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 championship leader 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 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.
Sunday was a pretty good day for British motorcycle racing fans. The first four finishers in both World Superbike races were British riders, and wildcard Kyle Ryde rode a thrilling and aggressive race to finish on the podium in his first ever World Supersport race. And yet less than 16,000 spectators turned up to Donington Park to watch the action. When you factor in the creative mathematics which goes into generating spectator numbers at sporting events (motorcycle racing is not alone in this), and then take a wild stab at the number of attendees on some form of freebie or other, then the actual quantity of punters who handed over cold, hard cash for a ticket is likely to be disappointingly low.
Once upon a time, British fans flocked to Brands Hatch to watch WSBK. Though the claims of 100,000 at the Kent track are almost certainly a wild exaggeration, there is no doubt that the circuit was packed. Fans thronged at every fence, filling every open patch of ground to watch their heroes in combat. So what went wrong?
If only World Superbikes were racing at Brands again, British fans say. Frankly, I think the fond memories of Brands were colored in large part by the fact that WSBK visited Brands in August, when the chances of a hot, sunny summer day are much better than the Midlands in the middle of May. Good weather is a proven draw for any outdoors sporting event, and motorcycle racing is no different.
But a spot of sunshine and a few degrees of temperature can't explain the massive drop in attendance over the past fifteen years. There has always been a very strong British presence in World Superbikes, and the Brit contingent is now stronger than ever. But still the crowds stay away. The racing is excellent: fans often compare the WSBK races favorably to MotoGP, in terms of close battles and unpredictable winners. So that can't be it either. The bikes are perhaps not as trick as they were ten years ago, the formula simplified in pursuit of cost-cutting. Justifiably so: this is supposed to be production racing, after all, and not prototypes in disguise. The balance is pretty good, though. Five of the series' eight manufacturers got on the podium last year, four of them racking up wins.
Great racing, great riders, home talent to cheer for, and yet the stands are only sparsely filled. BSB, the series where most of the current crop of World Superbike riders came from, races less sophisticated bikes, held its round back in April, when the weather is even less dependable, yet drew twice as many fans to the track as WSBK did. What is their secret? How come BSB is thriving while WSBK is in the doldrums?
The line up for the Suzuka 8 Hour Race looks to be the strongest for years. Today, Yamaha confirmed that Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider pairing of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro are to race for the factory entry at Suzuka, alongside Yamaha test rider and Japanese Superbike champion Katsuyuki Nakasuga. Smith and Espargaro will face Casey Stoner and Michael van der Mark, who will be racing for the Honda factory team.
Rumors that Yamaha were taking their entry for the race very seriously first emerged at Jerez, where paddock gossip had Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo entering the race in the factory team. At the time, both men pleaded ignorance, saying that they had heard nothing about such a decision. Having the Movistar Yamaha riders race at Suzuka would have placed a massive strain on the team, as the race falls directly between the Sachsenring and Indianapolis MotoGP rounds. With Rossi leading the title chase, and Lorenzo in second place, Yamaha appear to have decided on an alternative strategy, using the riders from the satellite teams instead.
That does not mean that the Movistar Yamaha men are not involved, however. Valentino Rossi has been testing the new Yamaha R1 in endurance trim at the Misano circuit on several occasions in recent months. Whether this is part of preparations for Suzuka is unknown, as those tests have been private.
Press releases from the series organizers and some of the teams after Sunday's World Superbike and World Supersport races at Donington Park:
World Superbike race two would also be mercifully dry, letting the racing take place without interruption.
World Supersport was held over twenty dry laps and did not disappoint.
As the weather threatened to make things the wrong kind of interesting, the riders lined up for 23 laps around the historic British circuit.
Qualifying for the races at Donington Park had a favourite turn up with cracked ribs, a team rivalry coming to boil, a handful of fast wild cards on 600s and the home race for almost every man who has stood on the Superbike podium this year. The short track, a fast and sweeping vintage racetrack leading to a chicane followed by a brace of hairpins, was the site of the first ever World Superbike and, after missing a few years due to a failed improvement, it is once more the regular UK round.
Press releases from the teams and series organizers after qualifying at Donington Park:
World Supersport qualifying took place in 16°C English weather and the session was peppered with a handful of crashes but no injuries.
Superpole One opened early in a typical English holiday weekend; overcast, cold and a little bit breezy.
Kenan Sofuoglu heads the session as wildcard Kyle Ryde goes second-quickest ahead of Lorenzo Zanetti and wildcard Luke Stapleford. Jules Cluzel was unable to beat his best time from yesterday, second quickest of the weekend, suffering from mechanical problems that held him back to fifth quickest. Third quickest wildcard Samuel Hornsey held off series regulars PJ Jacobsen and Kyle Smith with the sixth quickest time of the morning.
Just as the untimed session looked like it was going to be a Kawasaki affair, Leon Haslam posted the fastest lap of the weekend after the flag came out. Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea held off Davide Giugliano and Alex Lowes, with Chaz Davies behind, all within half a second of Haslam's time.