What a difference a track makes. At the fast, flowing Mugello circuit, we had three pretty interesting races, two tense duels and a full on battle in Moto2. After a season full of races decided in the first few laps, to see a race day full of overtaking brought some much-needed relief to those suffering with the racing bug.
The 125cc race only saw two passes for the lead, Johann Zarco passing Nico Terol, and then Terol taking the Frenchman back to take victory, but the two protagonists maintained the tension all the way to the end. Never separated by more than a couple of tenths, the race became a case of two men trying to pressure the other into a mistake. Fresh back from having a tendon reattached in his little finger, Terol was the first to crack, running wide in San Donato, the wide, uphill hairpin that comes at the end of the straight. But Terol kept his head, latched onto the back of the Zarco, and waited for the long drag towards the finish line to make his move.
A smart race by Terol, and a strong and smart race by Zarco too: Terol looked to be on a planet of his own, but Zarco came along and joined the party. A strong race, too, by young Spaniard Maverick Vinales: at a track which is as notoriously difficult to learn as Mugello is, Vinales ended his first race at the track on the podium. The rookie sits 3rd in the championship, with big things expected of him in the future. He is, after all, just sixteen-and-a-half years old.
The Moto2 race turned into bit of a knock-down-drag-out four-way fight, with Stefan Bradl, Marc Marquez, Bradley Smith and Alex de Angelis all joining the fray. They were briefly joined by the ebullient Andrea Iannone, but the Italian had asked too much of his tires to come all the way forward from 14th on the grid, so by the time he actually arrived at the front, it was time to back off and nurse his protesting Dunlops home. Marquez eventually came out on top - after a hard but clean move on Bradley Smith to take the lead on the last lap - and the Spaniard took the win. Now that he has found his feet in Moto2, he could yet come to dominate the championship - assisted by the absence of pre-season favorite Julian Simon. He has only finish four races so far this season, but he has won three of those, and finished 2nd in the other.
We even had a relatively exciting MotoGP race. It was not exactly one for the ages, but there was a pass for the lead, more overtaking at the front, and tension throughout the race. Jorge Lorenzo came out on top after Casey Stoner looked like walking away with it, stopped in the end by the wrong choice of tire pressure. The Australian even had to let his Repsol Honda teammate by, though he put up a ferocious fight to prevent the Italian from passing. Ben Spies battled Marco Simoncelli all race long for 4th, while Valentino Rossi gave the Ducati fans something to cheer about - perhaps not as much as they would have wanted, but more than they had feared - by taking 6th, after an entertaining battle with a large group scrapping for the position.
The tire pressure question proved deeply frustrating for Stoner: the team decided to use a particular tire pressure based on the recommendations from Bridgestone - Stoner did his best not to throw his tire tech under the bus, but was visibly struggling with the effort - and that proved to be too high. As the heat got into the tire, the tire pressure increased further, reducing the contact patch and drastically reducing grip. The rear wheel of Stoner's Honda was spinning drastically - so much so that both Lorenzo and Dovizioso commented on it, and identified that as a factor that helped them get past. The rear also affected front grip, however: a lack of edge grip meant a lack of drive, and that meant Stoner lacked the ability to put pressure on the front by using the throttle and helping the bike to turn.
No such problems for Lorenzo, however. "The Hammer was not working," Lorenzo said after the press conference, "but now I have the performance to fight." And fight he did, putting the hammer down in the final stages of the race, setting the fastest lap and leaving Dovizioso and Stoner with no alternative but to submit to his will. The mixture of 2010 and 2011 parts - exactly which parts are being used where is as closely guarded a secret as the recipe for Coca Cola - has worked, and Lorenzo believes he has a weapon which will allow him to fight with the Hondas for the rest of the year.
They even found something at Ducati, as Valentino Rossi's ride through the pack demonstrated - still 26 seconds off the pace, but some of that time lost to having to get past so many people. Rossi's crew raised the entire bike 20 millimeters, while keeping the same wheelbase, giving a lot more weight transfer under braking and acceleration. The change improved the front-end feel, but it sacrificed rear grip, but the most important thing about it is it gives Rossi's crew another dimension to play with.
This is the most important reason for the switch to the GP11.1 with the revised rear end. With the previous bike, raising the bike caused the rear to pump dramatically, negating any benefit of the better weight transfer. The new machine has virtually no rear pumping, and the raised center of gravity does not provoke any. With another variable to throw into the setup mix, Ducati hope that they can make the bike a good deal more competitive than it has been so far.
Watching Rossi barely improve on the GP11.1 has given Nicky Hayden pause for thought. Ducati will have a couple of the new bikes ready for Hayden at Laguna Seca, but Hayden is less than enchanted at the thought of going into one of his home races at a track he loves on a bike he has not yet ridden on. That the bike is no magic bullet is obvious - the bike has not given Rossi the second or so to battle with the Hondas - and Hayden would prefer to face Laguna on a bike he is familiar with. The ideal solution would be to have the bike at the Sachsenring in two weeks' time, but the timescales needed to produce the carbon fiber parts mean this is very tight indeed.
A part of the paddock will return to the Mugello circuit on Monday to do a little more testing at what was scheduled to be the first public outing of the 1000cc machines. However, with Ducati having used up 5 of its quota of 8 days of 1000cc testing already, and first Honda and then Yamaha pulling out, the test was redesignated as an 800cc test, with the 1000cc testing pushed back to after the Brno round of MotoGP in mid-August (originally scheduled to be the last test for the 800s). So instead, the Hondas and the satellite Ducatis will be out on track, the rest having packed up and headed for home.
An interesting rumor/conspiracy theory currently doing the rounds of some parts of the paddock is that the factories decided against running the 1000s for fear of espionage. One unnamed team is rumored to have got a hold of software that can analyze the sound of a MotoGP bike and calculate the bore, stroke, and firing order of the engine being used. That this is possible is well known - back at the beginning of the 990 era, a Spanish magazine asked a local university to do just that, and the tools to do so have moved on immensely in the past 10 years. Whether the rumor is true is another thing altogether, but true or not, the only 1000 lapping the track with the BMW-powered Suter, being run by the Marc VDS team. Once we have times for that, then we will have an idea of just where the CRT teams stand.