Mugello is always a little magical, but packed to the rafters with delirious fans, it becomes something greater than just a race track. Over 90,000 fans turned up in Tuscany on Sunday, up 20% from last year on the back of the renaissance of Valentino Rossi and of Ducati, complete with two Italian riders. Something special was always going to happen here.
It certainly did, but perhaps not in the way the fans had hoped. Valentino Rossi did not score the dream victory in front of the ecstatic yellow hordes which packed the hillsides, nor did Ducati finally get the elusive win they have been chasing since 2010. But the MotoGP was packed with excitement and incident, the Moto3 race was a typical Mugello classic, and even Moto2 had some tension down to the final lap. Those who came got their money's worth.
The MotoGP race may have ended much as you might have predicted based on pace in practice, but the journey to Jorge Lorenzo’s third utterly dominant win in a row was a lot more intriguing than the results suggest, with drama right from the start. Literally: Andrea Iannone made what looked at first glance like a jump start – though not as blatant as Karel Abraham's – and Marc Márquez threaded the needle from thirteenth on the grid to make up seven places before the exit of the first corner. And did so surgically and cleanly.
But first that Iannone start. So convinced that the Italian had jumped the gun were HRC that they sent someone up to Race Direction to complain that they were not doing their job. Race Director Mike Webb was able to show them that they were doing just that, by going through the footage. He explained to me the process: there are high-speed cameras on each row and on the lights, capturing the start at a rate of several hundred frames a second. After the start, a dedicated official responsible for all of the video reviews goes over the starts, and checks for a jump start. If one is spotted, such as Karel Abraham's lurch forward, then a penalty is issued. That must be done within the first four laps, to make it fairer on the offender.
They looked at Iannone's start a number of times, but it came down to luck. Going through frame by frame, they could see that on the final frame where the starting light was red, Iannone was still in place. On the next, where the color of the light was changing, indicating that Webb had taken his finger off the starting light button, Iannone was moving. Could Iannone have anticipated the start that well? Absolutely not. "He's the luckiest rider on the grid," Webb said. Iannone told the Italian media he had been holding the bike on the front brake waiting for the lights to go out, but the clutch had started pushing him forward. He started moving involuntarily, but by chance it was just as the lights had been turned out. It was not so much that he got a perfect start, as he mistimed his jump start. If Iannone moves a hundredth of a second earlier, he is coming in for a ride through penalty.
That Honda, along with many fans, believe that Iannone made a jump start is hardly surprising. The lights have clearly not gone dark while he is moving away from the grid. The problem is that Mugello still has a slightly older starting light installation, which uses incandescent spotlight bulbs. That means that when Mike Webb takes his finger off the start button, cutting power to the lights, they do not immediately go dark. It takes several hundredths of a second for the filament to cool and lose its glow, color fading from the lights, rather than going dark straight away. At a newer circuit, which tend to use LED lights, the transition is much sharper. There would have been far fewer question marks over the start if it had happened at, say, Aragon.
While Iannone's start raised a few eyebrows, Marc Márquez' had people holding their breath. Fears had been expressed of what might happen into the first corner with the world champion coming through from thirteenth. They needn't have worried: Márquez sliced with absolute precision inside and outside of the riders in front, gaining seven places by the exit of the first turn, and another two by the end of the first lap. The Repsol Honda man was determined to make amends for his miserable qualifying, which had seen him stuck in Q1 after strong laps from Aleix Espargaro and Yonny Hernandez.
For the first few laps, Márquez held his own at the front, looking set for a podium, and a chance to keep his championship hopes alive. But those first laps were deceptive, an artifact of having the new rear tire providing the grip Márquez needs to brake into the corner and get the bike turned. As rear grip dropped off, and the rear tire started sliding uncontrollably, Márquez was having to use the front end more and more to turn the bike. The front wheel became a pivot, and despite fitting the hard front tire, eventually the front started to lose grip until at last it let go. Down Márquez went, and out of the race, his gap to the leaders increasing to 49 points. That is starting to look like an insurmountable problem for the Spaniard.
Despite the crash, there were positive aspects to come from Mugello, Márquez explained. "One good thing was that in the first laps we had the speed with the new tire," he said. "When I had the support on the rear I am riding really well and I feel really good with the bike. The problem is with the used tire, for example in the first laps at Jerez I was able to follow Lorenzo but when the tire dropped a little bit I was sliding in entry and it was more difficult. When I go into the corner I am sliding too much so I push a lot on the front and then when I use the brakes I cannot stop the bike as the slide continues and makes it difficult."
Marc Márquez was not alone in his travails. Cal Crutchlow fitted the same hard front tire, and found the limit on it on lap 21. It let go at a place you don't want it too, at the Arrabbiata corners. After a big crash in warm up, where Crutchlow banged his head and his hand, he then got caught up with his bike in the race crash, dislocating his ankle and taking another beating. It is a tough time to be a Honda rider at the moment.
It is a great time to be racing a Yamaha, however. Jorge Lorenzo thanked his team, and especially Ramon Forcada, for giving him a perfect bike during the race. Lorenzo gave a masterclass demonstration of just how perfect that bike is, dusting up the two factory Ducati men, before making a break to take the lead. Once he had the lead, he did not relinquish it. After the fourth lap, the result was never in doubt, the only question just how big a margin Lorenzo would win by.
Lorenzo invited crew chief Forcada up onto the podium with him, to receive the manufacturers trophy. It was an expression of the debt Lorenzo feels he owes to Forcada, and also to show him that he had been missed during his brief absence on Friday. Forcada had been away for personal reasons, relating to his family, and Lorenzo had missed him keenly. Though the bike did not change much between Friday and Saturday, when Forcada made his return, he did enough to make Lorenzo feel at ease, and when he is at ease, he is unbeatable.
The winner may never have been doubt, the battle for 2nd was enthralling. At first, it was Márquez versus the two Ducatis, the three men jockeying for position in anticipation of the final lap. But first Andrea Dovizioso dropped out with a technical problem, the rear sprocket shedding teeth and becoming totally destroyed. He had had a vibration, Dovizioso explained, and it had become just too difficult to continue. It had been a very tough day in the office for the Italian, after he had also crashed in the morning warm up, being thrown off the bike by a cold Bridgestone, after spending the first half of the lap waving to the adoring crowds.
It had been pretty tough for his factory teammate Andrea Iannone, but the Italian came away with much greater rewards. Iannone put up a ferocious battle to defend second place, fighting off all comers, including Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi. Riding with a fractured elbow, and still having trouble with a shoulder injury picked up at a Mugello test, Iannone held his own, and returned as good as he got in the battle with Márquez. "It's an incredible day for me," Iannone said in the press conference, "It's really special." Iannone had shown exceptional pace, exceptional courage, and extraordinary maturity on the way to second place. The Italian has a reputation for being wild and reckless, a reputation reinforced by his choice of nickname, "The Maniac Joe". Nothing maniacal at Mugello, Iannone was more warrior priest than wild beserker.
Valentino Rossi made it two Italians on the podium, and a welcome sight for the home crowd. But the Movistar Yamaha rider had not made it easy for himself, getting a poor start and then struggling in the early laps of the session. Qualifying in eighth did not help, but his situation was made worse by a poor start and a slow couple of laps in the early stages of the race, Rossi having problems with a full tank of fuel and new tires. As the tires started to wear, so Rossi got faster, eventually running a similar pace to his teammate. But by then, it was way too late. There have been some weekends where Rossi has got everything perfect, going on to take victory at Qatar and in Argentina. And there have been tough weekends like Le Mans or here, where expectations were higher, but where Rossi and his crew simply could not find the right bike set up.
Dani Pedrosa crossed the line in fourth, the Spaniard once again missing out on a podium. Pedrosa wanted to know just how well his arm would survive a race weekend, and Mugello proved that he is well on the way to being fully fit again. Pedrosa also got a slow start, being swamped in the first laps but soon making up ground. Pedrosa had fewer problems with the RC213V than Márquez did, but he said there was clearly room for improvement. "From the race, I could see that we have a lot more spinning than the others, either Ducati or Yamaha, so this is one point to improve," Pedrosa said. Fourth is what the Honda looks capable of at the moment, Mugello being the second race in a row without a single Honda on the podium.
Asked what he would like to improve, Pedrosa said the main thing was that it needs to be more consistent and easier to ride throughout the entire duration of the race. "One of the crucial points for the bike is that you can ride the bike for many laps, because MotoGP is physically demanding," Pedrosa told reporters. "So it's important that you can go fast, but you can keep that fast line. At the moment, now, it's sometimes difficult to make the same braking, the same corner speed, the same entry, because one lap you have more spinning, or more sideways into the turn. So we have to improve a little bit in that point, to make the riding a little bit more constant. This will also give the rider more confidence."
Perhaps the most intriguing battle was between Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. The Tech 3 teammates are engaged in a fierce internecine battle for supremacy in the squad. Both men are out of contract at the end of this year, and neither man has anything else obvious on the horizon. Smith has upped his game in 2015, scoring consistent results and running rock solid races. Espargaro has not made the step forward he had hoped to make this season, but has still shown signs of his talent. Smith emerged victorious once again from the scrap, but Espargaro was pleased to have been able to catch his teammate. Pol is only just recovered from arm pump surgery, and had had an enforced layoff from training of ten days, something which never sits well with racers. Espargaro had closed the gap at the end of the race, but it had been Smith who prevailed.
Maverick Viñales is also worthy of note. Suzuki had feared this would be one of their worst tracks, Viñales had told reporters, and so to finish seventh was a great result. The Spanish rookie has been impressive from the word go, and has learned to ride a MotoGP bike in very short order. With Aleix Espargaro not finishing the last two races, Viñales now leads his teammate. Espargaro was once again unlucky, being taken out by Danilo Petrucci in the opening laps. That was deemed a racing incident: Petrucci had been trying to brake to make the first corner, but the gearbox was not letting him downshift. It left him running too hot into the first corner, and smacking into the side of Aleix Espargaro. It was a deeply unfortunate incident, and terrible for Espargaro, but not something Petrucci could do a whole lot about.
With so much happening in MotoGP, the events of Moto2 and Moto3 will have to wait for another day. Mugello served up too good a dish to use it all in a single sitting.