Mugello is many things: Majestic, magical, magnificent. It is also mendacious. It can catch you out, lead you down the wrong path, make you think you've found the right direction, only to find it is a dead end. It rewards sleight of hand too. There are many different ways to skin a cat at Mugello, if you will excuse the expression, so you have to keep your cards close to your chest. To win at Mugello, you need to be fast, you need to be brave, but you also need to have a good poker face.
Qualifying on Saturday was both magnificent and mendacious. Pole was won through a combination of sublime riding and a good deal of meddling, subtly controlling rivals to keep them from any chance of a counterattack. It was a masterclass, but then what else would you expect at Mugello?
The deception started early in the weekend. All weekend long, Andrea Iannone has been fastest. On Friday, we thought it was just a single fast lap, a soft tire to flaunt his speed to prospective employers, now that he has been told he is surplus to requirements and must make way for Joan Mir. But dig into the timesheets and it is not just one lap, but serious speed, consistently capable of lapping just that little bit faster than anyone else.
Iannone the danger man
More of the same followed on Saturday, Iannone having the pace in FP3, confident enough to not worry about chasing a time in the morning, secure in the knowledge he would go through to Q2. In the afternoon, it was Iannone who was fastest in FP4, the One True Practice Session, where riders work solely on race setup and fast laps count for naught. And it was Iannone who took off during qualifying, knocking Marc Márquez off provisional pole on his last lap of his first run.
But it would not be Iannone who ended up taking pole, and it would all come down to tactics. Marc Márquez had headed out of the pits as soon as the lights went green for the start of the session, chasing a quick time. He took provisional pole then headed back into the pits, to wait for the rest to follow suit and to leave him with clear space both ahead and behind him.
Andrea Iannone provided the first fly in Márquez' ointment, taking provisional pole ahead of the Spaniard. And when the field headed out for their second runs, more were to follow. Valentino Rossi was the first to put himself ahead of Márquez with a lap that was out of this world. "To make the pole position, to make the good lap, you have to arrive always at the limit without making any mistakes," Rossi told the press conference. "Sometimes it happens, and is a great feeling."
Managing the competition
Rossi knew his lap was good enough for the front row, but he was wary of the competition. The Movistar Yamaha rider stayed out, patrolling the track at a much slower pace ready to push should he need to try another lap. Behind him, first Jorge Lorenzo leapt up to second, then Maverick Viñales jumped into third, pushing Iannone down into fourth. Márquez was pushing to improve his time, but a couple of mistakes caused him to fall short. First, Márquez had a big slide on the rear at the very fast Arrabbiata 2 corner. Then, after he passed Valentino Rossi and the Italian slotted in behind Márquez, the Repsol Honda rider had another moment, almost washing out the front completely at the final corner and saving it on his elbow and knee. Pole position, not even the front row was to be for Márquez.
The Spaniard put his travails down to the front tire being too soft, and overheating. "I don't think it was on camera but a big save in Arrabbiata 2," Márquez said. "I lose the front, but I already know before practice that I will struggle. Because here we have a special allocation with the front tires and in the morning I'm able to be very fast because I'm already using the medium tire, that is the good one here. But in the afternoon it is too soft. I'm able to push in the first part of the circuit but already when I arrive in the second part of the circuit the tire is overheating and I'm losing time. But we already know, so it's something that we need to manage."
But Márquez owned up to the blame as well. "The thing is this, this weekend I save many, many times because the tires are very soft and then I'm playing always in that limit. But the qualifying practice was a little bit like Jerez, I didn't take the best. I didn't find the smoother lap. The perfect lap. And for that reason we start sixth. Of course I would like to start first but I'm not worried because we are there."
It could have been seventh, had Cal Crutchlow not had his fastest lap – good enough for fifth – canceled for exceeding track limits. It was the smallest possible violation of the rules, Crutchlow said, a claim borne out by the video footage. "It was marginal," the LCR Honda rider told the media. "I didn't know I'd done it, that's how marginal it was because you know if you go on the green. If you were to see the footage, coming out of turn 5… I hit it like hitting your pen. But the rules are the rules and I broke them by accident. I didn't try to intentionally gain out of it, when you've got 280 horsepower or whatever they say it is in your hand and the bikes going one way and you're trying to keep it in a straight line, sometimes it doesn't work."
In the end, qualifying may not be as important as it seems. The times were incredibly close for a track which is so long, and so fast. In Q2, less than three tenths separated the top seven riders, Franco Morbidelli in twelfth less than eight tenths behind Rossi's pole time, the Italian also having an outstanding weekend. In FP4, there were sixteen riders within a second. At a track like Mugello, that shows that the field is incredibly tight.
Especially given that Rossi's time was nearly three tenths of a second better than the old pole record held by Andrea Iannone (and briefly broken by Marc Márquez in FP3). The pole time wasn't the only record Rossi broke with his qualifying lap. In doing so, he became the oldest rider to take pole in the premier class since Jack Findlay at the Isle of Man TT in 1974. Rossi may be advancing in years, but he is still also advancing in speed.
Also noteworthy is the fact that this was Rossi's first pole for two years, since Motegi 2016. Prior to that, he had taken pole the same year at Mugello, and at Jerez. But Mugello really brings out the best in Rossi, the massed yellow fans giving him a boost, extra motivation to find the extra tenth or two that is the difference between pole position and merely a good qualifying position.
Turning negative to positive
The yellow masses gave Rossi energy through their cheers, but they also managed to motivate the object of their hatred, Marc Márquez. Every time he appeared on the big screens set up opposite the grandstands, the crowd would boo and whistle, with the sole exception of a lonely Márquez fan waving a big 93 flag in the middle of the main stands. Surrounded by a sea of yellow, he was truly the bravest man at Mugello, with the possible exception of Michele Pirro, who was still in hospital arguing with Ducati management to allow him to race on Sunday, despite suffering a heavy concussion in his massive crash on Friday.
The boos and whistles won't slow Márquez either. Márquez is learning to feed off the displeasure of the crowds, their disapproval only making him even faster. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, the Rossi fans booing Márquez are only increasing his chances of success.
What about success on Sunday? The race will probably be a strategic one, Valentino Rossi explained to the press conference. "In the last period you don’t see a lot of strategic races," he said. "Maybe sometimes Marquez, because usually when you have an advantage you can decide. I haven't done a strategic race from five, six years I think. Tomorrow we will see because you have a lot of different factors. We are fast in the T3. That is good for our bike, but the T4 is very much about the engine also, so we lose a little bit. The slipstream will be very, very important, but also the braking for the last corner and also for the San Donato. I think it will be interesting because you have different riders and also different bikes, more or less with the same pace."
All except Andrea Iannone, according to Marc Márquez. "The only one who is a little bit faster than everybody is Iannone," he said. "The rest, we are very equal." Andrea Dovizioso saw the field more evenly distributed. "FP4 is the important practice to understand the pace of the race, and we were on top, so I'm really happy about that. There are some other riders with really good pace, so it could be a nice fight tomorrow with many riders. A lot of Italians, but some other riders will be strong, like Jorge, like Marc for sure."
The only person who was not optimistic about his chances was Andrea Iannone himself. He was extremely happy with the package he had, he said, and with the improvements of the Suzuki."I have a really good feeling with the bike, I'm happy. From the first race of the championship we improved, practice by practice, race by race. We arrived here and we are very strong," he said.
The bike was better than last year in all areas bar one, Iannone told us. "It's really difficult also because on the straight, we lose a lot on the top speed, and when you have a really good ride on track from the first corner to the end, and you recover two tenths, but you will lose everything on the straight. So it's a really bad situation. Especially when you have five Ducatis behind you. We start all together, and on the first or second lap, it's really easy for the riders to overtake me, because on the straight, I'm slower than everybody."
Speed and setup
Iannone denied this weekend was just a glorified audition for a new job. He did not have to impress other managers with his speed, the Italian said. "I don't have to show my best potential, everybody knows Andrea, and everybody knows about me, Iannone said."I'm not born yesterday, I have been in this world for 20 years. I worked with all the manufacturers, with many, many people, so I think my talent is clear. In any case, I'm really happy, because today, we together prepared the bike and we stayed on the top. With Andrea. And this is really good for me. "
There were setup changes which have helped the mix of bikes at the front. For Valentino Rossi, it was a change to the balance of the bike, though he would be no more specific than that. "We worked on the bike in the test in Barcelona. We are able to improve a little bit the balance. We don’t have a lot of new stuff, but we try to find something in the past, something good for try to understand."
Maverick Viñales had shortened the bike, and moved the weight forward a little. That had worked at the Barcelona test, and it had worked at Mugello, despite a bad start on Saturday morning. Above all, Viñales had confidence in his team again. "I felt good on the bike," he said, "the team is working better every day. It’s a tough moment but for sure we never give up. When I have confidence I can be in the front."
For Andrea Dovizioso, it was switching to the wings, after starting Friday without them. It was very much like at Jerez, the Ducati rider said, when he had done exactly the same thing, started the weekend without wings and realized that having wins would be more important, though the difference was not so big at Mugello. "The fairing is like a setup," Dovizioso explained. "That is something that is very strange to manage. So the difference is that we start with what is best for us on paper, but sometimes the conditions you find during the weekend, the tires you find during the weekend, affect things in a different way to what you expected. So this I think we can see in a positive way."
Data had showed the bike would be better with the fairing, Dovizioso said. "We try to stay always with a positive mind about changing the fairing. It's something I don't like to change during the weekend, but after two practices, you have a lot of data to study, and to understand, OK, I'm losing there. Why? And when all the data is quite clear, all the data are going in one direction like in Jerez, like yesterday, that's why we decided about the fairing. Because when you try a setup, sometimes it has an effect, sometimes not. But the fairing, you know very well what it is doing. So that's why we decided to change."
So who wins on Sunday? It is hard to pinpoint a winner. Tire choice will be crucial, and it will also be unpredictable, with riders swapping and changing on the grid. The rear tire will be either the soft or the medium, while the front could vary between the medium, the hard, and the asymmetric hard. Riders were telling the press they preferred one option, yet setting their best times on another, trying to lead their rivals astray. There will be lots more where that comes from on Sunday.
But in the end, it will all come down to who manages the tires best in the second half of the race. The trouble is, the entire grid has two years of experience with Michelin of that. Riders are understanding the tires better, and the Michelins are improving. There are six or seven riders who could win on Sunday.
You can never discount Valentino Rossi at home. Maverick Viñales is much stronger than he has been all year. Jorge Lorenzo has found genuine speed on the Ducati, and the new tank pad is giving him the support he needs. Andrea Iannone is genuinely quick, despite being down on top speed. Danilo Petrucci found some improvements, and could be in contention. Marc Márquez needs a hard front tire, but is always in contention at every race he enters. Andrea Dovizioso believes he has the setup and the speed to compete for the win. Take your pick.
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