There is nowhere that encapsulates the essence of motorcycle racing like Mugello. The track snakes along the sides of the Tuscan valley in which it sits, echoing the country roads and mountain passes where racing first started, shortly after enough motorcycles had been made for riders to challenge each other to tests of skill and bravery.
That is precisely what Mugello is: a test of skill and bravery, of rider and machine, of guts and brains. Calculating risk is everything, both from the technical and human perspective. Manufacturers want to build a bike that will go as fast as possible, but it has to stay in one piece as the engine races past the limiter as the rear wheel lifts over the crest at the end of Mugello's 360 km/h straight. Riders need to hold the throttle pinned over the crest, yet balance the bike on the rear brake to ensure the front is in contact with the asphalt when they slam on the brakes at the most terrifying and invigorating section of track on the calendar.
"The braking for San Donato, the jump before the braking is the most impressive place of the championship, I think," said Valentino Rossi, and he should know. He has probably crossed that crest more often on a MotoGP bike than any other rider, with the possible exception of Michele Pirro, Ducati's test rider, who is replacing the still recovering Jorge Martin this weekend. "San Donato is a very demanding corner, one of the most difficult, extreme corners of the calendar, without doubt," Aleix Espargaro agreed.
Shooting the gap
It's not just the outright speed which makes it so difficult. You enter the main straight from a fast final corner, which is why the top speed at the end is so high. It is also something of a misnomer to call it a straight: the long ribbon of tarmac first veers gently right, then gently left. Or it would be gently, were it not for the fact those mild kinks are at the end of the straight. Taken at the thick end of 350 km/h, riders are having to use serious lean angles to thread the needle through the kinks.
Add in the fact that there is a crest in the middle of the left hand kink, just before the point where you have to slam on the brakes to shed 240 km/h of speed in 317 meters, before pitching the bike into the bowl of the San Donato corner. Riders have to go from tucked tightly behind the fairing while nudging the bike from left to right to left, to holding the front down over the crest, to sitting up without upsetting the bike and slamming on the anchors.
Get it right, and there is no sweeter sensation. The feeling of controlling a motorcycle which such subtlety and perfection to extract every iota of speed from the bike, to brake at the perfect spot before pitching the bike to the exact maximum lean angle the tires can handle through the first corner is what motorcycle racing is all about. That kind of control, of mastering a machine and working with it to traverse a stretch of tarmac, of, to steal a phrase from the internet, dancing to the rhythm of the road, is the bliss which every motorcyclist seeks. To be at one with the bike, the road, the setting.
Get it wrong, however, and disaster beckons, as we have seen in the past. Michele Pirro's Ducati Desmosedici shook its head through the kinks, pushing the brake pads back into the calipers, causing him to grab twice at his front brake, locking the front and pitching him off the bike at over 300 km/h. Marc Márquez, on his first visit to the track on a MotoGP bike, misjudged the load on his front tire, braked, locking the front, released the brake, then braked again, but found himself drifting toward the wall on the left of the track at over 300 km/h. Not wanting to hit the wall, he abandoned ship, jumping off the bike at high speed.
It is a miracle neither rider was more seriously injured. Both were bruised and banged up, but Márquez raced the Sunday after, while Pirro would have raced had the doctors not forbidden it. But both crashes illustrated the fine line the riders must tread to get it right through that section.
And the faster riders go, the finer that line becomes. The spot was already scary in the 500 era, when the bikes were only hitting 315 km/h through the speed traps. Now, 20 years later, they are going 50 km/h faster, a speed increase of nearly 16%. Even if speeds increase at only half that rate, MotoGP will be hitting 400 km/h in the next 20 years or so.
Horns of a dilemma
This gets to the very heart of the dilemma which MotoGP faces. It is a prototype racing series for the best riders in the world, with everyone totally focused on improving their performance as much as mechanically and humanly possible. But every increase in speed, whether it be on the straights or in the corners, brings with it more risk. More speed, though, is the very point of the sport. "Just seeing that getting more speed is getting more dangerous, I think it's not nice to see it in that way," Johann Zarco pointed out. "If not we stop the evolution, we don't go in this way that we are paid to go, we are paid to go always faster, not only in the straight. But it's part of the game."
"At the end of the day you will never make motorcycle racing 100% safe," Jack Miller added. "It's motorcycle racing, that's part of the beauty of it." This whole cycle of evolution and development is not restricted to MotoGP. The lessons learned (many of them in MotoGP) trickle down into production, the engineering helping to improve every aspect of road bikes sold to ordinary motorcyclists. That made those bikes faster too. "I mean, now you can go and buy bikes, my Panigale is completely standard and I'm hitting over 300 km/h in Barcelona, with standard brakes, standard everything," Miller pointed out.
This is the Gordian knot which so irrevocably binds MotoGP. The art of motorcycle racing is about controlling a two-wheeled machine as precisely as possible at the highest possible speed. But motorcycles are ridden, by humans sitting astride them, decoupled and unprotected by them, and so any mistake means a fall and the potential for injury. As well as rider reflexes, it is also a battle of engineering wits and ingenuity.
Engineers build bikes to go faster than those built by rivals from other manufacturers. They start the season knowing one absolute truth: if they don't design a bike which is faster than the machine which won the championship last year, they don't stand a chance this year. They use the lessons learned in previous years to improve their bikes, as does Michelin with their tires, producing rubber which lasts longer and provides more grip. And so the bikes go faster every year. "The speed is every time higher and the walls get closer to us," Aleix Espargaro put it succinctly.
Unanimity a pipe dream
To slow the MotoGP bikes, agreement among the manufacturers is required. As the MSMA, the group which represents the manufacturers racing in MotoGP, they have control of the technical regulations. The FIM rules say that the MSMA can change the technical rules as they see fit, but only on condition that they agree unanimously to any change.
And there lies the biggest stumbling block. The MSMA is incapable of reaching a unanimous verdict, because it has become such a hotbed of infighting. The factories are pitched against each other, not willing to cede any ground to one another if they see a chance to grab an advantage.
The trouble started with Gigi Dall'Igna's switch to Ducati. On arrival, Dall'Igna saw a chance to make up ground lost to Ducati's rivals by entering the factory team in the Open Class, the category inside MotoGP then aimed at putting more bikes on the grid. That forced a change to grant unsuccessful factories certain concessions, which is how we ended up with the Concession Teams.
Since then, there have been a string of clashes, mostly revolving around Ducati's increasing use of aerodynamics, and culminating in the introduction of their rear swingarm spoiler, ostensibly aimed at cooling the rear tire. Since then, MSMA meetings have virtually stopped, and those which are held are incapable of reaching agreement. The MSMA is deadlocked, no factory willing to grant the wishes of any other.
That rules out any hope of major change to the technical regulations as a way of slowing down the bikes, which leaves only alterations to the circuits. If the bikes can't be slowed down, then the track needs to be changed to accommodate the faster speeds. But creating enough room for bikes traveling at 360 km/h on their way to the first corner is an incredibly challenging task. It means looking at moving walls, at altering corners, at expanding gravel traps.
And it is not just Turn 1, San Donato, which is a problem in terms of safety. "For me I think Turn 14 [Biondetti 2] and Turn 1 are the two corners where it's a little bit dangerous, but it's two corners which are difficult to change," said Fabio Quartararo. Poggio Secco (Turn 3), and Borgo San Lorenzo (Turn 5) also have a frightening lack of run off. Both those corners have hills at the end of the gravel traps, making extending run off a difficult affair. Just as at San Donato, moving walls back would involve cutting deep into the hillsides, and coping with the risks of subsidence and landslides that might generate.
"When you see the money that can be spent to just change the asphalt of a track, I think it's possible to spend the money also to manage even better the area around it," Johann Zarco said. But this misses just how expensive creating more run off can be. Laying new asphalt is costly, but a relatively simple exercise. Cutting away hills means calculating the effect on the rest of the hill left standing, on the chances of it sliding down due to a lack of support, or finding a way to lock it in place. A small section of track in terms of area may end up costing a lot more to fix in terms of mitigating the risks of subsurface instability.
At some tracks, that might be possible. "In Austria for next year we will have a different layout to slow us down in the second straight," Pecco Bagnaia revealed in the press conference at Mugello. But changing a track risks losing its soul. "In my opinion, we have to keep Mugello like an old school track and try to improve the safety around in some places," Johann Zarco said.
"As Johann said, I don't think we can change the layout," Jack Miller said of Mugello. "I don't think this is the right direction. I think the track is fantastic the way it is. Like he said, there's things we can do to improve the safety, and I think it's necessary." The riders, working with Dorna and the FIM in the Safety Commission, were finding ways to improve safety at tracks, by offering their advice on where walls needed to be moved, where run off was lacking, which points they felt they were taking risks. Dorna imposed demands on circuits as a condition for hosting races, such as happened at Barcelona, and circuits improved their safety.
That benefits everyone who uses the circuit, Miller pointed out. "If we can try to improve some of the tracks, which we are doing with the Safety Commission and everything, we are improving it not only for us, but also for the track day riders that come there and ride. So I mean, we can improve the track for your average guys who go to the track as well and try to make it safer for those guys who enjoy what is the beauty of motorcycles in the end. So I think, for sure, it's the natural evolution, world championship used to be raced on street circuits. It's just going along in that direction."
Though all the talk at the pre-event press conference was of top speeds, top speed alone is not enough for victory. Ducatis may have won the last three races at the track, making use of their outrageous top speed advantage, but their main rivals in recent years have been the Yamahas, usually the slowest bike on the track. In the past five Italian Grand Prix, between 2015 and 2019, Ducati have won three races, but Yamaha have won the other two. Ducati have racked up a grand total of 8 podium places, but Yamaha have 5, the remaining spots going to Marc Márquez on the Repsol Honda.
Corners and straights
"Well, I don’t agree that speed is most important thing here in Mugello," Franco Morbidelli, saddled with the 2019 Yamaha M1, famously the slowest bike on the MotoGP grid told us. "Maybe it’s one of the most important things, but not THE most important. I try to see it this way. There is a long straight but many, many corners. I’ll try and focus on the many corners, rather than the long straight. That’s how I face Mugello."
So Mugello may seem like a simple question of which Ducati rider will take victory, but to see it that way would be very wrong. That, after all, was what was expected at Qatar as well, and yet a Yamaha won both races at the Losail International Circuit. There are a lot of places where corner speed and the ability to change direction quickly can give an advantage. The final corner is fast, and so the ability to get drive out of Bucine and onto the straight can compensate a lot for a lack of top speed. That gives the Yamahas more than a fighting chance at Mugello.
Nor should the Suzukis be written off. Alex Rins came close to a podium in 2019, only missing out by a couple of tenths. Rins had faced Mugello with some trepidation, he told us, worried about acceleration out of the final corner, but was reassured when he spoke to his crew chief, Manuel Cazeaux.
"I was checking the race from 2019, and we were losing a lot, especially on the straight, but a lot on the wheelie area," Rins told us. "Exiting from the last corner, we were going to the box side and then going out, and in that area we were losing a lot wheelie."
A phone call to Cazeaux set him at ease, Rins explained. "Manu said 'yes, don't worry, we have improved a lot the wheelie area. After this race in 2019 we were pushing a lot to improve this side, and we will not have this wheelie on that phase.' So for sure we will improve on the straight."
Suzuki also have something new to try, which should improve their top speed, Rins said, though he refused to go into detail. "We have something for this race, I can't say anything, but for sure we will have more speed than in other races," Rins told us. "It's something completely new. We haven't tested it yet, but in Japan they believe it will work."
Rehab takes time
In 2019, it was Marc Márquez who shared the podium with the two factory Ducatis of Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Dovizioso – now both moved on, Petrucci to Tech3 KTM, Dovizioso to a sabbatical, and now a testing role with Aprilia – but a podium is unlikely in 2021. Mugello is an extremely physically demanding track, and Márquez' recovery is taking longer than he had hoped.
The problem, Márquez told us, was not the humerus, which was healing well, but instead, it was the shoulder he was operated on at the end of 2019. "I start the weekend and I know it will not be the best weekend," the Repsol Honda rider said. He had hoped his shoulder would be better, but it had hit a plateau. "I hope to ride in a good way but here is a circuit that is really demanding about physical condition and, honestly speaking, the shoulder was quite stable. Especially last week, because I went to the doctor for a check and the arm is getting better, and this is the most important. So now we check what is going on in the shoulder because this is my limitation now."
The problem with the shoulder was it was causing him too much pain to use the riding position he was used to, and was most comfortable with previously. So to try to figure out how to address this, he had taken a Honda CBR600RR onto track, to work on his riding position. "I was riding a 600, normally I never ride these kinds of bikes, but on Tuesday I was riding to understand well how was my situation and my position on the bike," Márquez told us. "On a MotoGP bike I am not riding well or in a good position. I chose this kind of bike not to ride fast but to understand the kind of position…but now I understand that I cannot ride in a good position because if I do that then the pain in the shoulder is much more."
The pain in his shoulder had even made him consider stepping back from racing again temporarily, in order to allow the arm and shoulder to recover further. "In fact there was a possibility after Jerez to stop again," Márquez revealed. "We considered this and we spoke with the doctors and everything, but even they said it was good to reintroduce [it] to my life, my racing mode, and ride a MotoGP bike. You can ride a different kind of bike but in the end you need to ride the racing bike if you want to improve."
The problem is that the shoulder is the most complicated and difficult joint in the body, and breaking the humerus had knock-on effects for the shoulder. "The thing is that when you break the humerus it is connected to the shoulder,and I already had surgery in the past and maybe it was not 100%, like it was 2020 in Jerez," Márquez said.
The humerus was much stronger, but being able to stress it more uncovered other problems, Márquez told us. "Now the humerus is ready to push, but when you do another step after this big injury then small things appear. It doesn’t mean the shoulder is in a really bad situation. I mean the shoulder has something that is not working in a proper way and we are trying to understand and why during the weekend the pain is coming more. Relaxed or not relaxed the pain is there always."
Despite the pain, Márquez was comforted by the fact that his doctors were telling him this was normal after such an injury. "The doctors also say this is normal after a broken humerus, the shoulder or the elbow is affected. In this case some small things are coming from the shoulder that are disturbing me more than we expected on riding. We are trying to work to understand it to improve for the future."
Only riding a bike had uncovered this problems. "Since I don’t ride the MotoGP bike and stress my physical condition I was OK, but now I am riding and stressing that condition in the gym and in racing, and these things then appear, these small and new things," Márquez told us.
The Spaniard faces a tough couple of days trying to push for a quick time at one of the toughest tracks on the calendar, but he might find himself with a reprieve come Sunday. Right now, the weather forecast is for bright, if somewhat cooler, weather on Friday and Saturday. But come Sunday, especially around 2pm, heavy rain is expected. In this weird, wet, and cold spring of 2021, flag-to-flag races are becoming a bit like buses: you wait ages for one to turn up, and then a bunch all turn up at the same time.
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