Mugello is arguably MotoGP's crowning glory. The location is stunning, in the verdant hills of Tuscany, a few miles north of Florence, one of the most beautiful ancient cities in the world. The track itself is gorgeous, and beautifully laid out, rolling round the valley in which the circuit is set. It is one of the few tracks left at which a MotoGP bike can fully stretch its legs, even a 260+ horsepower fire-breathing 1000cc Honda RC213V. At the end of the front straight, as riders drift right then left for the slight kink of the pit lane exit just before the track drops off for the spectacular first corner at San Donato, the bikes approach the magical barrier of 350 km/h. An obstacle that has not yet been cleared, but one which must surely fall in the near future. A lap of the circuit passes in under 1'48, an average of 175 km/h, or nearly 110 mph. It is verily a temple of speed.
It may seem odd, then, that the fastest bike does not necessarily win at the circuit. Of the past ten editions of the race, seven have been won by Yamahas, a bike which has never been the fastest in a straight line. While speed is not the secret to the circuit, a glance at the list of winners over the years reveals exactly what is: Valentino Rossi has won seven times at the circuit in the premier class (as well as twice more in the support classes), Mick Doohan won here six times, Jorge Lorenzo won twice, and the list of one-time winners includes Dani Pedrosa, Kevin Schwantz, Loris Capirossi and Casey Stoner. To win at Mugello is simple: it is merely a matter of being one of the very best riders in the world.
With seven victories in the last ten years, Yamaha arrives at Mugello with a clear mission: to get their 2013 season back on track. Jorge Lorenzo's lack of rear grip at Le Mans left him struggling to his worst result since his rookie year in 2008, at a track where normally he would hope to be clawing back points on Dani Pedrosa, rather than giving them away. Though there is still a very long way to go in the championship - 14 races remain, with a total of 350 points still in play - trailing Dani Pedrosa by 17 points, and Marc Marquez by 11, is not the situation Lorenzo and his team had envisioned at the start of the season. There is much work to be done.
Mugello is a good place to start. Lorenzo has won the last two races in a row here, and it is a track he loves to ride. The flowing nature of the track suits the Yamaha, Lorenzo's high corner speed style a perfect match for the layout. It suits Valentino Rossi too, the Italian having reigned here throughout the first decade of this century. After two difficult years on the Ducati, Rossi comes to Mugello - a place he regards as his real home race, despite being much further away than Misano, which is just a stone's throw from Tavullia, the village he grew up in - with vindication on his mind. He wants to get back on the podium on merit, not be invited up to wave to the crowds who came to Mugello to see him succeed, and have gone home disappointed in the last three years.
A good result at Mugello for Rossi is not just important for the Italian's many fans, but even more for Rossi himself. The race this weekend is not quite make or break, but after one strong race followed by three which have been mildly disappointing, Rossi should expect to be on the podium here. Mugello is a track which he loves, the Yamaha is a bike he can ride, and he has had full program of preseason testing and four races to get to grips with the updated bike. The pressure is on for a good result, not least from Rossi himself.
But the Yamaha is not the bike which Rossi left behind. Since his departure, Yamaha have chased an ever more nimble machine, looking to exploit Jorge Lorenzo's great strength: the ability to go through corners several kilometers an hour faster than any other man on the planet. Lorenzo's sweeping 250-style lines have brought him two world titles and a bevvy of wins, but it has also led Yamaha down an increasingly narrow performance envelope. As the bike has been made to work better and better for Lorenzo - braking early, then letting off the brakes early and carrying as much lean angle and speed as possible to fire out of the corner and onto the next straight without losing momentum - it has worked less and less well for other riders. Lorenzo's ability is unquestionable, but similar to Casey Stoner's time at Ducati, Lorenzo could be leading Yamaha down a blind alley, where one single rider becomes the crucial component to success. Once that rider is gone - through injury, retirement, or tempted away for whatever reason - that could leave Yamaha with a bike that is basically unrideable for anyone with a more conventional style.
So will the crowds at Mugello see the Rossi success for which they have longed these last three years? On the face of things, it is not looking good. Making things more complicated is Yamaha's engine situation. Reports are emerging from the Yamaha camp of a problem with one of Jorge Lorenzo's engines, which has forced a rethink of their strategy. Lorenzo has not used his number 1 engine since Jerez, and reliable reports put this down to a strange lack of power. Since then, the other Yamaha engines have all been throttled back a fraction, to ensure that they do not develop problems, much to the frustration of the riders.
A bike built for another rider, engines dialed back to ensure their safety, and doubts about whether he can be as competitive as he was before he left to join Ducati. All these things are what Valentino Rossi faces. The tool he has to tackle these problems is simple: desire. The desire to be back where he still feels he belongs, and the reason he left Ducati to return to Yamaha. To run at the front, and win in front of his home fans again.
The weather may play into his hands, and the hands of all of the Yamaha riders. Rain is set for Mugello for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and the weather for race day is looking decidedly unsettled. At best, it rains all weekend, at worst it rains for practice, and the race takes place in the dry. Either way, it helps level the playing field against the Honda blitzkrieg that we have seen in MotoGP so far. A wet race would give Rossi heart, Lorenzo a chance to redeem his performance at Le Mans, and Crutchlow a shot at back-to-back podiums. This could be Yamaha's best hope for the weekend.
It would be pretty good for Ducati too, with two possible exceptions, which we shall come to later. For the factory riders, and probably for Andrea Iannone as well, a wet race would negate the biggest disadvantage which the Ducati still has, and with which it will continue to struggle until (they hope) the Misano test. The understeer which plagues the Ducati is worst in big, fast corners, and if there is one thing which Mugello has in spades, it is big, wide, fast corners. That would leave Ducati struggling at the track - despite the many laps which the bike has put in around the circuit, as it is the Italian factory's designated test track - but a wet race may well boost Ducati's fortunes. Andrea Dovizioso came close to his first podium on the bike at a soaking Le Mans; the extra motivation of riding at Mugello may get him even closer. Nicky Hayden finished a little way behind Dovizioso in France, and a could match that in the wet at Mugello.
Two Ducati men will not be wanting a wet race, however. Ben Spies returns to the Ignite Pramac after a two-race absence, muscle problems in his chest having made him decide to skip Jerez and Le Mans. Those chest problems were a result of overcompensating for his weakened shoulder, Spies having returned to testing and to racing too early from the shoulder injury he suffered at Sepang last year. Shoulder injuries are painful, difficult to repair and slow to heal, as Spies has found out to his cost. Though a wet race would place less strain on the muscles in his chest and his weakened shoulder, the risk of crashing is higher. More damage is the last thing which Spies wants.
Michele Pirro would also much prefer a dry weekend, though he will not have any choice in the matter. The Ducati tester is once again present as a wildcard, and riding the lab bike once again. To gather real data requires a dry track and the pressure of a race weekend. Pirro will get only the latter, though that may allow him to score a stronger result than he might otherwise expect. It may not necessarily provide the data which Ducati want, but a strong finish at Mugello would be a fillip for Pirro, whatever the weather.
Of course, all these presupposes that wet weather will necessarily prejudice the chances of the Repsol Hondas. Going by the results of Le Mans - and the results of a soaking Sepang last year - that may be more idle hope than realistic projection. Dani Pedrosa was just about untouchable two weeks ago in France, and his teammate Marc Marquez performed well above expectations. Pedrosa has transformed himself in the past couple of years from a rider who struggles in the wet to a man who rides with confidence, whatever the weather. Pedrosa is on a roll, having won 8 of the last 12 races, and growing progressively stronger with each event. If he hadn't struggled with rear grip on the dusty surface at Qatar, his advantage in the championship could be much, much greater than the 11 points he has over his teammate, and the 17 over Lorenzo. Even in this, the first half of the season which is supposed to favor the Yamahas, it is a foolish gambler who lays money against Pedrosa on any given Sunday.
Should such a gambler fancy a wager, he could do far, far worse than to put his cash on Marc Marquez. Expectations for the rookie were sky high when he entered the MotoGP class, and he has matched or exceeded even the most optimistic projections. Marquez has already become the youngest man to win a race in the premier class, taking over from the legendary Freddie Spencer. He was expected to struggle in the wet, having had little time on a MotoGP in the rain. At Le Mans, he struggled as expected, but only for five laps. Once he had wrapped his head around what it takes to race a MotoGP machine on a wet track, he was off, constantly among the fastest riders on track to the end of the race. Only his teammate was out of reach, having gotten away well from the very start. Marquez is now a factor, his maturity impressing as much as his speed has. If he continues as he has, then he could yet turn out to be the biggest threat to Dani Pedrosa's first world championship.
Though the rain could throw up an interesting race for the fans, conditions will also confound the hopes of the circuit. Numbers have declined steadily for the past few years, down in part to Valentino Rossi either missing the race due to injury, or failing to perform on a Ducati. The other reason was a shift of date for the race, being moved into July, when Italians prefer to head to the beach and the balmy climes of the Mediterranean, rather than the broiling heat of the interior. With the race now back where it used to be, at the beginning of June, and Rossi back on a competitive bike, the race organizers were hoping to see crowd numbers swell. The prospect of three days camping in the pouring rain may dampen any such hopes.
Rain or shine, Mugello remains one of the jewels in MotoGP's crown. Even in the pouring rain, in front of empty grandstands and muddy hillsides, the circuit remains a glorious place to go racing. If you are going to visit a MotoGP race in the rain, it might as well be at the most beautiful setting we see all year. And the racing should be good too.