Mugello is a special place, and a special race. One of the things that makes it so special is the atmosphere, the massed crowds that arrive on Thursday and Friday, and party noisily until Sunday night, filling the Tuscan skies with the sound of fireworks, engines being held against their limiters, popping exhausts, and very, very loud Italian pop music (or as was the case on Saturday night as we left the track, Jingle Bells composed entirely of fart noises).
They aren't here. The hillsides are not exactly empty, but the sparse scattering of tents that dot them are a very pale imitation of the wall of color that used to cover the grass at Mugello. The roads are relatively quiet, bikes fairly few and far between, and travelling to and from the circuit is not the nightmare that it has been in previous years.
So why haven't the crowds come? There are lots of reasons. First and foremost the state of the Italian economy, of course. As in Spain, unemployment in Italy is rising, and those who still have a job are more careful about spending money. High ticket prices don't help, of course, a general trend at racetracks around the world. Holding the race in mid-July, when the locals would rather be heading to the beach, rather than in early June was another reason. And then of course there is Valentino Rossi. The Italian legend qualified in 10th on Saturday, and realistically, his chances of battling for the podium are virtually non-existent. And it's not just Rossi, competitive Italian riders provide thin pickings for the locals to support. There is certainly a chance of seeing an Italian victory on Sunday, but the odds are stacked against it.
Nowhere was that point illustrated more clearly than in the qualifying press conference. The three riders on the MotoGP front row, and the polesitters for Moto2 and Moto3 attended: Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, Hector Barbera, Pol Espargaro and Maverick Vinales. Five Spaniards. Even Aleix Espargaro, fastest CRT rider and included in the official press conference photo, was Spanish. Nick Harris, the man charged with leading the official press conference, joked about doing the press conference in Spanish. It was the first time ever that the entire front row of the MotoGP grid had been an all-Spanish affair, and the first time that all five riders in the press conference had been Spanish.
Where does this Spanish domination come from? "The Spanish federation are making a very good job," Pol Espargaro explained, "taking young guys to go up to the top categories." The Spanish federation has classes for kids of all ages to race in, at tracks all around the country, and regional championships providing a natural progression through to the Spanish championship and then Grand Prix. That foundation is the wellspring of Spanish talent, generating sufficient numbers of riders to ensure a plentiful supply of talent. Their example has been copied in the last couple of years in the Netherlands, with the Dutch federation KNMV working to create a progression of three classes for young riders at an affordable price. There are now the first signs of a strong generation of young Dutch riders coming up through the ranks, led by Scott Deroue in the Red Bull Rookies, after a period of drought that has lasted since the late '90s, with one or two honorable exceptions.
The Italian federation, on the other hand, has no such plan. One senior Italian journalist complained to me that the death of the Sport Production class, the series that produced talent like Valentino Rossi, Max Biaggi, Marco Melandri and many more, had also seen the stream of fast young Italians virtually dry up, with Romano Fenati and Niccolo Antonelli now the exception and not the rule. With no Italians to cheer on, the home fans have even fewer reasons to attend. And watching Valentino Rossi suffer through another painful weekend is reason to stay away, rather than to come.
Despite the domination of a single nation - which at other tracks may have been broken by an Australian such as Casey Stoner, a Swiss rider such as Thomas Luthi, or a German like Sandro Cortese - qualifying was more than worth it. In Moto3, Maverick Vinales pulled out a lap reminiscent of the epic qualifying dash by Mick Doohan at Assen, in which he deposed Simon Crafar from pole. Vinales' final shot at pole meant he had to work his way through a lot of traffic, but instead of seeing it as an obstacle, the Spaniard seized the opportunity, jumping brilliantly from slipstream to slipstream to take pole from Sandro Cortese, who had already returned to the pits confident of his time.
In Moto2, Pol Espargaro bumped Marc Marquez from the top spot, despite a nastily sprained ankle, his foot swollen severely after a crash caused by Johann Zarco during free practice in the morning. Espargaro's participation in qualifying looked in doubt after the crash, the Spaniard being taken to hospital in Florence for scans to ensure that nothing was broken. It wasn't, and Espargaro was able to qualify. And how: with under a minute left, Espargaro crossed the line just ahead of Marc Marquez, his rival for this season, and probably for many years to come as well. Marquez is heading to MotoGP next year, a path that Espargaro is unlikely to follow. "Every rider wants to race in MotoGP," Espargaro told the press conference. Right now, though, he is focused on Moto2, and trying to win as many races as he can.
Espargaro is badly needed in MotoGP. Nobody doubts the talent of Marc Marquez, but he is another polite, restrained and carefully coached and protected rider. His ability promises much on track, but once his helmet comes off he is as mild-mannered as you like. Espargaro, on the other hand, shines. He has the intelligence and charisma, the cheeky and charming personality to win over the casual fans, and the speed, fierceness and ability to match Marquez on track. Espargaro is a superstar waiting to happen, and just the kind of personality needed to help soften the blow when Rossi leaves the sport.
Jorge Lorenzo has grown in that role, showing wit and intelligence in his public appearances, and often knowing when to joke and when to offer a serious answer. He has matured well, both on and off the track. Off the track, Lorenzo has gained some charm, while on track, he has become utterly devastating. The Spaniard had dominated free practice, and was tearing up qualifying as well, until his final attempt at pole. An electronics problem saw him losing power as he got further around the lap, eventually cruising in to the pits, his lap ruined. Lorenzo and his team manager were suitably vague about the problem, saying only that the ECU had flipped into the wrong state and stopped working correctly.
That was half the story. The reason the ECU had entered its error mode is because Jorge Lorenzo had aborted one attempt at a fast lap because of traffic. In an attempt to make up time, Lorenzo cut across the middle section of the track from one side to the other, cutting out the entire section of the circuit, and set off for a final assault on pole. Lorenzo may have been prepared, but his ECU wasn't: the complex algorithms which the on-bike electronics use to calculate its precise position on the track had become confused, and shut down. With GPS banned, the electronics calculate position based on speed, gear selection, distance traveled and lean angle. It is stunningly precise, though as we saw with Nicky Hayden at Estoril, also easily confused if the bike receives some kind of erroneous input. At Mugello, Lorenzo provided the erroneous input himself, but cutting off half the course and a whole swathe of corners the ECU was expecting. Lost, it went into some kind of fail mode, not providing the power when Lorenzo needed it.
The problem left Lorenzo second on the grid, but from there, he looks nigh on unbeatable. The Factory Yamaha rider's race pace looks to be in the high 1'47s and low 1'48s, some two to three tenths faster than anyone else on the track. Unless someone else finds a way to stop him, Lorenzo could be putting on another display of the fastest, smoothest riding you will see in a long time.
Dani Pedrosa sits ahead of Lorenzo, but the Repsol Honda man is not perfectly happy with his race pace. Yet he is close, while his teammate Casey Stoner is miles off the pace. The Australian and his crew have failed to make the hard tire work at Mugello - either of the two hard choices, which are identical except for an extra layer of rubber to dissipate heat - and with Bridgestone having told the teams that they cannot race the soft tire, Stoner will be hoping for Cristian Gabarrini to work some magic in the morning.
Stoner's problem is heat in the tires, or rather the lack of it. Honda had been working on reducing the operating temperature of the tires for a couple of years now, with some success. Unfortunately, that was working against them at Mugello, and though they had some ideas to work on in the morning, the race was going to be tough.
A similar situation existed at Ducati. Nicky Hayden came very close to qualifying on the front row of the grid, pipped at the post by Hector Barbera on the satellite Pramac machine. Barbera has faced a lot of criticism in the past about his tendency to get a fast lap by following riders, but at Mugello, his laps were his own. The Spaniard was fast everywhere, later explaining that Mugello was one of his favorite tracks, and so he did not need to follow another rider around to gain the speed.
Hayden was a little disappointed not to be on the front row, but overall was pleased with his position. His goal - to lap in the mid 1'47s and get in the top 5 on the grid - had been achieved, but most telling of all was his improvement from last year, lapping almost 2 seconds faster than 2011. He would be aiming for his best result of the year, he said.
He also had a few words about his future, denying that had any plans to switch to World Superbikes and race the Ducati Panigale there. "I have spoken to Ducati zero times about World Superbikes, it's never even been mentioned" Hayden said. "It's a rumor which people say like they know something, which makes me laugh, because then it just shows that journalists really don't know. The rumors and what you write in the paper, it's why you don't believe nothing you read, or believe half of what you see, because that rumor is absolutely 100% negative."
With Ducatis in 3rd and 4th, seeing Valentino Rossi down in 10th came as a surprise. Like his arch rival Casey Stoner, Rossi had trouble with tires. In Rossi's case, it was the soft tire for qualifying, the softer compound generating chatter rather than grip and preventing him from improving his time. Why this should be was mystifying, the Italian having no explanation for why he was unable to improve his times while his teammate and Barbera on the satellite bike had no such problem.
On the plus side, his race pace was strong, Rossi said, expecting to be able to chase down the second group. Cal Crutchlow was only a little faster, and Hayden and Barbera should be manageable, Rossi told the media. But, Rossi said, "this is my position." Without radical changes to the bike, this is where Rossi is destined to be racing.
A new engine spec is to be tested on Monday, to help with power delivery and engine driveability. That is one of Ducati's two biggest problems, the other being the tendency to understeer. If the engine driveabililty package works, then Rossi should be able to take a big step towards at least keeping the podium contenders in sight.
That is unlikely to be the case on Sunday, though. With Jorge Lorenzo looking unstoppable, and Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso running a strong pace behind, the podium seems pretty much settled. Cal Crutchlow could get close, and Ben Spies remains a huge question mark, bad luck once again dogging the American, this time in the form of a vibration in his brake disk caused by something sticking to the disk. Maybe he's fast enough, maybe he's not, but Valentino Rossi does not look like being close enough to get on to the podium. The hillsides were strangely quiet on Saturday, and will likely stay that way again tomorrow. It is a genuine Italian tragedy.