While Mugello is Valentino Rossi's spiritual home, Misano is truly the Italian's home circuit. It is quite literally walking distance from his home town of Tavullia: on the Sunday morning before the MotoGP race, a part of the Valentino Rossi official fan club gather in Tavullia to walk to the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli. It is a little over 12 kilometers, so it's not short, but it is easily doable.
It is also the home of the VR46 Riders Academy, who use it to train on Yamaha R6s and Yamaha R1s, to keep their brains up to speed, as well as using the karting track to race minibikes, sharpening their elbows, which have already been honed at the ranch. The circuit is not far from the end of the Strada Panoramica Adriatica, the stretch of road where Rossi learned the art of riding a two-wheeled vehicle as fast as possible over a winding course. And where, it is whispered, he will still occasionally try to destroy his friends as they race their T-Max scooters along the road.
So the last Misano Grand Prix for Valentino Rossi should be a glorious affair, held in bright, sunny, Adriatic weather. A chance for Rossi and his fans to bathe in the sunshine and the glory of his truly legendary career.
Reality has an unpleasant way of interfering with romantic ideals, however. First of all, the weather is set to be changeable at best for the weekend of the Misano Grand Prix. And though Valentino Rossi's name will continue to echo through the history of the sport long after the Misano circuit has crumbled to dust, his last season has not lived up to the status of his previous years. Finally, this isn't even going to be the last visit to the Misano World Circuit: we will be back here in October, for an extra round added to replace the flyaways.
The advantage for the VR46 Academy riders remains, however. They know the track like the back of their hands, having spun enough laps round Misano take them around the globe a time or two. And Pecco Bagnaia has an added advantage: the circuit is also one of Ducati's prime test tracks, Michele Pirro – also here as a wildcard – testing here for Ducati on a regular basis. The same is true for Aprilia, of course.
Misano makes a good test track. Like Jerez, it lacks a really high-speed section – the section through Curvone, the fast right of Turn 11 tops out at just over 300 km/h – but has a lot of the other characteristics needed to give the bike a good work out. There are sections with hard acceleration: out of the last corner onto the front straight; out of Turn 6 and onto the back straight, and out of Tramonto onto the sweeping rear section through Curvone.
There are hard braking sections: the tight left of Quercia, named for the oak tree that once stood in the corner; and Turn 16, the final corner and outstanding passing opportunity before the front straight. There are changes of direction, the chicane of Turns 1 and 2, and the right-left of Turns 5 and 6. And it has long, sweeping corners, both slow – Turns 9 and 10 – and fast, the section through Curvone and then on into Carro, braking while leaned hard over for the tight right of Turn 14. All that braking and hard acceleration makes the track tough on fuel too: the bikes might not be going flat out, but they are spend a surprising amount of time at full throttle.
Testing helps, but not as much as you think
With Ducati having spent so much time testing at the track, does that make it a Ducati circuit? The Bologna factory's record at the circuit is mixed: their last win here dates from 2018, when Andrea Dovizioso triumphed after then factory Ducati teammate Jorge Lorenzo started from pole, and crashed out of the lead. Yet the next year, Dovizioso finished sixth, nearly 14 seconds behind the winner Marc Marquez.
In 2020, Pecco Bagnaia finished second in the first round at Misano, then a week later looked to be on his way to a comfortable victory, before crashing out of the lead. Coming off his first MotoGP victory, at Aragon last week, Bagnaia will be buoyant, and with a taste for more. It is a chance to claw back more points from championship rival Fabio Quartararo.
Misano is very much a Yamaha track. Franco Morbidelli won the first race in 2020, aboard the 2019-spec Petronas Yamaha. A week later, Maverick Viñales took victory on the Monster Energy Yamaha bike, cruising to a comfortable win over Suzuki's Joan Mir. A year previously Yamahas had finished from second to fifth in the race, Fabio Quartararo narrowly losing out in a thrilling battle with Marc Marquez.
Yamaha have won a lot at Misano, since the direction of the track was reversed and it made its return to the calendar. In addition to wins by Viñales and Morbidelli last year, Jorge Lorenzo has won three times, in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and Valentino Rossi also has three wins, in 2008, 2009, and 2014. An auspicious omen indeed for Fabio Quartararo, and his title defense.
It is not a Honda circuit, though Marc Marquez has taken victory here, in 2015 and 2019. It is unlikely that Marquez will be able to repeat his feat at Aragon, where he pushed Bagnaia all the way to the line. Misano is a clockwise track, with a lot of braking for right-hand turns. Precisely the point where Marquez is weakest, and least able to attack other riders.
Unless it is wet, of course. If the forecast is to be believed, rain will be a feature throughout the weekend. Heavy rain on Friday – a worry, given the track's previous record for flooding – followed by light rain especially on Saturday afternoon. Race day could be dry, but there is also a chance of rain. The only thing we can be certain of is that it is unpredictable.
That is going to make preparing for the race a little difficult. The riders with the best base setup will face the easiest task, going into the weekend with a clear idea already of what their bikes need, and what those bikes can do. Complicating it further is the amount of dirt and dust in the air, and as a result of local rains, dirt and dust on the track, rendering it extremely greasy and slippery.
That means that the riders and teams will need to have a strategy going into practice. "Last night we had a bit rain here and a lot of dust on the track and everywhere in the paddock, so it means a very high possibility that tomorrow in FP1 it will be very slippery conditions," Takaaki Nakagami told us on Thursday. "But anyway, the weather forecast this weekend looks not so nice, unstable, so each session it will be so important to stay in the top ten. Even in FP1, we are thinking to use new tires at the end of the session, to stay in the top ten at least. So everything will be a very important session this weekend."
Eyes on the prize
Difficult conditions will require a focus and an approach from the teams and the riders. With the championship narrowing down to a field of three with a realistic shot at the title, Fabio Quartararo, Pecco Bagnaia, and Joan Mir will have their own path to follow.
For Quartararo, the priority is damage limitation: try to win the race if possible, score as many points as possible if victory is not an option, and above all, do not crash. A 53-point lead with five races to go is solid. Losing anything less than 10 points to Bagnaia, or 11 points to Mir should be considered a win. Gaining points on them would bring the title well within his grasp.
For both Bagnaia and Mir, the title is not entirely in their hands. Even if either rider were to win the remaining five races, they would still need others to finish between themselves and Fabio Quartararo. Their only choice is to try to win this round and as many more as possible. Yet their current points deficit puts them in a precarious position: they cannot afford to miss out on the podium, at the very least, and the top step if possible. But at this stage in the game, a single DNF would put the title beyond reach for them.
Team work makes the dream work
Bagnaia, at least, can count on the help of his teammate Jack Miller. The Australian knows that his own shot at the riders' crown is gone – he trails Quartararo by 85 points – but the manufacturers and team championships are still wide open. "I was looking at the championship standings the other day after Aragon and to see the team creeping closer and closer to Monster Yamaha is really nice, and hopefully we can keep doing that because it'd be lovely," the Australian told us on Thursday. "Already the constructors' title last year for Ducati was massive so to get Ducati Lenovo the teams' championship would be fantastic and try and I'd love to get myself on the rostrum," Miller said, referring to getting into the top three of the riders' championship.
That simplified his goals for the remaining races. "I need to keep plugging away at it and try to take the best out of any situation we get," Miller told us. "Pecco's doing a fantastic job and caught back some decent points on Fabio the other day so it's definitely not out of the question for him and as I've said all along I'm here, I'm a team player and I'm happy to help out with whichever way I can. Not saying anything bad or anything like that, but if I can see an opportunity to try and help Pecco I'll definitely try and do that and that's our plan. At the end of the day we are here to try and get the big red beast on top."
Beyond the battle at the front, the interest is much further down the field. Maverick Viñales starts his second race weekend on the Aprilia, but the advantage here is that the Spaniard has already spent two days riding the RS-GP at the Misano circuit, at the test here after Silverstone. That means he arrives better prepared than at Aragon. "I think for sure in Misano we will be much closer because I have some experience with the bike," Viñales told us. "I had time to think, analyze and work especially from one weekend to the other."
Viñales is still very much in the process of adapting to the Aprilia and getting to know the team and understand the bike, he emphasized. "I'm curious to continue on that way, especially in that process to learn the bike, learn the team," Viñales said. "I'm ready to much more things than in Aragon because I think in Aragon we were in a conservative way, trying to adapt myself. But here in Misano where I've made laps before, I understand the track, where we are, so we can try a little bit more and go into different areas."
With that in mind, Viñales refused to set an objective for the weekend, beyond getting a better handle on the Aprilia. "Just learn," the Spaniard replied when asked what his goal was for Misano. "We need to keep in that way. I mean it makes no sense to say now that we need to arrive at this position or this position. Right now we need to learn, to be calm and try different things. And from ten things maybe one will work, This is the job! So we need to keep working like this."
Much the same applies to Andrea Dovizioso, who makes his return to MotoGP after a nine-month sabbatical. The Italian takes over from Franco Morbidelli in the Petronas Yamaha team, who has earned an early promotion to the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team after Viñales departed for Aprilia. (Though summarizing the Viñales situation as 'departing for Aprilia' really doesn't do the drama which unfolded justice.)
Dovizioso returns to MotoGP on a two-year old Yamaha M1, which has consistently been the slowest on the grid, at least in terms of outright top speed. But that did not concern the Italian. "I can't know how strong my bike is for these next five rounds, and I'm not worried about that," Dovizioso told a special press conference put on for his return. "First because I don't have to fight for something about the championship and the result, and the important thing is in our deal was to have a factory bike for next year, factory support and we achieved that."
The first focus for Dovizioso is to find the right position on the bike so he can feel confident enough to push. "The important thing of this year is to feel good on the bike position-wise and understand the bike. Because for sure the bike I will have to ride in a very different way than the previous one. So it will take time, first for the position."
Returning on a race weekend, after nine months off, in which he has only done a couple of tests for Aprilia, meant being realistic. "For sure it's not the best to start in a race weekend," the Italian said. Being competitive was a pipe dream, given how competitive the entire field was. "MotoGP now I think for a few reasons is very tight. The last rider is so fast and very close to the first rider, speed wise, so it's very difficult. But I know that, and I'm not worried in this moment about that."
There had been periods where he wasn't sure he would ever return to MotoGP, but he was at peace with that. "I was feeling good at home, I was doing what I liked, my passion, and I was a bit more relaxed," Dovizioso told us. "Because when you don't race in MotoGP, you are more relaxed, 100%! And especially my girlfriend 'explained' that to me!"
But when the chance came to race for Yamaha, Dovizioso understood that he still really wanted to race. "At the beginning, when that door opened, I thought about that, but I couldn't say no," he told us. "Because already after 2012, after a good year in a satellite situation [with the then Tech3 Yamaha team], my dream was to be in factory Yamaha, and that didn't happen. So that thing remained in my mind."
The seed that had been planted when he was in the Tech3 Yamaha squad, and missed out on a factory ride due to the return of Valentino Rossi, had finally taken hold when approached for the SRT seat. "To have this chance now after eight years with the same bike, it's something I really wanted to do, and that was my bike," Dovizioso explained. "I don't want to say, with that bike I will be stronger, faster, the best, but as a rider, you have your idea, you have your feeling when you race for a lot of years against other manufacturers. And it's something I really wanted to do."
Take a chance
Failure was not just a theoretical option, Dovizioso explained. "For sure it's more the risk than the possibility to do good, in my opinion, for a lot of people it's like that. But I don't care, I race for me, I race because I have the passion to race, I'm really interested to feel and to ride with a completely different bike, different brand. I will take that risk, and I don't have any problem about that."
Dovizioso knows that he still had a lot to learn, and from watching the racing so far this year, understands that the 2021 rear Michelin has changed the riding style requirements. But this is something he can only understand fully once he gets on the bike on Friday, Dovizioso said. "I don't have a clear answer, because I am still interested to understand when I will ride this bike, because from last year, the championship changed a lot. The only big change was the casing of the rear tire. For sure, that affected a lot, but how much I don't know. If it's only that, if that is a big percentage."
The other big change is generational, Dovizioso pointed out. "Plus the new generation. I mean, next year, I will be the only one, or almost, there. So it's a bit strange. And as you can see, the young riders start immediately with a really good speed. But I don't know if the new casing helps a bit, because it looks like you have to stop the bike less, and make more speed in the middle of the corner, like Moto2, like smaller championships."
An outsider's view
Watching the racing at home had given him a chance to analyze the races as an observer. Among the things which had surprised him most was the performance of Fabio Quartararo. "Fabio, I didn't expect this from Fabio," Dovizioso said. "Not because I didn't expect this because he's not good enough, but because I think what he did is crazy. Because nobody in this season with Yamaha has been that consistent. And last year, Fabio struggled in the middle of the season. I think the step he did is crazy, especially because in the straights he loses a lot, and he won a lot of races alone. So he was able to overtake competitors and make the gap. This is something difficult to do. I didn't expect that. I think they are doing really good work."
Along with Quartararo, Dovizioso had been most impressed with Pramac Ducati rookie Jorge Martin. "I think everybody knows his speed, because he showed it in Moto3, Moto2 every year," Dovizioso said of the Spanish rookie. "But to do it immediately and after the injury in Portimão, I think what he did is something very important."
Biggest disappointment had been Joan Mir and Alex Rins, Dovizioso said. "I expected a bit more competitive both Suzuki riders," the Italian told us. Why they were not able to be competitive, only the Suzuki riders themselves know, he explained. "But they know exactly why they are struggling this year. From outside, it's impossible to say."
After so much talk of Michelin tires, there was some debate over the renewal of the contract for Michelin, now due to be official tire supplier to MotoGP through 2026. Everyone was broadly positive, though there were concerns over consistency.
"Fantastic news for MotoGP, Michelin," Jack Miller said. "We've seen a lot of lap records fall since Michelin have stepped in. For sure the bikes getting better. But their performance is getting better. Looking forward to sticking around for 3 more years with them. If I can keep a job," the factory Ducati rider joked.
Two riders who suffered with tires affecting their performance are also leading the championship, with Fabio Quartararo losing out at Aragon, after Pecco Bagnaia suffered with a duff rear tire at Silverstone. It had been a subject discussed in the Safety Commission at Aragon, Quartararo explained. "We talked about it in the Safety Commission in Aragon, and I think from my side, the tires are really performant, we can be really fast. Compared to 2019, I feel the consistency is much better."
More of the same please
But consistency problems remained, the Frenchman said. "It's true that it can happen that you can have a strange tire during the weekend, sometimes in practice, but sometimes during the race. For me, just what we said was more about the quality, to be always the same. But for me the tires are working super well and I'm super happy with that. But yes, just that small point that needs to be improved."
Pecco Bagnaia elaborated on that point. "What we asked to the Safety Commission in Aragon was more consistency from the tires, from Michelin. It's something that we need, because the manufacturers work a lot, invest a lot in their bike, and then we see some races, where you work a lot and you are strong in practice, you arrive to the race and you start struggling a lot and you start going backwards. So it's not easy, also for the manufacturers."
Jack Miller took a more philosophical view. The fact that the field is so incredibly close just served to amplify even the smallest detail. That made attributing performance to tires very difficult, while also magnifying the effect of a tire which had suboptimal performance.
"It’s hard to say," Miller replied when asked if there were more consistency issues now than there had been in the past. "The racing is the best it’s ever been without a shadow of a doubt. Every year it’s getting better. The bikes are getting better. I feel the tires are getting better. But we can’t sit here and say there are no issues. But they’re doing their best."
Tire choice returned
The switch from Michelin to Bridgestone had been a huge positive, Miller affirmed. "I think having Michelin on board is one of the biggest helps in that thing. If we look back to the past with another manufacturer, Bridgestone I did only 1 year, but you were limited to what you could use. It was this is the tire you race, all weekend. There was one tire that worked. One tire was a back up and that was it. The same tire at every track pretty much."
That is very different with the French tire manufacturer. "Michelin are pushing the envelope, putting a massive amount into developing their tires. It shows in the racing and speed." That is what could be causing inconsistencies, Miller speculated. "But when you’re pushing as hard as they are some issues come up."
Consistency mattered more when you were fighting for the championship, trying to get every single detail perfect, Miller explained. "You notice it more when you’re at the front every week, trying to finish the race with 100% tire usage," the Ducati Lenovo Team rider said. "That means you’ve used a whole lot. As I’ve worked out with my experience in MotoGP, if you’re going slower, you’re not using the same wear. That’s when you start to notice it more, when you’re looking for those milliseconds here there and everywhere. That’s become more relevant now. Just from my point of view."
The devil is in the detail
With such a close field, being off by even a fraction could have enormous consequences, Miller affirmed. "Just being there, pretty much every weekend, you notice, you’re there looking for that little extra. At one track you’re doing alright, the next you’re 17th or whatever, I’m looking at it from that standpoint. I feel I’m able to use the tires, always looking for best one. You know what the best one feels like."
With the devil in the detail, it was easy to blame the wrong thing. After the race in Aragon, Fabio Quartararo tried as hard as he could not to blame the Michelin tires, while simultaneously implying that his rear tire was to blame. With more time to analyze the data, it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.
"Well, the thing it is more about for us, it was not about a defective tire, it was something that happened during the race, that our temperature and pressure from the beginning were always too high," Quartararo explained.
Seeking cool air
The reason for this was that they had set the bike up based on the data gathered during practice, when Quartararo was riding alone. But in the race, surrounded by other riders, there was less cool air to lower the temperature of the tires, and as a result, the pressure. "My mistake was always to ride alone in Aragon. And during the race, I really had no grip front and rear to stop the bike, and in acceleration."
The issue does seem to be particular to Aragon. Quartararo had a similar problem at the track in 2020, when he rode alone and the team put a little too much pressure in the front tire, which caused it to balloon when he got stuck in traffic. Quartararo and his team had gone looking for answers after this year's race, and found something similar, but with the rear tire. "That's what we analyzed and I think that it's a good lesson for the next time we go to Aragon," the Frenchman said. That didn't apply for Misano, he said. "Now we are in a totally different situation, but it was good to be clear with the team, and to know for the future."
Something similar had happened to Takaaki Nakagami, though for the LCR Honda rider, the problem had been particularly bad behind the Ducati of Enea Bastianini, only easing off when Bastianini got away from the Japanese rider.
He and his team had looked at the data after the Aragon race, and found what had caused that poor feeling in the front of the bike, Nakagami explained. "Definitely after the race my team analyzed the data, what happened during the race, because as you know, during the race, I was behind Ducatis and I was struggling about the front tire performance. After the race we looked at the data, and definitely we found really high pressure and very high temperature on the front, both things."
That was unusually, because usually, it was only the pressure that went up, he explained. "Normally, it happens but it's only really high tire pressure, it's not like tire temperature. But unfortunately in Aragon during the race, when we realized that the front tire was not good performance, it was very high temperature and very high pressure inside the tire. So both things were together, so that's why I felt that the front tire was so difficult to control."
There was little they could do to prevent this, Nakagami asserted. "It's quite difficult to avoid this, because always behind the Ducatis this kind of feeling, it's easy to feel when we are riding," the LCR Honda rider said. It would mean a change of approach if he found himself behind a Ducati again, he said. "If like during the race, I was behind a Ducati, I have to change strategy. Clearly I have to change. Let's see this weekend."
Nakagami was adamant that the front tire temperature and pressure issue was as a result of being behind a Ducati, and not a different bike. "At the end of the race when Bastianini goes faster than us and he goes away, when there was a gap of one second or so, clearly also on the data, you can see both tire temperature and tire pressure drops," Nakagami said. "That's why in the last four laps, the last three laps, I felt like the front tire is coming back. Clearly it's something different behind the Ducati bikes."
Taking the heat
What could it be? Anyone who has stood in the pits during practice as a Ducati returns into pit lane knows the familiar smell of scorched carbon fiber fairings. That is in part because the bike is so tightly packaged underneath the fairing, but it is also because the Ducati Desmosedici generates so much heat, a by-product of the horsepower the Desmosedici pumps out.
That heat has to go somewhere, and when a bike is on track, the most logical place for the heat to be passed on to is directly behind it. Perhaps the Ducatis are throwing out so much heat in their slipstream that anyone following behind can quickly cook their tires. The Ducatis are not just fast, they are hard to follow as well. Advantage Bagnaia? We'll see after Misano.
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