It's a good job we are here in Mugello. Normally, at the end of three back-to-back race weekends, riders, team members and journalists are all just about ready to strangle each other - some paddock insiders have colorful tales of intra-team punch-ups which they will tell if plied with a few drinks - but this is Mugello, the one weekend each season which everybody looks forward to. There is something very special about the setting, the track, the weather, the location which mellows everyone out. Maybe it is the spectacularly located Tuscan villas most of the teams stay in for the weekend - there is nothing quite like taking a dip in a private pool as the sun goes down behind the beautiful hills of Tuscany to calm the spirits. But the truth is that everyone seems to wear a smile around the Mugello paddock, no matter what hardship they have suffered in the weeks before the weekend.
It is to be a special weekend, just as every race at Mugello is special. And it will be important too, with several big announcements already made, and more to come. The biggest - and least surprising - was the announcement that Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez will ride for the factory Repsol Honda team for the next two season. Both signings had been long expected, despite some rumors that Valentino Rossi would be moved into the Repsol team in Pedrosa's place. HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto explained to the press that the decision to sign Pedrosa had been because of the experience of the Spaniard. "A good rider with good experience," is how Nakamoto described Pedrosa, saying that his signing was good for Honda.
And Honda was not Pedrosa's only option. He had had other options on the table and been able to decide freely where he wanted to go, Pedrosa told Spanish media, the implication being that he had an offer from Yamaha, though Pedrosa refused to go into details. He had been a Honda rider throughout all of his career, Pedrosa said, and so to continue had been the best option.
The signing of Marquez has generated the most interest, however. The 19-year-old is rated very highly inside the paddock, one Moto2 team manager telling me "Marquez is something really special" after seeing him on a Moto2 bike for the first time at Valencia in 2010. During the press conference, all five riders present - Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi were asked their opinions of the Spaniard, and all were impressed. Valentino Rossi put his finger on what made Marquez special: "He has demonstrated he has potential," the Italian said. "He has show he can win races even when he is not the fastest." Andrea Dovizioso said he was interested to see how Marquez would go: "He's so fast, so strong," the Italian said "His style is quite particular, and we will see how he rides a MotoGP bike. There's a big difference; in Moto2 you can't work a lot on the bike, but in MotoGP, you have to do so a lot." Earlier, Cal Crutchlow had joked that Marquez was "a pain in the arse", as he had taken one of the factory rides that might otherwise have been open for the Englishman. But he was also one of the fastest guys out there, Crutchlow added. "I think you'll see him very close to the podium from the very first race," he said.
The signing of Marquez and Pedrosa provides another major part of the puzzle in MotoGP's Silly Season for 2013, but some key question marks remain. Mugello was expected to be the place where Cal Crutchlow put pen to paper on a contract with Ducati, but the Englishman is still waiting. The ball, Crutchlow said, is in Ducati's court, and he is waiting for the Bologna factory to give him a contract to sign. "Everything is discussed," Crutchlow told reporters. "We have some paperwork to go through, but we don't have any paperwork at the moment." While most paddock insiders expected the deal to be done here in Italy, Crutchlow said that he had known since Germany that nothing would be signed at Mugello.
The delay at Ducati opens some intriguing possibilities. Where previously, most paddock insiders had expected Nicky Hayden to lose his ride to make way for Crutchlow - something which apparently Hayden also expected, given his remarks in Germany - the delay could open more opportunities for the American. Hayden was marginally more upbeat about his prospects at Mugello than he had been at both the Sachsenring and Assen, which may have something to do with the talks he had with Audi bosses in Germany. They did not discuss details, Hayden said, but it had been a positive meeting, and Hayden had come away impressed with Audi's enthusiasm for the project. Audi, in turn, may be impressed with Hayden's sales potential in the US, and with Ducati's sales already up 26% in the second quarter in one of Ducati's most important markets, having an American rider may become important for the Italian factory.
Outside of the Silly Season, the other subject which has dominated the 2012 season has been Bridgestone's tires. Mugello, sadly, is no different. The good news is that Bridgestone has brought four extra rear tires for each rider, all using the hard compound, and all with an extra layer of rubber between the carcass and the tire body. The idea of the extra layer of rubber is to help dissipate heat, so that the dangerous temperature build up that occurred at Assen causing problems for Ben Spies, Valentino Rossi and Hector Barbera can be avoided.
It looks like being precisely the solution needed to the issues which have dogged Bridgestone since the switch to the 1000s. New machines with larger capacity and more torque and a softer construction, introduced to put an end to the horrific morning cold-tire highsides which had dogged MotoGP for the past couple of season had caused Bridgestone more problems than they expected. Several riders, including Andrea Dovizioso, have said that tire temperatures have been at the limit of their operating range, and this is what has caused the problems with tire wear and tire chunking. Boosting heat dissipation should be a bit step towards solving the problem.
But the temporary fix is not without problems of its own. All of the riders were critical of Bridgestone during the press conference, though Casey Stoner, as the only rider not interested in the consequences due to the fact he is retiring at the end of the season, was most outspoken. Stoner was most displeased about the fact that despite having been given an extra tire option, the riders basically only had a single choice of tire for the weekend. They had been told that they would not be allowed to race the softer of the two original compounds, Stoner said. They would be able to race the harder of the two original compounds, but not without putting in at least half race distance consecutively, at race pace on one of the hard rear tires first. That tire would then be cut open and examined for damage, and if none was found, then the rider would be allowed to select that option as a race tire.
The new construction is the only tire the riders will be allowed to race without having to justify their choice first. "It's a strange situation," Stoner said. "It seems like we will only have one choice of tire for the race if the weather is hot. I don't really understand the situation."
This is the downside to being the single tire supplier in a series like MotoGP. Unless you get your tires absolutely perfect, you will face a barrage of criticism from riders, teams and fans. The tires were clearly better when the rule was first introduced in 2009. However, the innate conservatism of Japanese factories has led them to play it safe on tire duration, which in turn caused the spate of highsides and serious injuries throughout 2010 and early in 2011. The reverse is now true, with durability now being the problem, and heat build up causing tires to occasionally lose tread. Bridgestone's next step should come very close to solving the problem, but the damage has already been done. A role as official supplier in single-manufacturer tire series is a lose-lose proposition: get it right and nobody notices, saying only that of course the World Champion is using your tires, he had no choice in the matter. Get it wrong, and you are spread all over the front pages of the motorcycling media. An unenviable position to be in.