If you want to know what the attendance at a racetrack is, you have two options, the official channel, and the unofficial one. If you want the official tally, you have to wait until Sunday, when the circuit, together with Dorna, publish the number of spectators over the three days of the track. Those numbers are based on ticket sales, though how precisely they are reflect the numbers at the track is a frequent topic of speculation.
If you want a more accurate assessment of how busy a track is, then the best thing to do is to canvas a few of the regular photographers who shoot MotoGP. They spend all day wandering around the track, seeing most of the grandstands and hillsides which overlook the circuit. A trained eye for detail and an excellent memory are key assets for a professional photographer, so they generally have a pretty good idea of how many people are at the track. Their estimates are usually much more accurate than the official numbers, and can differ by a surprisingly large amount from them.
So when several photographers report that the hillsides at Mugello seem emptier again this year, then it would appear that MotoGP has a problem. And given the nature of MotoGP's audience in recent years, that problem has one major cause.
Valentino Rossi's difficulties with the Ducati have been well documented, and are on all-too-public display at Mugello. Handicapped by both the weather - the MotoGP class lost nearly all of FP2 yesterday, and a good chunk of qualifying on Saturday to the conditions, a light rain making it neither wet enough for rain tires, nor dry enough to take risks on slicks. An electrical problem on Friday left Rossi and his crew with even less track time, but the question remains whether that would fundamentally change Rossi's situation.
For there is clearly something wrong with the Ducati Desmosedici, and though the advent of the GP11.1 has fixed the rear of the bike - a problem which the machine had suffered almost since the inception of the 800cc era - the front remains a problem. The message has been the same, almost from the very first time Rossi swung a leg over the Desmosedici at the Valencia tests at the end of last year: It's hard to get heat into the front Bridgestone, which makes it hard to feel what the front tire is doing. Given the way that you ride an 800 - high corner speed requiring lots of edge grip - absolute faith in the front tire is essential. Without it you're nowhere, or as it's more commonly known, 12th.
Added to the lack of front-end feel is the difficulty of finding a good setup with the Ducati. The operating range within which the Desmosedici is fast and usable remains razor-thin, and finding it is still like finding a needle in a haystack. Some days, you can transform the bike from zero to hero with a single click of damping, other days, you turn the bike upside down and it still won't respond. It is hard to make sense of how the bike reacts.
The problems with the Ducati are illustrated perfectly by Hector Barbera's results this weekend. After three sessions of free practice, Barbera was down in the 1'51s, and firmly ensconced at the back of the grid. During qualifying, his Mapfre Aspar team found something, and the Spaniard took a second and a half off his best time of the weekend, and made it up to 10th, second Ducati behind Nicky Hayden.
Rossi's media debriefs - once entertaining affairs that you would leave feeling better than when you went in - have now become rather lackluster affairs. Rossi sits, repeats the same story week in and week out, and smiles bravely. The battle with the Ducati is visibly wearing him down, and something will have to give soon.
A leading Spanish journalist, Borja Gonzalez, commented to me afterwards that what had struck him was that Rossi no longer has anything to say. Previously, there were stories, ideas, jokes, an impish grin, but all of that has gone. Rossi is stuck, and badly needs a breakthrough.
Two lights loom on the horizon, which may provide some relief. In the short term, the decision by Bridgestone to replace the harder selection at four of the next six races with a much softer tire may give Rossi some of the feel that he is missing. In the long term, his hopes lie with the 1000cc - well, maybe 882cc or 930cc - GP12 due to be introduced next year. The extra power provided by the bigger bike negates the Ducati's weakness, and gives Rossi the feel from the front he needs. When he tested the GP12 at Mugello, he was faster everywhere with the bike - even through the corners, a surprise given the higher corner speeds demanded by the 800. 2011 may just be a question of trying to sort the major problems with the chassis design and simplify its complexity, and holding on for 2012. Whether Rossi's fans - or Ducati's fans, the two factions are as yet to be unified - have the patience to hold on remains to be seen. There may yet be calls for heads to roll at Ducati.
What Rossi doesn't have is the luxury of the switch that solved Jorge Lorenzo's ills. The Spaniard went back to using large parts of the 2010 Yamaha M1, and since then, Lorenzo has regained his confidence and refound his speed. The reigning World Champion was fastest on Saturday morning, blasting away the previous pole record set by Valentino Rossi on the last of the soft qualifying tires in 2008. The complicated conditions during qualifying - starting dry, but with a few spots of rain on the track, drying out a fraction, then getting wetter and wetter as the rain began to fall in earnest. A misjudged balance of tires, setup and timing saw Lorenzo qualify just 5th, but in terms of race pace - probably mid-1'48s, maybe even faster - Lorenzo should be right on the mark.
Lorenzo was out-qualified by his teammate Ben Spies, the Texan getting on the front row of the grid, another confidence booster after his win last weekend at Assen. Spies was relatively happy with his race setup, but felt there was more time in the bike he could get out of it. Expect Spies to stick with the front runners for a long time at Mugello, and maybe even get in their way.
The two fastest men of the day were once again two Honda riders, Casey Stoner taking his fifth pole of the season ahead of Marco Simoncelli, the revelation of 2011. Stoner was not entirely happy with his setup - as is his habit, and maybe the secret of his speed - saying that if conditions and setup had been perfect, a 1'47.0 would have been possible. Instead, all he could manage was to go just a fraction faster than Lorenzo had been in FP3.
The Australian is certainly the favorite for the race tomorrow, but the Italians may yet have something to cheer for. Despite all the controversy surrounding him, Marco Simoncelli is still blazingly fast - in qualifying, at least. His aim is "to do his best" a phrase that is wide open to interpretation, but Simoncelli must be able to taste his first podium, and maybe even his first win.
His main aim, though, is to stop making mistakes. Comparing his first-lap crashes at Estoril and Assen, he said he regretted his crash at Assen most of all. The crash at Estoril had been down to a lack of experience, Simoncelli said, but at Assen, he should have known better. Hotter conditions at Mugello gave him a better chance of surviving the first few laps, and if he does, he is likely a threat.
Exactly that is why he believes such controversy surrounds him, Simoncelli said. If the other Aliens think he can challenge them, they will do whatever they can to stop him. Many of the complaints about him were an attempt to get into his head, Simoncelli said, and that would not succeed. The look on his face spoke volumes, but his result on Sunday will say even more. It should be a very interesting race on Sunday.