The only thing missing was the crowds. It was good to be back at Mugello, the most glorious jewel in the MotoGP calendar. Like all jewels, Mugello comes with sharp edges that need handling with care, and it took rookies and regulars alike some time to get used to the sheer speed at which they blasted down the straight.
Brad Binder had been impressed. "This morning was my first time ever at Mugello on the GP bike so it took me a while to find my feet and figure out where to go because it’s a bit different to how I remember it in Moto2; the straight is quite a bit quicker!" the South African said, with a fine sense for understatement. "Turn 1 is a lot more on the limit to find a good marker."
Contrary to expectations, Johann Zarco's top speed record of 362.4 km/h set at Qatar was not broken, the Frenchman's temporary Pramac teammate Michele Pirro managing a paltry 357.6 km/h in FP2. It may not have been faster than the top speed at Qatar, but it certainly feels a lot faster.
"At the first corner, when we arrive at 350 km/h in Qatar, I would say it's not normal, but it's fast," Fabio Quartararo explained. "If you compare to Mugello, when you arrive at the first corner, it looks like you are 450 km/h. Everything is going so fast, you see the wall on the left is so fast."
That takes some getting used to, even for seasoned veterans. "I was just saying this to [Enea] Bastianini," Jack Miller told us, when asked about Quartararo's comments. "I know from my experience when I started in MotoGP is that you don’t really understand how fast 350 km/h is until you get to Mugello and you’ve actually got to do something at 350 km/h instead of going in a straight line. It's then that you really understand the speed. For sure I think it gives you a real sense of how fast you are actually going. You get a bit more of an appreciation for it."
So mind-bending is the experience of hammering over the crest and getting ready to brake at 350 km/h that it takes a couple of laps to both wrap your head around it, and pluck up the courage to approach it at full pelt, Miller explained. "I **** myself on the first lap today and rolled -off before the hill like a chicken!" the Australian joked. "I know from past experience where you can brake and how deep you can get and I was going up towards it and I thought ‘are you going to keep at it?!’ and then ‘nah! You’re not…!’ I just sat out of it on this first lap."
Veteran journalist Mat Oxley asked Johann Zarco to explain in detail what he had to do to hustle a bike through the busy section which is the approach to Turn 1, San Donato. The topology of that part of the track makes the rider work hard, with a kink in the straight as it passes the pits, and then the crest just before the braking marker for the first corner.
That crest causes the bikes to go light as the cross it, but it is not the kind of leap you might expect, Zarco explained. "The thing is, on the jump at the top of the straight it's the rear wheel which is coming up, not the front," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "Because with all the aerodynamics, the front is staying stable, but then the rear is spinning a little bit."
The way to calm the bike down was to lean it over, Zarco said. "Normally you try to lean the bike in that area, which is the way to keep it kind of stable, but I've been quite surprised today that it was really under control and in all the brake area, the bike is slowing down pretty well." The aerodynamics packages on modern MotoGP bikes actually made the end of the main straight safer. "So that's important that, as I said yesterday, we can go fast, but in the same way, we can also slow down the bike very well with all the aerodynamics stuff on the fairing."
Top speed record holder Zarco did not expect to beat his own record from Qatar, however. "I think to beat the top speed here is maybe a bit complicated because of this jump. Maybe we have this kind of limit now, and we have a bit less run off area at the end of Turn 1, and, maybe I'm wrong, but for this reason also we cannot do 370 km/h. It's too much."
Done properly, the kink at the end of the straight and the approach to San Donato is taken flat out, without backing off, though as Jack Miller admitted, it usually takes a lap or two to pluck up the courage to go at it without backing off.
"The change of direction you can keep full throttle," Johann Zarco told us, though the additional speed of a slipstream needed to be handled with care. "It's just if you follow somebody it's better to play with the throttle to not have too much speed, but it's better to lean the bike, and keep full gas but leaning the bike."
Leaning the bike to slow it down may seem strange, until you consider the physics of it. At 350+ km/h, the wheels are rotating at incredible speed, the tires expanding to their maximum circumference. But as you lean, you come off the center of the tire and towards the edge of the tire, you reduce the circumference of the tire which is in contact with the road. That is equivalent to slightly reducing the gearing of the bike, scrubbing off speed while the engine continues at the same revs.
"It depends on the feeling of the rider, but I prefer not to use any brake, but just play with the lean of the bike," Zarco explained. "Because I think if I brake, it's difficult to feel, but you will lose a bit of time, so better to play with the lean angle."
It is a gloriously subtle way of controlling speed, and remarkably effective at the same time. But it is not without limitations, of course; the number of places on the planet where a rider will find themselves in the position to reduce their speed from 355 km/h to 349 km/h by adding a couple of degrees of lean is rather limited. It is a testament to how deeply MotoGP racers understand every aspect of riding a motorcycle that they have this in their arsenal.
A rash of novelties made their debut at Mugello on Friday. The one that made its way to the top of the timesheets was Suzuki's electronics package. Alex Rins may have finished second behind Pecco Bagnaia in FP2, but it was Rins' name which was on the lips of his rivals when asked who they thought was quick. The new package was a step forward, the Suzuki Ecstar rider said, helping top speed and reducing wheelie.
"We improve a bit the electronics side. It's working good," Rins told us. It was better everywhere, but the anti-wheelie improvements were most pronounced. "On the wheelie side, going into the last corner, I'm quite happy, because the last two years we were losing a lot there. And now it looks like I'm trying to do something to not make the wheelie."
Less wheelie going onto the straight meant more speed at the end of it, Rins explained. "It's true that with this electronics package which Suzuki has brought, we have a bit more speed on corner exit on the straight, a bit everywhere in general."
KTM had also found more speed, as witnessed by the fact that the two factory riders Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira had finished the day in fifth and sixth respectively. The speed had come from two areas: a new chassis which gave better drive out of corners, and a new fuel partnership which improved combustion.
"Surprisingly we are taking a bigger step forward than we thought," Oliveira told us. "We started to use a frame that we tested in Jerez and it looks like it works well here and also the fuel the team is using now gives us a bit more top speed."
Drive grip had been the focus, the Portuguese rider explained. "We focused a bit more on corner exit to try and get a bit more stability and more load into the ground. The whole team and back at the factory the engineers tried to give us a bit of help in that way and they brought us a good solution that we tested in Jerez hut we could to use in Le Mans because of the uncertain weather. Here was the first real ‘test’ where we could back-check both frames and this was the main focus."
The new frame had helped with feeling at the front end as well, Brad Binder said. "So far I think the new frame gives a bit better feeling from the front, which is always going to help you especially when things are getting difficult. With this frame I have the idea that it gives you enough feeling to know which direction you need to work. That’s one positive point. In general we just need to explore it because it’s new."
On Friday, the two factory KTM riders had used one new frame and one old frame to compare the performance of the two. But so happy were both Oliveira and Binder that they intended to switch to the new chassis from Saturday on. "The plan is to continue to work on the same frame because when we have two different specs it becomes difficult to work with two bikes," Oliveira said. "I think I could have been fast on both but in the long-term I think the new frame is helping us to get around the track a bit easy, more calm and be more effective."
Locking the front
One update which did not make an impact on the timesheet but was more than welcome nonetheless was the debut of Yamaha's front holeshot device. Up until now, the Yamaha riders had only been able to lock down the rear of the bike for the start, which helped with the launch, but was not as effective as Ducati, KTM, Honda, and Aprilia, all of whom lower the bike both front and rear for the start.
On Friday at Mugello, however, all four Yamaha riders got a chance to work with thew new holeshot device. "I'm so happy, really happy, because from Qatar 1, every time I made a great result or pole position or something, I pushed the Japanese engineers, this is the most important, this is the most important," enthused Fabio Quartararo. "Now we have no more excuses. Of course we need to develop it a little bit more, because it's our first test, but we are already seeing big improvements. So I'm super happy, and I think that we can make even better things."
Despite his happiness at it appearing on his Yamaha M1, Quartararo understood all too well that there was still work to do. "I saw it for the first time yesterday, and it feels different," the Frenchman said. "I need to get used to it, because we need to change a little bit the way of doing the start. But you feel lower, of course, because the bike is going lower. But it feels strange. Because it looks like you are on a small bike, but I feel like we can make an even bigger step tomorrow."
His Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales, who arguably needs the new holeshot device more, given his notoriously poor starts, was equally happy, though he was wary of getting too excited ahead of the race. "Basically, we will see on Sunday, but when you are alone, you can see that it is much better. It makes a big step."
The next step was to see how the new device performed on the grid, how it would stand up to the other bikes all equipped with front and rear holeshot devices. "We need to see it on Sunday with all the devices and all the stuff," Viñales said, "but straight away, it's faster. Especially the second part of acceleration, it makes such a big difference. So we'll see. Honestly I don't have much to say. We need to believe in that, and see if Sunday, I can arrive first. This is the plan. This is the basic plan."
If there were three Yamahas who were quick – Viñales, Quartararo, and Franco Morbidelli all finished in the top eight overall – there was one who was not. Valentino Rossi ended the day in 21st overall, a miserable result at a track where he has won nine times across all three classes, and took seven victories in a row from 2002 to 2008.
Rossi had the aspect of a man who wished he was elsewhere in his media debrief, as he explained his ongoing woes. "I don’t have a very good feeling with the bike because I am in trouble in braking, to stop the bike, and I’m slow in the change of direction, which here is very important. We need to work and we have to try to improve the speed of today," the Petronas Yamaha rider said.
"Especially here, the braking for Turn 1 is always very critical," Rossi continued. "But for me it is difficult to stop the bike, especially in the first part of the braking. I suffer so we need to work on the balance of the bike and also the engine brake."
Mugello is the first of a run of three of Rossi's favorite tracks in four races, with Barcelona and Assen to follow, and a less favored Sachsenring sandwiched in between. Mugello, Barcelona, and Assen will be crucial in Rossi's decision making when he considers whether to continue or retire over the summer break. He will need to make a big step with the bike if he is to swing the decision away from retirement.
A weight on his shoulder
Rossi's arch nemesis Marc Márquez may also need to take some time out from racing, though the Repsol Honda rider almost certainly has several more years ahead of him. Márquez' right shoulder is causing him considerably more grief than he expected, while the right humerus is continuing to heal well.
Márquez had ridden a Honda CBR600RR at a small track near his home, to try to work on his position on the bike, in an attempt to find a riding position that would give him control of a motorcycle again. That test proved fruitless, as did the first day of practice at Mugello. Márquez finished the day thirteenth overall, eight tenths behind Pecco Bagnaia, and with no pace to speak of.
"It’s true the shoulder is more stable this last month and it’s where I have the biggest limitation, but apart from that, for example, today, straight away I realized in this circuit I have a big limitation," Márquez said. "After FP1 I wanted to check compared to 2019 just to understand where I am losing more – it’s the three big changes of direction where I’m losing 0.2 compared to 2019. The rest of the corners I feel not bad."
He and his team had been turning the Repsol Honda upside down in pursuit of a riding position and setting that would allow him to ride with some comfort, at least. "I was working a lot in Portimão and Jerez, trying to adapt the bike a lot to my new riding style and new positions. Trying to have different set ups. Trying different positions on the bike."
It had all been to no avail, however. "But the point was when I tried a different position on the bike, I was not able to do it. So that means there is something there that especially in the right corners is where I’m struggling more. In the left corners I feel like always."
He and his team were no longer thinking about Márquez' arm, but only about how to adapt the bike to accommodate the pain in his shoulder. "Now we arrive in a point where we forget, we don’t speak about the arm. We just speak about the bike. Try this. Try the other thing. The position of bike is this. It takes time. If not we will lose the way, we will lose everything. Just do what I can in riding. Be patient and do what we can in riding."
Márquez felt that riding was important, to maintain his confidence and build his feeling. "We know the riding is good for me now. I’m not at my level, of course. I cannot ride on my level. But It’s good because I don’t lose the speed and I don’t lose the competition. But I know that I’m losing some performance. The way to ride in this way is because we believe this will be better in the future."
He told the Spanish media that the was treating this weekend like a test. He was painfully aware of his limitations, and that whether he scored 5 points or 10 points this weekend was unlikely to matter at the end of the year. "In HRC, if we finish third, fifth, sixth, or tenth in the championship, if we don't win, it's a bad year," Márquez said. "And this is a year of transition, where I have to know where I am coming from and where I am. For example, in Le Mans, the weather made me forget all of this and I crashed. That's something we have to avoid."
The weather forecast, at least, is looking better. Rain is something Márquez, nor any of the rest need fear for Sunday. But Márquez will have to learn to deal with poor results for the coming races. It will be a while before the old Marc Márquez returns.
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