The gap was huge: 6.342 separated Mika Kallio on the BMW-powered Suter 1000cc MotoGP machine from Casey Stoner on the 800cc Honda RC212V at the Mugello test on Monday, a difference that would have seen the Suter lapped by a large portion of the field had the bike raced on Sunday. And that was when measured against the factory 800s: Ducati have calculated that the increased capacity of their 2012 machine (the new rules for next season allow a capacity hike to 1000cc) will lap Mugello half a second quicker faster than their current 800cc bike. So does the deficit between the Suter BMW and the factory prototype 800s make the idea of CRT entries a dead duck, or is it a concept still worth pursuing?
What a difference a track makes. At the fast, flowing Mugello circuit, we had three pretty interesting races, two tense duels and a full on battle in Moto2. After a season full of races decided in the first few laps, to see a race day full of overtaking brought some much-needed relief to those suffering with the racing bug.
The 125cc race only saw two passes for the lead, Johann Zarco passing Nico Terol, and then Terol taking the Frenchman back to take victory, but the two protagonists maintained the tension all the way to the end. Never separated by more than a couple of tenths, the race became a case of two men trying to pressure the other into a mistake. Fresh back from having a tendon reattached in his little finger, Terol was the first to crack, running wide in San Donato, the wide, uphill hairpin that comes at the end of the straight. But Terol kept his head, latched onto the back of the Zarco, and waited for the long drag towards the finish line to make his move.
A smart race by Terol, and a strong and smart race by Zarco too: Terol looked to be on a planet of his own, but Zarco came along and joined the party. A strong race, too, by young Spaniard Maverick Vinales: at a track which is as notoriously difficult to learn as Mugello is, Vinales ended his first race at the track on the podium. The rookie sits 3rd in the championship, with big things expected of him in the future. He is, after all, just sixteen-and-a-half years old.
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.
Herve Poncharal joked at Assen that if the MotoGP series wanted to find an extra source of income, it should offer to organize events in drought-stricken areas, as a MotoGP race appears to be a guarantee of rain this year. Mugello is no different: the locals say there has been no rain for weeks now - though the rich verdant green of the countryside would appear to suggest otherwise - and as soon as the MotoGP circus rolls into the Tuscan hills, the heavens part and rain falls.
The day started well enough - stunningly so, hot temperatures, clear skies - but as the morning neared an end, the clouds started to roll in. The 125cc class started with a few spots of rain, getting heavier as the MotoGP class started then drying out towards the end. So the MotoGP riders lost the best part of a session, while the wily Andrea Dovizioso posted a positively scorching time on the very last lap of the session, just as the track had dried enough to put in a good time.
Due to technical issues (internet connection problems in the accommodation we are staying in at Mugello), Thursday's round up is late, for which you have our sincere apologies. We hope you will bear with us through this.
MotoGP rolls into Mugello with what looks like being the hottest weekend of the year ahead of it. And from the events of the first day, that's hottest in every conceivable sense of the word.
That this is going to be something special came as we rolled into the car park at the spectacularly situated Italian circuit. Where normally, Thursday afternoons are a relatively quiet affair, the paddock was bustling with people and the paddock car parks were filling up quickly. Valentino Rossi riding a Ducati is a big deal anywhere, but at Mugello, it is something akin to seeing the Beatles in the Cavern Club or Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Crowds have been down at every track so far this season - economies around the world continue to suffer - but Mugello could be on course for a record attendance.
With seven races of the season gone, we can start to draw some conclusions from the engine allocation lists provided by the teams so far. Below is a factory-by-factory rundown of the engine situation, together with a table of the engine usage so far.
The story of Ducati's engines is a tale in two parts: the present, represented by the satellite machines; and the future, represented by the factory riders of Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi.
The engine usage of the satellite teams shows that Ducati learned its lessons from last year and are producing pretty solid satellite engines. All of the satellite riders are just about right on schedule, with all of them having taken 3 engines each, and all 3 of those engines active. The only question mark hangs over Hector Barbera's #1 engine, which has 31 sessions on it and has not seen action since Silverstone.
Saturday's MotoGP race was either a real snoozer or a fantastic spectacle, depending on your point of view. For the racing purist, the kind of fan who appreciates seeing masterful riding, watching someone push the bike to the limit constantly and precisely for full race distance, there was plenty to marvel at. For the casual fan, someone who wants to watch several riders giving it their all in a close battle right to the end, it was dull as ditch water, the first-lap crash giving ultimate winner Ben Spies a gap that he could exploit, and one more pass for the podium positions on lap two settling the race.
If you're a Ben Spies fan - and there are plenty of them, including quite a few recent converts after the Texan proved himself first in World Superbikes, then in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team - then Assen was a race to treasure, Spies seizing the bull by the horns and dominating the race from the off. Spies had a strategy for those first few corners - push as hard as possible through the right-hander Haarbocht, Madijk, and Ossebroeken corners so that he would be safe from attack at the first left hander of the track, the horribly tight Strubben hairpin - which worked perfectly and turned out to be highly prescient. Once Spies had a lead he pushed to build up a cushion, then watched the gap to the chasing Casey Stoner, responding as and when necessary.
It's funny how the mood of the paddock can swing. There was much to talk about after qualifying on Friday - because race day is on Saturday here, a hangover of Assen's Dutch Reformed Church past - such as Marco Simoncelli's second pole, Casey Stoner's relatively lowly 3rd place, Jorge Lorenzo missing out on the front row twice in 7 races, Karel Abraham - yes, the kid with the rich daddy, or perhaps we should say the really, really fast kid with the rich daddy - being quickest of the Ducatis, and Valentino Rossi struggling with the GP11.1 just as much as he did with the GP11.0. But instead, all anyone wanted to talk about was tires.
The topic got chewed over by every rider, journalists moving from hospitality unit to hospitality unit to ask the same questions, and receive the same answers, more or less, the only variation being in the solutions offered. The problem, of course, is that the Bridgestones are simply too good. MotoGP's spec tires offer phenomenal levels of grip - in an offhand comment, Casey Stoner referred to 58 degrees of lean as "not that much" - with outstanding duration. It is common for riders to set their fastest laps in the second half of the race, the point at which the tires are supposed to be degrading and losing grip.
While much of the focus at Assen this weekend has been on how different Valentino Rossi's new Ducati Desmosdici (dubbed the GP11.1) is from it predecessor, the GP11, perhaps the more intriguing question is how close the GP11.1 is to the GP12. The differences between the GP11 that Rossi was riding two weeks' ago at Silverstone and the GP11.1 he has at Assen are huge: when asked by reporters what parts from the GP11 were used for the GP11.1, Ducati team boss (and head of the test team) Vito Guareschi reeled off a very short list: "The wheels, the brakes and the front forks." Everything else, he said, was different.
The GP12, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish altogether. The difference between the 2012 machine tested by Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi last week at Mugello and the 2011 machine which Rossi is riding this weekend is just two parts: a modified crankshaft to give the engine a shorter stroke, bringing it inside the 800cc maximum capacity, and longer conrods to fit the relocated crankpins. Everything else, Guareschi revealed, was identical, the bike being an adaptation of the GP12 which Rossi had tested and been so pleased with at the Jerez test.
Sometimes, you don't get everything you want done late at night, so a few more thoughts which got missed from yesterday's round up. The first thing worth noting - repeatedly, as it's the kind of thing which is easy to forget - is that the race at Assen is on Saturday, a hangover from the race's ancient history (the Dutch TT was first run in 1925, and switched to Assen the next year). This part of Holland was once dominated by a strict Protestant sect which prohibited any activity other than church on a Sunday (especially something as frivolous as motorcycle racing), and so the race was first run on the last Saturday of June, and that soon became a tradition. Nowadays, you can go out and do more or less what you please on a Sunday (though the locals might draw the line at sacrificing virgins in Satanic rituals), but the Saturday race stays.
Last night, Yamaha launched their 50th anniversary bike at a special event in a nearby hotel, which I was unable to attend due to scheduling problems, but the Yamaha staff are all walking around in their special red-and-white shirts, and I have to say they look pretty spiffy. Given that the red-and-white color scheme is Yamaha's original colors (the blue version coming over from a US branding exercise several years ago), I, and a few other people in the paddock, think they should stick with it.