When Sam Sunderland crossed the finish line to win the 2017 Dakar on his Red Bull KTM motorcycle he became the first Briton to ever win what is arguably the world’s most famous rally.
He wasn’t just the first to achieve this accolade on a motorcycle either; Sam Sunderland became the first British man to win the Dakar Rally on any number of wheels and under the power of any engine.
“I didn’t realise how much pressure I had until the finish. It was so emotional.”
But what makes a man want to take on such a gruelling race?
We took him for a walk behind KTM UK’s shiny new office on the outskirts of Silverstone Circuit in Northamptonshire to find out.
To be perfectly honest, when we pitched the ‘Why would anyone want to take on a rally as tense, difficult and downright dangerous as the Dakar?’ question to Sam we had expected him to wheel out the media-trained, tried-and-tested clichés about ‘challenge of a lifetime’, ‘opportunity to prove something to myself’ etc but instead he just smiled and threw out a line about being asked and him simply replying,
“Yeah alright, I’ll give it bash!”
It’s the kind of response that most of us use when considering taking on an afternoon of climbing at the local sports centre, or perhaps when challenged to taste the latest vindaloo at the local curry house, but when uttered by Sunderland, it just comes across with the ice cool demeanour of a man casually confident in his abilities.
But it’s not been anywhere near to plain sailing for the Briton who now lives in Dubai.
The 2017 Dakar was the third attempt at the race for the now-27 year old. His first attempt was in 2012 and was thwarted after just 48 hours after the Honda he was riding developed technical issues,
“Two days in and the bike stopped working, so it wasn’t very good… I’ve had a few ups and downs”.
This is a slight understatement.
In 2013, just weeks before he was due to enter his second ever Dakar, Sunderland had what he casually refers to as ‘a problem with the handlebars’.
“I had an issue and a problem with the handlebars. I was doing 130mph and broke both my wrists”
Two years, two mechanical failures of some description. Sunderland just laughs and brushes the events off like it’s nothing. Probably because these issues seem tiny compared to what was to come.
In 2014, Sunderland managed to make it to the start line but probably wished that he hadn’t. After a tough stage and some issues with his navigation, he got lost and found himself severely dehydrated,
“I just made a mistake and paid for it dearly. I spent two hours out, kicking fences down and all crazy stuff. In hindsight it’s not the best way for rallying and I’ve learnt the hard way.”
But a few hours lost in the wilderness with life-threatening dehydration was soon put behind him and as he entered the 2015-2016 season things were definitely on the up,
“Coming into 2016 I won the Morocco rally which was awesome”
It was the last race before the Dakar and having beaten many of the competitors he would soon meet on that course it was seen as a firm statement of intent,
“…and then three days later I broke my femur and I just sat at home watching it. I had to have surgery for that in Morocco and my leg is two inches shorter on one side now.”
Again, I ask him that most simple, yet piercing of questions… ‘Why? Why put yourself through it?’
“If you’d asked me that night… I would have told you that it was enough. But it soon passes and you think ‘ah man, I beat them just last month’… It makes you want to go out there and prove to yourself that you can do it.”
If there’s one takeaway from the experiences of Sam Sunderland – from an onlookers perspective at least – it’s that dedication comes in many forms. Magnified focus, tremendous spirit… Sunderland has all of these traits in spades, but what strikes me as the most important of them all is his humility. Despite possessing what is an obvious talent, there is a sense of humility and almost fate-like zen about his demeanour that gives you the belief that he could achieve pretty much anything that he set his mind to.
Whereas many of us would have seen the accidents and failures preceding his 2017 race as signs of the universe suggesting that we put our attentions into something else entirely, for Sunderland it would appear to have been interpreted as the polar opposite. A kind of ‘I’ve been through the worst, so bring it on’ attitude that is infectious.
But even with the universe behind you, how do you prepare for a race that has already chewed you up and spat you out on all of the previous occassions?
“Coming into Dakar… This year in ‘17 I was in a fortunate position where Red Bull KTM set us up in the best way that they can. I’m really fortunate to be part of that set-up and structure.”
He may be cool, but he’s still got sponsors to keep happy…
“This year I actually bought an altitude tent… I can set the altitude and I slept in that for a month before the race so I could adapt.”
With the finance and expertise of Red Bull and KTM behind him, it’s obvious that fitness and conditioning wasn’t ever going to be a problem coming into 2017. But there’s more to riding the Dakar than just being able to manage the gruelling terrain. You’ve actually got to navigate it…
“Each night we get given a big roll… A scroll which we call a roadbook.
We spend a few hours each night working and marking our own roadbook for the next day.
It’s many, many notes and they get a lot more complex when you’re in open desert. When you’re in open desert you need to follow a compass heading and it gets complicated at times.”
“We even had a few guys collide with cars.”
He’s not kidding. This year – in an attempt to slow the motorcyclists down – the organiser of the Dakar changed the GPS waypoint targets for the riders. Sam explains the changes,
“We have a GPS but that remains closed when we ride. When you arrive within a 300m radius the GPS will validate it – it used to be 800m and you could be a bit less accurate but now they’ve brought that radius in and it’s made things a bit trickier.”
‘A bit trickier…’
Let’s put that into perspective. Tricky is making the wrong turn on your GPS, turning around at the next junction and then struggling to find your direction for a few blocks before phoning your friends for directions.
Having to pinpoint a marker within the open desert within a distance of just 300m is more than ‘tricky’. It’s mind-bogglingly ridiculous. And how is that even safer?
“It kind of…”, he pauses for a while to choose his words, ” I don’t know if it makes the race safer because a lot of guys were getting lost and coming back on the route. We even had a few guys collide with cars. The organisers are doing their best to slow it down but it’s hard.”
As I keep probing him for more and more details on the difficulties and treacherous nature of the race, I suddenly realise that I’ve not even congratulated him on actually winning the damn thing. I catch myself and tell him that with all of the weather issues of this year’s race and with the changes made to the navigation, it could be argued that he actually won the hardest, most trickiest Dakar rally of them all.
And he did all this after leading from day five. He still had over half of the rally to go and he was in the lead and favourite to pick up that trophy. At what stage did he start thinking about how this was going to change his life?
“It’s hard not to think about it. I’ve made so many sacrifices and dragged myself back up to fitness again. I led it from day five and to lead the race for six/seven days was huge. I didn’t realise how much pressure I had until the finish. It was so emotional.”
It’s one hell of an achievement. I congratulate him again and put it to him that he must be amazingly proud of all that he’s been through?
He responds with his typical understatement, “Yeah, it’s really cool. We ride 800 miles in a day and we do 12 days at 12-15 hours a day and I lost a stone and half throughout the race. You’ve got six hours sleep a night and with all of the build-up through the race you’re so emotionally attached to it.
But it’s an incredible feeling for sure!”
So is that it? After everything that he’s been through to get this far, nobody would forgive Sam for putting the trophy on the shelf and signing off at the very top. I don’t have time to form the question on my lips before he anticipates and starts to talk up his chances for next year,
“With number one on my bike I’ve got a target on my back for sure but I’m confident. It’s all good.
I’ll give it a good crack.”
Ana Carrasco: The fastest female motorcycle racer of all time
She’s 21-years-old, stands five-foot-one, and weighs eight stone, wringing wet. But don’t let that fool you.
Ana Carrasco is one tough little Spaniard. She’s the first woman in the 100-years-plus history of the sport to lead a motorcycle road racing world championship.
She was also the first woman to set pole position and the first to win a race and, with just two rounds remaining of the World Supersport 300 Championship, she has a healthy16-point lead – against an entire field of men.
Oh, and she’s also half way through a four-year law degree and trains six hours every day. Are you starting to feel a bit inadequate? You should be. Meet Ana Carrasco – the fastest female motorcycle racer of all time.
Women have not always been welcomed in the sport of motorcycle road racing. Original regulations laid down by the FIM (Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme) in the early days of racing dictated that competitors must be ‘male persons between 18 and 55 years of age.’ This ruling didn’t apply to Sidecar racing so in 1954 the intrepid German, Inge Stoll-Laforge, caused a sensation by entering the Isle of Man TT – the biggest motorcycle race in the world at the time.
She finished in a highly credible 5th position but was tragically killed four years later in a crash at the Czech Grand Prix.
By 1962 the FIM had changed its rules and allowed women to race so Beryl Swain became the first female solo rider at the TT, finishing 22nd in the 50cc race before the FIM did an about-turn and banned women again in 1963.
Despite this historical backdrop of rampant sexism, a handful of brave, determined women have persisted in blazing a trail for female riders in one of the world’s most dangerous sports. Riders like Maria Costello have scored podiums at the Manx Grand Prix (the ‘amateur’ TT) and Jenny Timnouth recently became the first female rider to compete in the prestigious British Superbike Championship.
Germany’s Katja Poensgen won the Supermono Championship in 1998 and women have even scored points in the Grand Prix world championships, the first being Taru Rinne with a seventh-place finish at Hockenheim in 1989. But while convalescing from a crash shortly afterwards, the Finn received a letter from Bernie Ecclestone (who, at the time had a heavy, but thankfully short-lived, involvement in motorcycle racing) informing her that she was ‘not qualified’ to compete the following season.
Clearly, nothing had changed. Despite occasional outstanding performances by women in the male-dominated sport of motorcycle racing, by the start of the 2017 season no female had won a world championship race – perhaps unsurprisingly given the additional barriers they faced.
But that all changed at Portimao in Portugal on Sunday, September 17, 2017 when a 20-year-old Spanish rider called Ana Carrasco came out on top in an epic drag race to the finish line in the World Supersport 300 Championship race. In doing so, she became the first woman in history to win a motorcycle road racing world championship race.
And while the significance of the moment wasn’t exactly lost on Carrasco, she thinks like a racer first, and a woman second. ‘At the time I was not thinking about the significance of this’ she says. ‘I always just try to ride as hard as I can and try to achieve results – I don’t think about being a woman. So, in that moment I was just happy because I’d won the race but after some days I start to realise what I had achieved. It’s important that a woman can be fighting for the victory in the world championship because it’s good for other girls to see that this is possible.’
“It’s important that a woman can be fighting for the victory in the world championship because it’s good for other girls to see that this is possible.”
After finishing the 2017 season in eighth place overall, Carrasco came out of the traps ready for a proper fight in 2018, setting pole position at Imola, winning the race, and taking the lead in the world championship. After another win at Donington Park in England, Carrasco now has a 16-point lead with just two rounds of the championship remaining. This makes her the first woman ever to lead a motorcycle racing world championship.
It seems an incredibly young age for anyone – male of female – to be leading a world championship but Carrasco was practically born into the saddle. ‘I started riding when I was three years old because my family was always involved in the motorcycle world’ she says. ‘My father was a race mechanic since before I was born so when I was three I started riding my big sister’s minimoto because she wasn’t interested in it. So that was a good thing for me!’
Standing at just 5”1 and weighing eight stone-three (52kg) wringing wet, Carrasco cuts a diminutive figure in the racing paddock. Her slight frame would normally give her an advantage under acceleration but constantly-changing rules in the fledgling WSS300 championship (which is only in its second year) mean that even this advantage has been removed: because she is so light, Carrasco is forced to carry a weight penalty on her Kawasaki Ninja 400 race bike.
‘I now have to carry a 13kg weight penalty so I think it’s actually worse to be small’ she says. ‘I have to move more kilos than the other riders through the corners and yet the overall weight of rider and bike is the same (because of the combined bike-and-rider minimum weight rule) so I don’t have any advantage on acceleration.
‘The rules change every race so sometimes we have a good bike and sometimes no. It’s difficult for us to work like this because every Thursday of a race weekend they say “Okay, now you have to change this” or “Now you have to change that.” It’s difficult for the team and it’s also difficult for me to ride fast like this because every race I have a different bike. I hope for next year the rules will be more stable because I like to win, always, and with all these changes it’s not always possible to win. At the moment, Kawasaki is not always on the top because the rules are helping the Yamahas to be at the same level. But we just have to work within the rules Dorna gives us and finish the championship the best we can.’
Carrasco at least has a competitive bike and team for the 2018 season, which is something of a novelty after battling for years with uncompetitive and poorly-funded rides in various Spanish championships and even, for a few years, in the Moto3 World Championship that runs alongside MotoGP – the Formula 1 of motorcycle racing. ‘Yes, for me it’s really good because in the past years I was struggling a lot because I wanted to be at the top but it was impossible with the bikes that I had. Now it is really good and I’m really happy with my team and with my bike and Kawasaki is helping me a lot so now I don’t want to change my team because I feel so comfortable. I want to win, so I will stay in the place where I can fight for the victory.’
The World Supersport 300 Championship which Ana currently leads is a support series to the World Superbike Championship, meaning the young Spaniard has operated out of the two biggest paddocks in world motorcycle racing. So how do they compare in their attitudes towards women? ‘The people in the WSB paddock are more friendly and more relaxed’ Carrasco says. ‘You can speak with everybody. In the MotoGP paddock there’s a lot more pressure so the riders have to always be thinking only about riding and they cannot do anything else. So, yes, the paddocks are different but I like both.
‘I didn’t notice any difference between the paddocks in their attitudes towards female riders. My job is the same and the people are good with me, always. But in the World Supersport 300 Championship it was more easy for me to find a good team and a good bike so that I can be fighting at the top. In the past it has been really difficult for me because I never had the equipment I needed to be fighting for the victory.’
Like every motorcycle racer, Ana Carrasco needs to have the mental capacity to accept the inherent dangers of her chosen sport and the ability to endure the pain caused by regular injuries. Although safety measures have improved radically over the last 30-odd years, people still die in this sport.
“I broke my elbow in 2007 and I broke my collarbone in 2015 and also my shoulder. I’m okay with pain – I can handle it.”
Yet it’s clearly not a fact that Carrasco loses much sleep over. ‘I broke my elbow in 2007 and I broke my collarbone in 2015 and also my shoulder. I’m okay with pain – I can handle it. I can ride with pain and don’t feel it so much. I’ve had some difficult injuries but I don’t worry too much about it. I know it’s a dangerous sport but many things are dangerous so we have to try and take part in all sports with as many safety measures as we can. We have to respect the dangers and just try to remain safe and do our job. For my mother it’s more difficult! I think this sport is difficult for all the mothers to watch!’
And before you think these are the words of a crazy and irresponsible young kid, consider this: when she’s not travelling the globe fighting for a world championship, Ana Carrasco is studying for a law degree. Half way through a four-year course, the girl from Cehegin in the Murcia region of south-east Spain must balance adrenalin with diligence and solitude in equal measure.
‘It’s difficult to do both things because I spend so much time away from home but now I’m in a sports university where many Olympic athletes study so they give me the possibility to change the dates of my exams if I am racing. So I try to work out my study and exams calendar according to the racing calendar. It’s a four-year course and I am in my second year now.
‘I don’t know for sure if I will be a lawyer after racing but this is my Plan B! I want to be a racer and be riding for many years but, if not, then at least I have another plan to be a normal person and to have a job and a family and everything.’
Perhaps even more impressive – and certainly testimony to her determination and will to win – Carrasco also maintains a brutal training regime that would qualify as a full-time job in itself. ‘I train around six hours every day’ she says. ‘I go to the gym for about three or four hours and then ride dirt bikes for another few hours.’
It’s this kind of commitment that sees Carrasco regularly beating an entire field full of men and her reward is the sheer satisfaction that generates. ‘Yes, for me it’s good!’ she laughs. ‘This is a motivation to show the people that women can do the same. This is what I want – I want to win in a world championship so I can show that I can beat the best riders in the world in that class. So, I want to be always better and better and better and to arrive at the top.’
Once you can see that other girls are doing it then you can think “Why not? Why can’t I do the same?”
It’s perhaps not easy for every male psyche to handle being beaten by a woman (in the past, they’ve also had to accept Carrasco’s own take on the brolly dolly – she had her own umbrella fella on the grid!) especially in a sport that has for so long been male-dominated. So how do her rivals treat her? Does she get the respect she deserves or does she get shunned by bitter, defeated rivals? ‘For sure they respect me because if you are fast, everybody respects you! I’ve shown them that I can win races and fight for the championship so I think everybody respects me now.’
Testosterone is not always a man’s best friend. Often it can lead to rash decisions out on track and crazy do-or-die lunges that have little chance of working and every chance of ending in crashes and broken bones. In the sport, this kind of aggression is known as ‘red mist’ and it’s the one area where Carrasco thinks female riders may actually have a slight advantage over the men. ‘Sometimes it helps to be a woman, yes. Women think more when they are on the bike! The men are more brave but they sometimes make dangerous moves without thinking and sometimes this is not so good! I think in my case I have a slight advantage here because I always stay calm and think a lot about what I have to do out on the race track.’
Female motorcycle racers are no longer a complete novelty but they’re still very much in the minority (there are none at all, for example, in the world’s two biggest motorcycle championships – MotoGP and World Superbikes) although Carrasco believes it’s getting easier for women to be involved. ‘Every year it gets a bit more easy. It’s difficult for a young female rider to see how they can arrive in a world championship if they never see any other girls doing it. So if you are the first girl to do it then it’s more difficult but once you can see that other girls are doing it then you can think “Why not? Why can’t I do the same?” So, for the girls, it’s important that I’m doing a good job in the world championship.
‘I think women can do the same as men in this sport. We are all just riders and we can all do the same thing. But it’s more difficult for women to find a good opportunity – a good team and a good bike. It’s more difficult for people to believe that we can win so we have many problems in getting access to competitive equipment to be fighting at the top. In this sport, if you do not have a good bike then you cannot fight to win.’
As to the future, Carrasco already has some options on the table due to her incredible performances this year. But for now, she’s concentrating on the job in hand. ‘I want to continue with Kawasaki because I am very happy with them and they are supporting me to be at the top. I would also like to continue with my team. But it will depend on what we achieve this year. I have some offers from the Moto3 World Championship and also from World Supersport 600 and World Supersport 300 teams. At the moment, I don’t know. I think around September time we will start to look more closely at next year but at the moment I just want to think about the championship.’
There are two rounds remaining of the World Supersport 300 Championship – at Portimao, Portugal, on September 16, and at Magny-Cours, France, on September 30. Carrasco has a healthy 16-point lead over Germany’s Luca Grunwald but with 25 points available for each race win, it’s still all to play for. One crash or mechanical breakdown could change everything, but Carrasco is confident. ‘We have a good opportunity, we are in a good position in the championship, so I want to try to win at Portimao because I like this place. The circuit is good for me, so I would like to finish on the podium and win the championship there. But if not, then we will wait and try again in Magny-Cours. For sure we have a good opportunity and we are in the best position to win the championship.’
The sport of motorcycle road racing has been around for well over 100 years but no woman has ever come this close to lifting a world title. So what would it mean to the petite, highly intelligent, and multi-lingual Spaniard if she could put an end to all that and finally prove beyond all doubt that women have a genuine place in motorcycle racing?
‘For me it would be a dream come true because, for my whole life, my dream is to be world champion and this year I have the opportunity so I want to give my best to try to win.’
This article first appeared on the freshly minted blog of renowned Motorcycle writer Stuart Barker. It’s been republished here with explicit permission.
MotoGP Mugello: Form is temporary. But class? Lorenzo
Mugello. A ribbon of perfection nestled in a lush green Tuscan valley and the destination of the yearly MotoGP pilgrimage to its sacred asphalt.
Yellow is the colour of Mugello, challenged only slightly by the beauty of il Tricolore and the heat of the Ducati red. The “Popolo Giallo” (or yellow people for the non-Italiani) dominate and with Valentino Rossi on pole, the excitement and tension within the Autodromo del Mugello was at one of it’s highest points since the golden era of the Italian master.
As the polesitter made his way around the 5.24km track to the grid, the usual spontaneous combustion of his followers took place, bathing much of the circuit in that familiar yellow haze, and he was manoeuvred into his grid place to the soundtrack of a deafening chant of “Vale Vale Vale”.
If you want a partisan crowd nowhere does it better than Mugello, and they’re quite good at the patriotism side of things too, with a rousing rendition of the spine-tingling Fratelli d’Italia echoing through the hills, something only the roar of the Frecce Tricolori could drown out as they bathed Mugello in the green, white and red of the Italian flag. In itself, it was a sight that had paddock veterans staring at the sky in awe, but combined with the atmosphere from the fans and the anticipation of the 23 laps ahead? It was an unbeatable spectacle that left the grid sitting in a haze of smoke thanks to the planes and flares.
When the smoke cleared the riders headed off on their warmup lap, and the 90,000 attendees along with millions worldwide settled themselves in for a rollercoaster 40 minutes. The track temperature was as high as the anticipation, with 51 degrees promising a punishing time for the tyres. The majority had the medium front in but Rossi, Marquez, Dovizioso and Vinales went for the hard asymmetric option, while Pedrosa and Pol Espargaro chose the symmetric. On the rear, it was mostly softs, with the medium being the tyre of choice for Rossi, Vinales, Zarco, Pedrosa, Crutchlow and Miller, with Marquez being the only rider to opt for the hard compound.
As the lights went out in Italy, it was unsurprisingly Jorge Lorenzo that got the best start as his Ducati rocketed off the line, giving him a secure slot into the lead down into turn 1. Marc Marquez made a good start from 6th but ran in too hot at San Donato and as he tried to claw back positions he had contact with Danilo Petrucci at turn 2, forcing the Italian to run off-track while the World Champion moved into third behind polesitter Valentino Rossi.
The turn 2 of Luco proved problematic for Dani Pedrosa and Takaaki Nakagami as both of them hit the floor 2 corners in. This time it was Pedrosa’s fault as he’d touched the rear of Bautista as he tried to pass Nakagami; a mistake that resulted in him taking both of them into the gravel. Nakagami was able to rejoin eventually after going back to the box but had to contend with damaged handlebars.
The final corner of Bucine saw another double crash as Scott Redding and Karel Abraham hit the floor. Abraham had lost the rear at turn 15, with his bike then taking out Redding’s Aprilia and rounding out a difficult weekend for both of them.
On lap 2, Maverick Vinales had dropped down 8 places from his starting position of 3rd, but while things weren’t going well for the Spaniard, they were far worse for Jack Miller who crashed at turn 4 and Tom Luthi who hit the floor at turn 15 after losing the front trying to pass Simeon. By the end of the second lap, 6 riders had crashed, which didn’t exactly bode all that well.
At turn 1 at the start of lap 3, Marquez made his move on Rossi, moving up the inside of the Italian on the brakes, while Petrucci was recovering from his clash with the Championship leader by putting in the fastest lap of the race.
Out front, Lorenzo was slowly but surely opening up his lead, with Marquez, Rossi, Iannone, Dovizioso, Rins and Petrucci all following in a group.
Lap 5 and Marquez’s championship lead took it’s first hit as he slid out of the race at turn 10 of Scarperia. And when I say slid, I really do mean he slid.. he tried so hard to save it and if he’d had a bit more asphalt he probably would’ve done, but once you hit gravel that’s game over. His determination left one hell of a black line behind him though. Thanks to a bit of help from the marshals, Marquez was able to rejoin back in 18th but it wasn’t going to be a 4th successive win for the Spaniard. 10 out of 10 for effort, but no points for the championship in Mugello.
Dovizioso made his move on Iannone shortly after, moving the Ducati rider into 3rd behind Rossi as his team-mate continued to pull away at the front.
2 laps later and Dovi moved past Rossi at Arrabbiata 1 to take second, with Valentino then running wide at turn 1 on the next lap, allowing Iannone to move through into 3rd.
By lap 12, Lorenzo led by over a second and back in the Yamaha days this would’ve been game over for the rest of the grid. Clear track + Lorenzo = domination. He was confident the modifications to his fuel tank would allow him to maintain his pace longer during the race, because he was less tired riding the bike, but could he take it all the way to the chequered flag?
Behind him, Rossi made it back past Iannone at turn 14, before running wide at turn 15 which let both Iannone and Petrucci past him, with the yellow & black Lamborghini liveried Pramac taking over 3rd as they chased each other down the front straight.
One lap later and Iannone lost two places, dropping back to 6th as both Rossi and his team-mate Rins made it past him, while Lorenzo’s lead was now 1.5 seconds over Dovizioso, with Petrucci rounding out an all-Ducati provisional podium.
Alex Rins then made it past Rossi for 4th, but he wasn’t able to hold the position long as the Italian duo of Rossi and Iannone pushed him back to 6th two laps later, with Valentino then turning his attention to Petrucci in front of him.
With 6 laps left, we reached the very end of the life of the tyres and riders were having to eek every single drop of grip out of the abused rubber. Petrucci and Rins were both informed by their respective teams to move to mapping 3 in an attempt to smooth things out and nurse the tyres home and while Petrucci struggled Rossi pounced, taking third at turn 4 with a perfect block pass up the inside that left no room for retaliation. Iannone took advantage shortly after, moving to 4th, while Vinales and Bautista had found some late pace and were hot on the tails of the chasing group.
With Lorenzo’s lead now over 3 seconds clear of Dovizioso, who in turn was 5 seconds ahead of Rossi, Dovi appeared to make the decision to settle for second and just bring the bike home and by the next lap, Jorge’s lead had increased to 4.6 seconds with ease.
It was 2016 when Jorge last turned Mugello into Lorenzo’s Land
Iannone made a brief attempt to pass Rossi at San Donato but ran in too hot giving the Yamaha rider plenty of room to cut to the inside line and retake the position. With 4 laps to go, Aleix Espargaro pulled into the pits to retire, marking another disappointing weekend for the Noale factory.
Petrucci, meanwhile, was still going backwards with both Rins and Crutchlow passing him in the final laps, dropping the Italian back to 7th.
On the penultimate lap, Iannone made another shot at taking 3rd from Rossi at turn 1, but as before he ran in too hot giving Valentino an easy move up the inside and he was able to chase down Dovizioso until the end of the race, closing the gap between the Italians to just 0.25 seconds at the line.
But the only gap that really mattered was that of the race winner, as Jorge Lorenzo stormed over the line to take the chequered flag 6.37 seconds ahead of his team-mate after a dominant performance that didn’t give anyone else a shot to challenge him. His pace had been unmatchable and unbeatable during the race, with the Spaniard only dropping out of the 1’48s on 4 of the 23 laps (the first and then the final 3).
It had been 2016 when Jorge last turned Mugello into Lorenzo’s Land after that incredibly close battle with Marc Marquez that saw them cross the line 0.019 apart. There was no battling this year and as Jorge planted his iconic flag into the gravel in front of the Ducati stand at Correntaio he marked his first win with Ducati and his return to the top step for the first time since Valencia 2016.
There were some who, before he had even thrown a leg over the Desmo, said that Jorge would not be able to tame it. That it wasn’t the bike for him. That he was going to follow Valentino into 2 years with no reward.
Those critics got louder as the results didn’t come, especially when Dovizioso showed that the bike could win. But Jorge remained firm in the belief that all he needed was a little help from Ducati to become more comfortable and to make the engine a little smoother and then he would be able to show his competitiveness for more than a few laps at the start of the race. The latter came at Jerez, the former at Mugello after productive tests in Barcelona and Mugello. And then the win came too.
Valentino applauded Lorenzo on the podium and embraced him in Parc Ferme
Jorge Lorenzo was hired to do one thing by Ducati; to win a world championship. But while Dovi came close last year, the bike ultimately wasn’t ready for that when Jorge arrived at the Bologna factory. You can’t expect a rider, any rider, to move from a bike like the Yamaha to one like the Ducati and produce instant results. It doesn’t happen.
Dovizioso’s success last year might have taken some of the focus away from Lorenzo’s developmental needs, prioritising the winning rider isn’t too surprising, and possibly explains why such a relatively simple tank addition has only just arrived, when he’d been asking for it months earlier.
Make me more comfortable and I’ll win was a belief Jorge stuck to and in Mugello he backed himself up emphatically.
He becomes only the 6th rider in MotoGP to win on two different manufacturers (along with Rossi, Biaggi, Stoner, Dovizioso and Vinales) and the first to do so with Yamaha and Ducati.
The wait was a long one but that will have made the cava taste all the sweeter, and while the fans at Mugello have always jeered Jorge (because he won when Rossi couldn’t) it’s important to note that Valentino applauded him on the podium and embraced him in Parc Ferme. If there’s anyone who knows how it feels to be at Ducati and struggling to win, it’s Vale.
But while Jorge did what Valentino could not (important note: completely different situations, bikes nothing alike, different factory structure & management etc), he looks to be following in his former team-mates footsteps by walking out of Ducati at the end of the season. Speaking after the race he said “unfortunately on one side of me I’m sad because I believe if these pieces that I needed arrive much earlier, maybe 4 months earlier, now I would say to you I stay in Ducati and I have now 2-3 victories, but unfortunately arrive too late.. now it’s too late and next 2 years I will be with another bike”.
Ducati team boss Gigi Dall’Igna was slightly more caged in his words saying “I think it’s really difficult that he stay with us, but never say never, see what happens in the next weeks”.
The reality is that Jorge had clearly made up his mind that he’s going and next year we’re most likely to see him on a satellite Yamaha. The where and the how are unknown but it should be a good move for him to get back to the bike he was so devastating on, and it might help Yamaha with their development too.
But that’s all in the future and Jorge Lorenzo was keen to stay focused on the present, at least until he’d had a few drinks to celebrate with his team, and he marked his win at Mugello as one of the top 3 wins of his career (not including championships) saying that it was a “dream come true” to win with Ducati at Mugello.
Of course, for Ducati, it was a pretty special day too, with a second consecutive win at Mugello after Dovizioso’s victory last year and a double podium for the factory riders in front of all the fans and factory with their first 1-2 at the circuit.
For Dovizioso, second was not the race result he wanted and he felt he’d made the wrong front tyre choice which stopped him from being quick enough through the corners before he then ran out of rear grip as well. But 20 points were very welcome after two DNFs and he moves to 4th in the championship, 29 points behind Marquez.
It’s the man who finished in third who is now the closest challenger to the World Champion as Valentino Rossi moved to 2nd in the championship, 23 points behind. For Rossi, they’d been able to improve the balance of the bike during testing, particularly over one lap, but they still need to work more for race distance. Pole position had been a very welcome surprise for The Doctor and being back on the podium for the first time since 2015 was a good way to end the weekend at home.
Valentino had been given no real choice when it came to running the hard front tyre; the medium simply wouldn’t last until the chequered flag, but it did mean he was lacking grip and meant it was a tough race for the Italian. But being on the podium in front of the yellow masses all chanting his name? Totally worth it. “That 10 minutes in the podium in Mugello in front of all the fans repay you for all the effort that you do during the year”.
It’s moments like that when he’s stood there basking in the adoration of thousands of fans, all bathed in yellow and chanting “Vale Vale Vale”, that give him all the motivation he needs to still be so competitive 23 years after he started. Valentino also reached a new milestone in Mugello as he became the first rider to reach 5000 career points in the premier class as he took his 230th Grand Prix podium and his 194th in the top tier.
In 4th came another Italian, with Andrea Iannone bringing the Suzuki home to a strong finish after a very competitive weekend that saw him top all but one of the practice sessions. In the race, he was struggling with his rear tyre and losing out on acceleration as expected but he fought until the end to try and take the final place on the podium away from Rossi and as he looks to secure his future in MotoGP it was an excellent weekend from Andrea.
The second Suzuki wasn’t far behind with Alex Rins making it a double top 5 for the Japanese team and the Spaniard was delighted, especially as he wasn’t fully fit after crashing on Saturday and hurting his shoulder (which he will have checked this week). Like everyone else, he struggled with front grip but it was a brilliant ride for Alex, especially as it was his first time at Mugello on the MotoGP bike.
6th went to Cal Crutchlow, which the British rider felt was better than he’d expected after a tough weekend. He’d struggled with front grip and found it difficult to overtake but as he continues to return to fitness after his huge crash in France, top Honda is a good result.
His LCR team-mate Takaaki Nakagami reached the chequered flag in 18th but was 5 laps down on the rest of the field due to his crash at the start of the race. Taka was understandably disappointed, especially because it wasn’t his fault, but was pleased to have kept a decent pace after he rejoined.
Despite a strong comeback after contact with Marquez, Danilo Petrucci crossed the line in 7th after he ran out of rear tyre at the end and also experienced an issue with the fuel pump that slightly reduced his power output. He’d had a few laps in the podium positions and was “very angry” to drop back late on but I think they can take positives from the good pace he showed during the weekend.
His fellow yellow Pramac team-mate (they should really keep that colour scheme) Jack Miller recorded his first DNF since Austria last year, ending his impressive run of top10 finishes. Miller crashed out on the second lap of the race and was disappointed in his mistake after a good weekend and said: “I’ve learnt a lesson”.
But one of the most disappointed riders at the end of Sunday was Maverick Vinales who brought his Yamaha home in 8th after a lot of issues with the front of the bike early on, leading him to say that “I cannot ride this bike”, before later finding some pace but being unable to really capitalise on it as he’d already destroyed his tyres. For Maverick, the high temperatures again seem to have caught the Yamaha out and it’s the difference in performance from one session to another that’s really frustrating the Spaniard. Finishing 4.4 seconds behind his team-mate on the same bike and tyres when they started on the same row is not ideal.
9th went to Alvaro Bautista after what he called a “pretty hard race” but he was happy with the gap to the leader and to have secured top 10, while his Angel Nieto team-mate Karel Abraham suffered through being ill all weekend and lost the rear at the last corner on the first lap.
Rounding out the top 10 was Johann Zarco who had a difficult weekend and never really found the pace he normally shows, saying he felt they were missing something. In the race, he still couldn’t find a good feeling and instead focussed on finishing the race as he was fighting his bike in every corner. Hafizh Syahrin had a good result in 12th despite struggling with grip early on and using up most of his energy trying to push to make up for it later on. It was actually a pretty good weekend for the rookie as he regains some of his confidence.
Splitting the Tech 3s in 12th was Pol Espargaro on the KTM and it had been a difficult weekend for the Austrian factory as they struggled through the many fast corners that make up Mugello. Pol had been battling spinning during the race and was having to adjust his throttle and engine maps to try and reduce that, while his team-mate Bradley Smith finished 14th after losing a couple of places late on after his front tyre pressure rose a bit high.
13th went to Tito Rabat who was really just happy to be on track and to get points after a crash at the Barcelona test left him with some ligament damage to his left arm. He had issues with the front tyre during the race saying it had felt like he was riding on ice and that it was almost like riding with the handbrake on. Team-mate Xavier Simeon finished 17th after a good start was hampered by issues with a rear tyre that kept stepping out on the Belgian.
The final point scoring place was secured by Franco Morbidelli in 15th who had a decent weekend; including going straight to Q2 on Saturday. He kept constant pace during the race and showed some good speed during the practice sessions. Fellow Marc VDS rookie Tom Luthi had a few crashes during the weekend and again fell during the race as he lost the front trying to make an overtake on Simeon and apologised to the team after a complicated weekend.
World Champion Marc Marquez took the chequered flag in 16th but 12 seconds off the points and 39 seconds back from Lorenzo after his fall at turn 10 on lap 5. Trying to explain the crash, Marc said that the front had folded on him unexpectedly when he wasn’t even pushing that hard. He had struggled with the tyres throughout the weekend, with the allocation being too soft for the hard braking of the Honda, but he was happy that he’d kept a decent pace after rejoining and now looks forward to Barcelona in 2 weeks time.
The other Repsol of Dani Pedrosa didn’t even make it to turn 3 of the first lap as he crashed out after touching the rear of Bautista’s bike sending both Dani and Nakagami into the gravel and Pedrosa didn’t have an easy weekend as he was never able to find grip with the tyres. His race was always going to be difficult as he was unable to progress into Q2 after having to use his second bike in qualifying due to a crash in FP4, but a DNF is the last thing Dani needed after a difficult start to the season.
It was a home race to forget for the Aprilia team as Scott Redding crashed out on lap 1 and rounded out a difficult weekend for the British rider who just can’t find the right feeling with the RS-GP, while Aleix Espargaro had to retire late in the race after having big issues with his rear tyre that led to him almost crashing on numerous occasions and eventually left him no choice but to pull in.
On the MotoGP calendar, there is nowhere like Mugello. Phillip Island has the stunning scenery, Spielberg has the greenery and the speed, but nowhere can rival the atmosphere of a Mugello that’s at the very top of its rev limiter.
Racing and Rossi are a religion for the majority that pack the grandstands and hills that line the track and they make their adoration known, and loudly. Few places on Earth show devotion like a Mugello in celebration of Valentino Rossi and his love for them burns as bright as the colour he made his own all those years ago. Long after the riders have left the podium, the invading fans remain on the grid to chant “dove Vale, dove Vale” which is their way of calling Valentino back to the podium to greet them again.. and he answers every time.
But while Mugello is always about the 46, on Sunday it was Ducati’s day as we witnessed the return of a MotoGP King to the top step as Jorge Lorenzo took his 149th Grand Prix podium, his 111th in MotoGP on his 180th start in the class thanks to his 45th win in the premier class, and his 66th overall.
It was a fast and furious weekend at the Italian Grand Prix. Lap records were smashed with the fastest ever lap now belonging to Valentino Rossi and the top speed record was surpassed twice by Andrea Dovizioso and now stands at 356.5 km/h. But while we celebrate the astonishing speeds the riders are now able to reach, we also had a sobering reminder of their danger when Michele Pirro crashed in FP2. There is no worse feeling in racing than a red flag when a rider is down and the screens come out. The fear and uncertainty are palpable and while thankfully Michele was relatively ok, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the dangers the riders face (so again, stop booing of riders and cheering when they crash) and that we keep pushing to make things safer.
Speaking of safety… Sunday marked the two-year anniversary of the fatal accident of Luis Salom at Barcelona in 2016 (at a corner that should have been modified years earlier) and it was lovely to see him be remembered throughout the paddock; with tributes from Moto2’s Joan Mir and the Moto3 winner Jorge Martin, as well as many online messages for the wonderful young man we knew as Mexicano and who is still missed every day.
My image of the weekend? It’s split actually. Michele Pirro back in the garage on the Sunday was wonderful and the Frecce Tricolori display is always breathtaking. But I think I’ll choose the podium and Jorge Lorenzo standing on the top step, holding that gorgeous Mugello trophy aloft and Valentino Rossi standing next to him, looking up at one of his greatest rivals with a smile on his face and applauding him.
Remember: form is temporary, but class? That’s permanent.