I shall spare you the "rolling Tuscan hills" patter. That cliché will be trotted out in most of the press releases and previews you will read. Indeed, it is one I have done to death in many of my own previews of the race. Like all clichés, it is based on an underlying truth: the Mugello circuit is a breathaking track, set in a stunning location, and scene of some of the greatest racing over the thirty Grand Prix which have been held here since 1976. So good is the track that it has remained virtually unchanged, with only minor tweaks to improve safety. There are still a few spots which could use some improvement. The wall at the end of the main straight could use being moved further to the left, and the gravel trap on the exit of Poggio Secco is terrifyingly small, but fixing these would require moving some serious quantities of earth about. But this is Mugello, and so we look away and carry on. At least the astroturf has been removed, removing one possible source of danger.
The setting and the racetrack mean that this is always one of the highlights of the year, but 2015 could be even better than usual. It might even live up to the hype, of which there is justifiably plenty. But where to begin? With Valentino Rossi, the man who once owned Mugello, winning seven races in a row between 2002 and 2008, and who is both leading the championship and in the form of his life? With his teammate perhaps, Jorge Lorenzo, who has won half of the last six races here, and finished second in the other half? A Lorenzo, we might add, who is now firmly on a roll, steamrollering the opposition at both Jerez and Le Mans? How about Ducati, the factory just an hour up the road from their official test track, and a place where Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone had a test just three weeks ago, lapping at pretty much race record pace? Or with Marc Márquez, perhaps, the reigning championship struggling during the defense of his second title, the Honda clearly having taken a step backwards over the winter (or rather, taken a small step sideways while Yamaha and Ducati have taken giant leaps forward)?
Perhaps we should allow seniority, both in years and in championship position, to prevail. Can Valentino Rossi do it again at Mugello? If ever there was a year where the Italian could emerge victorious at his spiritual home, this is surely it. Rossi returned to the podium here last year, for the first time since 2009. He had appeared on the podium for each of the three years previously, but only after being called there to greet fans after the real podium ceremony, for the three riders who finished first, were over. Those appearances were painful, most of all for Rossi. He wanted to earn it, be on the podium on merit, rather than popularity. In 2014, he did just that, finishing in third behind Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo. Not close enough to do battle with them, but close enough to dream of more.
Those dreams could be realized on Sunday. Valentino Rossi is in the form of his life, training harder than ever, working on his riding more than ever. He leads the championship after five races, and has two victories to his name, both taken on merit, with no help from the conditions. Yamaha have made a big step forward over the past year, the bike clearly much faster than before. It is hard to overstate just how motivated Valentino Rossi will be on Sunday. The biggest question mark is where he will be starting from. Qualifying has been Rossi's weak point ever since the system changed, Rossi finding it hard to muster the immediate intensity the 15 minute session requires. But sacrificing that intensity to concentrate on race set up has paid dividends. Come Sunday, Valentino Rossi has that little bit extra, both in terms of set up and ambition, to make the difference.
The biggest obstacle in his way is his teammate. After a false start, Jorge Lorenzo has come blazing back into business, taking two wins on the trot. The Movistar Yamaha rider had a mediocre start, but, as he has insisted at the last two races, it was never a crisis of form. He merely had all his bad luck come together – a loose helmet liner at Qatar, bronchitis in Texas, an inability to get the harder tire to work in Argentina. With his bad luck out of the way, Lorenzo has been transformed from following the leaders at a distance to a juggernaut, crushing the opposition at will. If things looked bleak for his rivals at Jerez and Le Mans, the situation could be much worse at Mugello. Lorenzo has taken ownership of the circuit from his teammate, winning three races in a row between 2011 and 2013. Last year he was only narrowly beaten by Marc Márquez, in a tough duel that went down the last lap. But that was when Lorenzo was still in the process of regaining his race fitness, and on a Yamaha that was clearly inferior to Márquez' Honda. A fully fit Lorenzo, on an extremely competitive Yamaha YZR-M1 will be hard, if not downright impossible to beat.
Dark horses at Mugello are surely Ducati. But perhaps to label them as dark horses is to do them a disservice. The two Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, tested at Mugello just over two weeks ago, mainly to prepare for this race. It was a successful test, by and large, both men lapping close to the race lap record. It did not end well for Iannone, however, the Italian crashing heavily, and injuring both his shoulder, and, it later transpired, suffering a hairline fracture in his humerus, or elbow.
Though they had little material of significance to test, Ducati did find something important at the test. Working through various set up parameters confirmed that the Italian factory had been chasing a dead end. Now back on the right path, the Desmosedici GP15 is a formidable machine, as Dovizioso's return to the podium at Le Mans proved. At Mugello, they start with an advantage: the factory Ducati men do not need to spend the first day working out how last year's data apply to this year's bike and track conditions, and adjusting the set up they started with. Ducati will be up to speed straight away, and be much closer to an optimum race set up by Sunday than the rest will. With Ducati having made huge strides forward with the GP15, this could be the first legitimate shot at a dry win which Gigi Dall'Igna's new machine will get. Ducati look set to lose their concessions for the 2016 season anyway, under pressure from Honda and Yamaha. They would rather lose them with honor, by taking a win in the dry.
Dovizioso and Iannone will also by joined by Michele Pirro, Ducati test rider and racing for the factory in the Italian CIV Superbike championship. Competing in the Italian championship has allowed Pirro to keep his racing edge, the sharpness which only comes with direct competition. A top ten should be possible for the Italian, and just rewards for all the hard work he has put into the series.
Does all this mean that the Hondas stand no chance? That would be absurd. Marc Márquez dominated the first half of 2014, and beat Lorenzo here last year. But the Honda RC213 is not the dominant machine it once was. Honda appeared to have pursued a development direction to its logical conclusion, and been led down a blind alley in the process. When conditions are right, the Honda brakes later and turns in more easily than any other bike on the grid, compensating for the lack of rear grip the bike suffers with. When conditions or set up are not quite right, the Hondas are left floundering. Without the right set up, the riders have no confidence in the front end, and a costly mistake is quickly made. Only Marc Márquez managed to avoid an error at Le Mans, all three other riders on a Honda factory bike losing the front end and falling.
It is not that the Honda has gone backwards, however. Veteran journalist Dennis Noyes collated the race times for the first five races of the season. Taking crashes and errors into account, the Honda has actually improved since last year, completing the race over a second faster than in 2014, on average. Unfortunately for Honda, the Yamahas are nearly 14 seconds quicker than they were over race last year, and Ducati are over 19 seconds faster. Where Honda has made a small step forward, Yamaha and Ducati have made giant bounds, leaving Honda struggling.
That doesn't mean that Marc Márquez does not have a chance of victory at Mugello. The RC213V is still quick, especially in the hands of the double world champion. The defects which the Honda is showing are minimized in the right conditions. Ironically, the problems with the Honda tend to be minimized at circuits with more of a Yamaha bias. Fast and flowing is now where the Honda performs best, and Mugello is nothing if not fast and flowing. Márquez may still be able to run at the front of the race, but he will not find it as easy to hold off Lorenzo as he did in 2014.
Teammate Dani Pedrosa is still getting back to speed after his long layoff after arm pump surgery. Despite finishing outside the points at Le Mans, his first race back, Pedrosa was pleased with progress. He lost a lot of time in a crash early on, but once he remounted, he soon settled into a pace that would have seen him involved in the same battle that Márquez had been fighting. The fact that he could run that pace was promising indeed: though it is a little early to be making judgments, Pedrosa's surgery appears to have been a success. Things are only going to get better for the Spaniard, starting with Mugello.
Can Pedrosa win? He probably feels it is a little too early for that yet. His main objective will be to challenge for the podium; if he can do that, then he will be in with a shout at the end of the race. A strong race at Mugello will set Pedrosa up for the next race in Barcelona, a much more important race for the Spaniard.
What if neither Pedrosa nor Márquez can get on the podium? There was no Honda on the podium at Le Mans, a situation which, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, may be regarded as unfortunate. If the Repsol Honda team were to miss out on the podium for two races in a row, that would be a very different kettle of fish. No longer could Honda's situation be put down to circumstances, to mistakes and mishaps. Of course they face serious challenges, both from a strong Movistar Yamaha team, and from a transformed factory Ducati team. But in the past, they would have been capable of holding off such an assault.
Mugello is a big race for the other Italian factory as well. So far, Aprilia's efforts in MotoGP have been at best extremely modest. Alvaro Bautista has scavenged just three points in the first five races, while Marco Melandri has circulated consistently and disconsolately at the back of the field. Mugello is the first track where Aprilia may make a step forward. They will be racing their fully seamless gearbox to race for the first time, after testing it successfully at Jerez. Bautista was impressed, saying it was not too far off Honda's seamless gearbox, which he used last year, and giving it "seven or eight out of ten".
Of course, it will take more than just a seamless gearbox to transmogrify the Aprilia from perennial backmarker into podium material, but the biggest thing about the gearbox is that it is a clear sign of progress. That is important for the morale of the riders – or for Bautista at least, as nothing seems capable of lifting Marco Melandri from his funk – and important as a signal to Piaggio, Aprilia's owners. The aim will surely be to score points more regularly, while continuing to develop the RS-GP. But the real revolution remains for next year, when Romano Albesiano is due to unveil a completely new bike, built as a prototype from the ground up, rather than a modified production machine.
Suzuki will have to wait for their seamless gearbox. The earliest they expect to test such an item will be after the Barcelona race, in just over two weeks' time. But despite the lack of horsepower which the GSX-RR still has, Mugello should be a better track for Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales. The strength of the Suzuki is its agility and its ability to carry corner speed, two qualities which will take them a long way at Mugello. There are few spots which rely on hard acceleration, which is where Espargaro and Viñales are losing out. But the front straight remains: with unofficial top speeds of over 360 km/h being recorded before the braking zone by the Hondas and Ducatis, the Suzuki will be outgunned down the straight.
Catching the front runners will be hard enough for Aleix Espargaro. Just a week after an operation on the ligament in his right thumb, he faces a painful weekend. He has provisionally been passed fit to race, but will undergo checks at the end of each day, to see how the thumb is holding up.
With the sheer weight of performance and motivation from the factory teams, hopes of a podium for the satellite riders look to be faint. On paper, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders have the best shot, but the bike they are riding is still a couple of steps behind the factory mean. Using the chassis bequeathed them by the factory team after the final race of 2014, and without the fully seamless gearbox used by Rossi and Lorenzo, beating the six factory men will be tough. But Mugello suits the Yamaha – even the late 2014 version – and both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro have gone well here in the past. Smith has slightly less happy memories, having fallen and mangled his fingers here in 2013, but it will not slow him down.
Cal Crutchlow will continue work on the new swingarm he received at Le Mans, and being used by the factory riders. Crutchlow has performed well on the LCR Honda, but his fate is inextricably tied in with that of the Repsol men. Until HRC can find a way to generate more rear grip and a little more predictable front end, Crutchlow will simply have to aim for the coattails of Márquez and Pedrosa and try to hitch along for the ride. Scott Redding, on the other hand, has only one focus: figuring out the RC213V, a much tougher task than he expected. Questions are starting to be asked of him, and Redding needs to start finding answers.
There is even hope for the Open class Honda men at Mugello. The post-race test at Jerez was what they needed to work through the complexities of the spec software, and work on improving the set up. That work paid off for Nicky Hayden, the American having his best weekend of the season at Le Mans. They will be hoping to continue that progression into Mugello, where they will at least not have the same handicap in top speed which they struggled with in 2014. But with the level of competition in MotoGP at its highest in years, just getting into the top ten would be a minor miracle.
Whoever wins, whatever the outcome, this is sure to be a weekend to remember. There are few better places in the world to go racing, few more beautiful settings, few circuits which do justice to the power and speed of a MotoGP machine. It is a good time to be a fan of motorcycle racing.
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