The MotoGP World Championship heads to the rolling hills of Tuscany this weekend, and the Mugello circuit for the Italian Grand Prix – round six of the 2019 season.
Mugello is a special event for the crowd. Usually baked in glorious sunshine, the Italians avoid sleep, and attach amplifying devices to their motors to ensure the spectators are unable to hear the 300hp MotoGP machines as they head down to San Donato.
That in itself is a unique moment of the season: storming out of Bucine in third gear, cutting over the pit lane, the bike goes light over the crest at 170mph. Once the front wheel is settled, the rider has to direct the machine, at over 200mph, at the edge of the grass lining the track on the side of the pit wall, to cut the chevrons which separate the track from the pit lane exit. At this point the track rises, and is turning right; as it crests once more, it starts to move left again. The rider has to wrestle the bike at 220mph to keep the front wheel communicating with the floor, and turning the bike back to the left to prepare the entry to turn one at San Donato. Additionally, atop the crest the asphalt is quite bumpy, and the aerodynamic effect going on at the top of the crest means that the bikes often get out of shape. This is what caught out Michele Pirro last year on the factory Ducati, as his brake pads were knocked back, so when he grabbed the front brake at over 200mph, he had nothing, so he kept grabbing until eventually something happened- too much, in fact, as he was launched skywards, and landed hard. Pirro missed the rest of the weekend, but was thankfully back at the track on Sunday to watch Jorge Lorenzo take his first victory in red.
From the terror of San Donato, the track is equally beautiful for the remaining fourteen corners; long, rolling bends flowing up and down two sides of a valley – the beauty of Mugello is undeniable.
For some, however, it is more beautiful than for others. Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), for example, has crashed out of three of his six MotoGP races in Mugello, and has only one win – in 2014 – and a single podium – in 2016 in that classic last lap battle with Jorge Lorenzo to whom he finished second. Although, there is a strange beauty for Marquez in going to Italy – one which his teammate for 2019 at Repsol Honda, Jorge Lorenzo, has relished in the past, having scored six premier class wins there, including the aforementioned triumph on the Desmosedici last year. This strange beauty is of course to be in the house of their deepest rival: Valentino Rossi (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP). This year promises to be a trickier task for Lorenzo, who has missed feeling with his Honda RC213V all season. However, after being written off before the Italian Grand Prix twelve months ago, Lorenzo will be quietly optimistic of a positive weekend in Tuscany. Marquez, on the other hand, was showing good speed in the race last season, before a crash at Scarperia cost him any points, and will be hoping that the agility of the Honda will marry well with its more powerful motor for 2019, to power him to his second Italian Grand Prix victory.
Whilst there is almost an anti-beauty in Mugello for Marquez and Lorenzo, the feeling for the Italian riders at their home Grand Prix is never anything but special. Loud crowds make their presence known from dawn on Thursday, and do not let their noise dissipate until they depart on Monday – ‘Al Mugello non si dorme’.
Especially, the Italian Grand Prix is a special one for the aforementioned home favourite, Valentino Rossi. It is hard to go to Mugello without recounting Rossi’s golden years in Tuscany, where he was unbeaten between 2002 and 2008, winning on both Honda and Yamaha; but also his heartache of recent years, be it the expiration of his M1’s motor in 2016 which cost him a strong shot at the win, or his motocross accident in 2017 a week before practice began which ended his victory hopes before the weekend had even begun. This year, there is little promise of a return to the form of the early 2000s, as the Yamaha’s speed deficit to its rivals has simply become too much, which cost The Doctor against the Ducati trio in front of him in Le Mans, and with Mugello’s front stretch being the fastest of the year, it is unlikely that those issues will cease to plague him this weekend. However, the Yamaha is working well in the corners, so if Rossi can get to the front, he may have the possibility forge himself an advantage.
Doing that, though, will be challenging when there are three – at least – Ducatis, as well as the Hondas of Marquez and – possibly – Lorenzo lining up for their shot at Italian glory. Particularly for Ducati, this weekend is an important one. They would have expected to challenge Marquez in Le Mans, but instead the World Champion disappeared. At home, Ducati have won the last two years, first with Andrea Dovizioso (Mission Winnow Ducati) in 2017, and second with Lorenzo last season. Additionally, they have Michele Pirro with them once again, on the ‘lab’ bike – the person who tells you the spec of that motorcycle will have eaten their final meal – as well as Danilo Petrucci (Mission Winnow Ducati) who took his first podium for the factory team in Le Mans last time out, and took his first dry weather MotoGP podium for Pramac in Mugello two years ago. Finally, there is Jack Miller (Pramac Racing) who is, firstly, after Petrucci’s seat for 2019 and, secondly, after his second rostrum of the season, and first MotoGP win since Assen 2016. It could be a big weekend for the Bologna Bullets, and they simply must beat Marquez and Honda.
Suzuki also face an important weekend, and one in which they must overcome their qualifying difficulties which limited Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) to tenth in Le Mans after starting only nineteenth and Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) to only one place better in qualifying, before he crashed on the warm up lap and finished a lap down in the race.
Other riders to keep an eye on this weekend include Andrea Iannone (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) who finished second in 2015 before the Ducati could turn; Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha SRT) who is in the middle of a stunning rookie season and should have had two podiums by now; Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) who was fast in Mugello last season despite being on the disagreeable satellite Honda; and the KTM riders off the back of Pol Espargaro’s (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) impressive sixth place in France two weeks ago.
Featured image courtesy of Box Repsol