Mugello MotoGP Thursday Round Up: The Danger And Glory Of Mugello, The Risk Of Going Faster, And Aprilia's Woes

"Mugello is a fantastic track," Valentino Rossi told the pre-event press conference at Mugello, a sentiment echoed by every single rider and just about everyone in the paddock. "When you ride the feeling is great." It really is a magical place, and a magical experience.

But it is not without its dangers, chief among them the brow of the hill the riders take at over 350 km/h just before they have to brake. "It's also an old style track," Rossi said "So in some points it's also dangerous because you are very fast, not a lot of space around and the braking for the first corner is at the limit. It's very good to ride, but if you arrive at 340 or 350 km/h, it starts to be dangerous because of the jump, the hill. So maybe we have to modify a little bit, but I think it's not very easy. Maybe we try to arrive at little bit slower. Or we try to cut a little bit the jump and make it a bit more flat, if it’s possible."

It is a constant topic in the Safety Commission, where the riders meet with FIM and Dorna officials to discuss how to make the racing safer and better. Marc Márquez explained that the end of the straight, where the track snakes right and left up a slight incline, until reaching the brow of the hill before plunging down towards San Donato, the first corner, was something under continuous discussion. The wall on the left is too close, the crest itself is dangerous, and speeds generally are very high at that point of the track.

Throwback Thursday

The layout hasn't changed since the beginning, Rossi said. "The track remains the same. It's not easy, usually you have a lot of tracks with a long history but with more modifications. Mugello is Mugello from the 70s."

So slowly but surely, modifications will have to be made. "We already spoke about it in the Safety Commission," Márquez told the press conference. "Because it's a very nice circuit, one of the circuits that follows a natural layout and this is really nice to ride. But the only critical point is the end of the straight. We were thinking and already from 2013 to 2014, we change the wall, because I was very close there, and we were speaking about trying to make the uphill [to the crest on the straight] in a different way."

The problem, Márquez explained, is that the bikes are going so fast that they are becoming hard to control, and then just before you start to brake for the first corner, the track drops away. "Now you have the uphill, then you start the downhill at the point where we brake, and then the bikes are shaking there," Márquez said. "We were thinking and speaking about it, but we know that the bikes every year are faster and faster and for me in the future we need to do something there. We need to make that area more flat, because if it's more flat it will be safer, and the show will be the same."

Andrea Dovizioso agreed. "I think it's one really nice part of this track but we are on the limit," the factory Ducati rider said. "I mean, I think still it's OK, but we are really on the limit. But it also depends on the rules, the winglets change a lot in the way you have to handle it, and the reaction of the bike. That affects it a lot in that place, so that has a bigger effect than the track. But if the bikes are improving and improving, the speed will be higher, I think we are really, really on the limit."

Finding the limits

If the point of motorcycle racing – or any elite sport – is to seek continuous improvement, that brings with it severe limitations. In ten years, the pole record has been cut by 2 seconds, and the race lap record by 2.5 seconds (in actual fact, that change took just 5 years, Marc Márquez' race lap record from 2013 still unchallenged). Top speeds have increased from 342 km/h to 355 km/h, and those are just the official top speeds. Cal Crutchlow speculated that we might see the 360 km/h barrier broken officially this weekend, as the bikes keep getting faster.

How fast will we be going in another ten years, when the riders line up in 2029? Will top speeds be topping 370 km/h? If Brembo's brakes improve, if chassis design gets better, if aero packages become ever more finely tuned, how fast will the riders being going over the crest? And where will they be braking? The trouble with pushing the limits is that sometimes you find them, and you don't like what you find when you get there.

Stickier tires for Honda?

Back to 2019, and how the championship might shake out. This is a key race for the Hondas, especially given Marc Márquez' slightly worrying record here. One win, one second place, a sixth, and three crashes. Put another way, Márquez' chances of finishing a race at Mugello are equivalent to a coin toss.

The problem has always been that the Honda riders have had to push the front end to be competitive. And that has required them to use the hardest compound of front tire, to withstand the stresses of braking. But the hardest compound has the least grip, and the combination of less grip and more stress does not always have a happy ending.

Takaaki Nakagami, facing tackling Mugello on a 2018-spec Honda RC213V, had looked at what happened in 2018. "I understand that last year, the Hondas had no choice, they had to go directly to the hard option. But it was too soft, and everybody struggled with braking stability." The lower than usual temperatures predicted might be the saving of him, the LCR Honda rider said. "For us, cooler temperatures are maybe better, for the front tire. But I don't know. Sunday is going to be a little warmer than these two days, so I don't know. We have to really take care of the front tire."

The good news for Honda is that Michelin are using the newer compound on the hard front tire, which has the stability of the old hard front, but a little bit more grip. That may keep them from washing out the front at the many fast, sweeping, downhill sections.

Heating tires

Managing tires to keep them in their optimum range is a tricky business. Fabio Quartararo explained that his poor start at his home race in Le Mans was probably down to him letting the tires cool down too much on the warm up lap. "I think my warm up lap was too slow, and I didn't warm up my rear and front tires so well," the Frenchman said. "So I made a bad start, no grip in the first part of the start, and in the first corner I was catching Maverick a lot, I put too much brake, I lost the front, and I lost too many positions."

Tire temperature may also be at the heart of Suzuki's qualifying problems. Though the data was hard to decipher, Joan Mir said he suspected that it may be an inability to warm the tires properly during qualifying that prevented them from extracting maximum performance from the tires.

"We are trying to find a solution for the qualifying, because sometimes I am able to be fast, but we don't know why. And then another time I'm not able to push. So it's a bit strange," Mir told us. "We have to see, but it looks like it could be the front tire that is not warm enough sometimes, and that's why also the problems that I had in Le Mans were more critical for this, because it was colder."

What does that mean for Mugello? With cooler temperatures predicted on Saturday, both Joan Mir and Alex Rins could face a tricky qualifying. Which would be a shame, because the Suzuki should suit Mugello perfectly, able to turn well, and with enough acceleration in the higher gears that they can be fast enough to at least stick with the Hondas and Ducatis down the front straight.

Noale noise

At Aprilia, things are not going as well as might be hoped. After Le Mans, Andrea Iannone expressed some criticism of Aleix Espargaro's working methods, saying that he hadn't been able to develop the bike in his three seasons at the Italian factory. But Iannone told Espargaro that his quotes had been taken out of context, Espargaro told the press.

"I read something that I was not working in the right direction to improve the bike," Aleix Espargaro said on Thursday. "You know, I didn’t really understand because we really have normal relations. I didn’t understand why he said that. He said to me at lunchtime today, ‘It’s bull****, I never said that, I’m really sorry, somebody invented it.’ I said, ‘OK, I don’t really care, no problem.’ I give my best. I always give the best info to the engineers and this is the maximum I can do. The problems we are both having are the same; we are struggling to stop the bike in the first part and a lot of problems in the acceleration phase. There is no grip at all. The only difference is I am a lot more fast."

The problem, Espargaro said, was that Aprilia was simply not reacting fast enough. "I try to be positive. But as soon as possible… Everyone is improving a lot. My brother had a test at Jerez [with KTM]. Everybody tested on Monday and then KTM tested again new things on Wednesday. They tested also at Le Mans and we saw the super race my brother did at Le Mans."

Compared to KTM, Aprilia were not bringing anything new, according to Aleix Espargaro. "We are not reacting. We have nothing new. This bike is the ’17 bike version 2. We are back and far from our rivals. I said many times this season I don’t know how to go faster. I have no idea, I cannot. As soon as they can bring new things it will be more than welcome."

His hope, Espargaro said, was the fact that more of Aprilia's engineers who would be at the track would get a chance to get more direct feedback. "We have some engineers that normally don’t travel; they just work in Noale. They can listen to us here because Noale is close. I think it could be interesting because they have a lot of reports, a lot of info, of my feelings. But to be at track, to see me and take the scooter around the track to see how the bike reacts is always interesting."

Downward spiral

Aprilia's problem is it seems to be stuck in a vicious circle. A modest budget means making progress is difficult, and riders start complaining. Complaining riders sour the atmosphere, and that doesn't help motivate engineers. And a sour atmosphere and a lesser performing bike doesn't make it easy to attract the very highest level riders to the project.

But Aleix Espargaro had some hope that the arrival of new Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola would start to pay off soon. "I have to say that I’m really happy with the arrival of Massimo," he said. "It was something we were missing. He’s doing a really great job. But he’s not a magician. Every time I ask him and I push him the answer is the same: ‘I need more time. It’s difficult for you to still be positive because it’s been three years like this, but for me it’s five months. It’s more time.’ I try to be more positive and give more time to him." At some point, though, patience will run out, on all sides.

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Suzuki front tire in Q not getting enough heat into it? Sounds plausible. There can be a vicious cycle (not the 2015 Honda throwing riders kind) in which the rider lacks a bit of confidence and aggression w the front, so the out lap is a bit tentative...also cooling the tire. They did a good job getting the Suzuki to specifically manage tire wear very well, we know this. Perhaps this is the natural deficit of that endeavor.

So perhaps they can focus on this. Drop some F tire pressure. Weight the F a tad. Bump Q tire warmer temps up a notch and pull them JUST before exiting. Maybe even explore pre-scuffing a tire so that it is at optimal comfort and confidence out of the gate? Then train Rins to treat the Q outlap like a race start.

Relative to the Honda and Duc, the Suzuki is light on the front. They are going to be able to sort this. I disagree though that their bike can keep up w the Honda or Ducati on the straight. It hooks up GREAT to drive out, but it is soon two steps behind on the drag race. Hard to even stay in the slipstream.

I see 5 very fast and motivated riders swapping paint some Sunday on the back of my eyelids. Looks good. Eyes on the Yamaha for drive grip, and Dovi stepping forward out of the reaches of the Miller-Petrrucci punchout. And Marc, will he keep his planted level cool, or revert to 1w tenths wildness? Chasing Ducatis? And get a tad greedy off camber...?

A small change I noticed in the rules for tire usage guidence, which has been in place for several years around limits on tire pressures, has now been expanded to also cover in scope time and duration tire's are kept on warmers.  In context of your comments above may not be such a small change for some after all. 

Some years ago I was in workshop with a group of business people (dealing with a very ugly takeover) and this facilitator/psychologist we had on board said: 'You have to realise that stress makes you stupid....' When I read David's explanation of the Aprilia situation it sure rings true there too. Equally true is that conflict degrades creativity and discretionary effort.

We often hear experienced crew chiefs talking about how much of Moto is 'between the ears' for the riders and it seems to me that idea might apply to the entire team.

Brilliant series of articles about Mugello, mate. Really the best in the field.

Suzuki appears to have the softest chassis in the transverse direction. This is where those blinding corner speeds come from (and is also a great advantage in acceleration). But has it become a bit over-cooked, and thus too soft for some conditions?

There are always two "absolutes" in chassis design: The bike has to work with the tires, and it has to work with the rider. The current Michelin fronts have a relatively soft construction (which is quite separate from the compound of race rubber sitting on top of that construction) compared to the previous Bridgestones. To over-simplify the issue, the M's have a harder compound on a softer construction, whereas the B's had a softer compound on a much stiffer construction. Each approach has some advantages. The Michelins seem almost impervious to wear, but are very sensitive to pressure rises. The compound will last to the end of the race, but if the pressure rise (via elevated temperatures) gets too great, the impact will be substantial due to the softer construction. Whereas you could burn the compound clean off a B-Stone, but the construction appeared more tolerant of pressure rise than what we have today. Just changing the pressure of a current Michelin front to allow some additional heating of the compound may not be a viable option, as it will allow an already soft construction to just fold under on corner entry, so the cure may well be worse than the disease.

If the Suzuki is a bit too soft it will show up more in the slower corners with fierce, but short, braking zones (i.e., the type of stop-start turns prevalent at Le Mans). It will also be the Devil's own limb to tune in the Q-sessions, as the reduced fuel load will further exacerbate the bikes ability to quickly generate enough heat in the tires to allow optimal traction. A softer chassis will be "easier" on the tires when cornering, but in doing so they will generate less heat. As long as you still generate enough heat, this is the way to make a Michelin deliver edge grip. But, as with all things, you are only optimal for a single set of conditions, everything else being a compromise. The trick is to have the sum of your "misses" have the lowest aggregate, not to have your single "hit" be the highest score. And to all of this you can add the dread "pop-up" effect. Mat Oxley wrote a great piece about this a few weeks back, and my weak summary would be this: When entering a turn on the brakes, the softer constructed Michelin  just squishes itself against the track, with the contact patch becoming larger, and the sidewall height becoming shorter, and in doing so you have made a very nice pneumatic/mechanical spring. So what happens next? Well, if you just release the pressure on the brake lever, and do nothing else, the spring in your front tire will release, and the whole thing will pop back up (hence the event's name) as it seeks its' original unloaded condition (i.e., smaller contact patch and taller sidewall). And if it all stopped there it would be quite tricky enough, but springs being springs, it will not end there. The spring will overshoot the original condition state (which unloads the front contact patch), and then oscillate until the energy is damped out of the system. So how is this dealt with at the sharp end of the grid?

Well, the very best of them have learned to keep the spring compressed by trading brake force for cornering force. Do this well and you are Master of the Dread Pop-Up, and a very dangerous threat for the podium. I believe Mr. Oxley confided that Michelin's Tech people rate Marquez, Rossi, and Dovi as the best at this, and I would rate Vale and Marc as half a short block ahead of Dovi, with Jorge right there as-well (though his method is somewhat different than the other three). This is easily discerned by watching how those two dispose of riders in front of them, which can only be described as with ruthless efficiency. And it is one of the final trade secrets that championship winning riders learn. Listen to any new rider making his way into the MotoGP class and they all say the same thing: "The power is amazing, but the brakes are other-wordly". MotoGP brakes are in a class by themselves when compared to all other forms of motorcycle racing, and the real trick is not applying them but is releasing them. Brembo knows all this, and it is the reason that racers everywhere swear by their products. There is probably not a lot of difference between how Brembo's press brake pads onto the sides of rotors and how other brands accomplish the same task. But the exquisite perfection of how Brembo's racing calipers release that pressure is why they are worth the small fortune they cost. Because any spikes or unpredictability in the release process shows up in some very unhelpful behavior of the front tire contact patch's spring dynamics. And because the braking forces are so much greater in the top class, so the exam questions regarding pop-up control become more difficult. Precisely trading braking loads for cornering loads, under race conditions, is what separates the heroes from the hopeless*.

And in the specific case of Suzuki, this is where I think Mr. Rins still has some work to do. And I have no doubt he will get there, because he is now learning at the University level, which is to say "at the front". Unless you are a naturally gifted genius (Quartararo comes to mind), the only way to learn what Marc and Vale and Dovi have learned is to race with them. And what you have to learn, like the masters have done, is to control the pop-up with other riders all tearing at one piece of tarmac like a pack of ravenous wolves** at all stages of the race. Vinales pop-up control with a clear track and a light fuel load may be the pinnacle of the sport under those conditions, but that has fuck-all to do with 25 laps on Sunday. Zarco is currently lost because he had mastered the pop-up of the M1 and its softer chassis, and now faces a completely new challenge in sorting out how to control the much stiffer RC16's application of front tire loads. Cal is a bit is also currently confused by the changes that Honda had made, and can only watch in frustration as Marquez again demonstrates his genius in adapting to the new realities at HRC. And part of that genius is his ability to trade pop-up knowledge for the leather on his elbows in P1 thru P3. And Suzuki may be well served, on some stop-and-go circuits, by another strategic application of multi-directional composite lay-ups on their chassis to restore the al Dente. It is interesting to note that on the tracks where the difference in pop-up talent is less noticeable (PI, Assen, and a few others come to mind), that the field compresses and it is unusual to see the leader just disappear over the curvature of the earth. Those track layouts to a certain extent mask the differences, but they don't really change the underlying fundamentals (as my mates in the body & fender trade like to say: "Bondo and Paint...makes 'em what they ain't"). But that rarely changes the names up front, because "less noticeable" is not the same as "non-existent", and the ability to keep your front tire from popping up like some demonic Jack-in-the-Box on corner entry is always the shortest path to the podium. Well, assuming the rear end isn't just polishing the track surface instead of providing blessed thrust, but that is a horse of a different shade. Mugello is a great combination of exam questions, all beautifully strung together, and the best students always seem to do well. Cheers.

*To be fair, nobody at this level is hopeless. They are all immensly talented. It is only in comparison to the top few who win championships at the highest level that any weakness is discernable.

**My apologies for slighting ravenous wolves. They have much better table manners than MotoGP champions.

Dear God I love your pieces friend. And David is REALLY on right now.
Thanks a ton!
Jinx thinks kitchen sinks re how "pop-up" links kinks w/o blinks and skating rinks' hijinks clinks.
(Winks, toasts, drinks)
Enjoying this discussion. So you think carbon fiber frame overlay for less open track layouts doesn't stink? Called Davide yet?

2019 vs 2018 Ducati chassis is certainly interesting noodle right now, just as the Honda. And lo and behold, our Bagnaia has awoken!

Espagaro's comments on Aprilia engineers are exactly the same as Stoner used to have about Ducati. Why dont they learn from what Ducati have done under dal Igna?

If Gigi thought they COULD do it under his watchful seamless eyebrow, he would have stayed there. If they were going to "get it" from him, they would have. They just don't have the resources. They have done amazing things at times with their wee project. The competition is SO fierce in the series now. Suzuki shouldn't be able to do what they are doing. Yamaha should. The Honda is. The Ducati with Gigi? Miracolo bello, eh?