Aprilia had an important test at Barcelona, running a new evolution of their seamless gearbox, alongside the usual electronics work and Aleix trying out the aero-fairing for the RS-GP. KTM can continue building on a good double points scoring performance in Le Mans and put their new engine to the ultimate test.
Mugello demands nothing short of perfection.
The satellite Ducati teams will be hoping to join their factory family in a good race weekend, with Aspar’s Alvaro Bautista hoping his luck will change at Mugello and that they’ll find a comfortable setup early on Friday in order to improve qualifying. Avintia’s Hector Barbera had a positive test in Barcelona so has new confidence to get his season back on track. The satellite Hondas of Jack Miller and Tito Rabat will look to negate what they lose on the straight with what they gain in the fast changes of direction; luckily Miller has recovered well from his horrendous crash in Le Mans and has improved his confidence with the front, while Rabat’s aim is to improve qualifying.
Mugello demands nothing short of perfection from the riders who take it on, but perfection in MotoGP is hard to find, making compromise key. But if there’s one thing the entire paddock won’t be lacking this weekend it’s emotion. The loss of Nicky Hayden last week will take a long time to fully sink in, as well as Saturday being the one year anniversary of the death of Luis Salom in Barcelona in 2016. Both of them gave everything they had every single day, in every area of their life. They were both fiercely devoted to their families and to racing.
Mugello feeds off the exhilaration of the chase and the sheer, unadulterated joy of winning, in that way it is the perfect reflection of MotoGP itself. This weekend, Nicky and Luis, along with Marco and the others we’ve lost like Shoya and Daijiro, will be in everyone’s thoughts and it’s the fierce love that MotoGP permeates that will make everyone race just that little bit harder on Sunday.
As Nicky would say.. Let’s get it.