Mugello is a spectacular setting. Even when it absolutely pours down, so badly that a river starts running through the Mugello paddock, the setting remains spectacular. It makes navigating the paddock without a life vest fairly treacherous, but at least the view is stunning. The rain looks set to stay for the duration, though the forecast appears to be improving day by day, but the riders need not fear a lack of wet track time.
As always, the riders waxed eloquent on the circuit, almost universal in their praise. Most entertaining simile of the day was from Bradley Smith, who compared Mugello to a motocross track: all undulating surfaces, blind crests and banked corners. He is right, of course, but it is not the first comparison that springs to mind when describing a track as physically large and magnificent as Mugello.
Former Moto2 rival Marc Marquez was the lone dissenting voice in the litany of praise heaped upon the iconic Italian circuit. Did he enjoy the circuit? "If you have a good set up, you enjoy it a lot," Marquez told the media. "But when you are struggling a lot, it is so difficult." The problem is that there are so many changes of direction, and so many fast, flowing corners that lead into one another, that if you have a problem in one corner, then you probably have the same problem in most of the corners around the track. "It's difficult, and you have to stay so concentrated," Marquez added, then joked that of course, if he won here, it would naturally be one of his favorite tracks.
Could Marquez win here? That seems beyond his possibilities at the moment. This is a track where he has had no testing, and a circuit which, like Barcelona in two weeks' time, is highly complicated circuit to ride. "Here and in Montmelo, these are two of the most difficult tracks, so it will be interesting to see what my level is," Marquez said.
It will also be interesting to see just where Valentino Rossi stands. This is a circuit at which he has had massive success, and the scene of one of his favorite races. In 2006, he fought an epic last-lap battle with Loris Capirossi, crossing the line for the penultimate time with nothing between them, and finally holding off the Ducati rider at the line. "It is the only time in my career that I don't remember the last lap," Rossi told the press conference, "I just remember that I won after the line!"
But his last win dates from 2008. In 2009 he was beaten by Casey Stoner, Ducati finally getting a win at their home circuit. In 2010 he broke his leg, and then he spent two fruitless years trying to replicate Stoner's success at Ducati. Now back on a Yamaha, theoretically he should be back in with a chance. Press conference speaker and veteran journalist Nick Harris asked Rossi whether he thought that the young riders now dominating MotoGP had taken the sport to another level, and perhaps beyond Rossi's reach. "For me, it is not right to speak about 'another level'," Rossi replied. The younger riders - Rossi named Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa - were stronger, certainly, but they were like next year's model of car. That model is always better than the one it replaces, and offered a range of new possibilities. "The way to ride the bike in recent years has changed a lot," Rossi explained. "Now you need to do different tricks on the bike that for an 'old rider' like me are difficult." How had riding changed? "Especially change a lot the tires," Rossi told the press conference. "They change a lot when the monotire rule arrived." After the single tire was introduced in 2009, the character of the tires change. They have less grip on the very edge of the tire, changing the way the bikes had to be ridden. Now, Rossi explained, you had to use the 'traction area' of the tire, the section just inside of the edge of the tire, when searching for drive out of the corner.
That's where the acceleration came from, and that required a change in riding style. It was not a style he has yet been able to master. He and his team still had work to do, Rossi said, but he believed that it was an achievable target. They could find the speed which Rossi was missing, and get him up to speed with Pedrosa, Marquez, Lorenzo, and Cal Crutchlow. "Now with MotoGP you have to be at 100% all through practice, and arrive on Sunday at more than 100% if you want to stay in front from the first lap to the last."
That Rossi should include Crutchlow in the list of fast riders is not as much of a surprise as it may seem. Crutchlow is fourth in the championship, and ahead of Rossi in the standings, though they have beaten each other twice apiece. Crutchlow is growing ever more weary of having to prove that he deserves a factory ride, in whatever form that may take, and his performance has clearly caught the attention of Ducati and Suzuki, the two factories which will have seats vacant in 2014. Ideally, Crutchlow would like to remain in the Tech 3 team, with the kind of factory support from Yamaha given to Honda's satellite riders.
But while Crutchlow continues to put in outstanding performances almost every round, Yamaha are engaged in talks with Pol Espargaro. Espargaro is believed to have signed a letter of intent with Yamaha at the Qatar round of MotoGP, which would put the young Spaniard in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team with factory backing. At Mugello, Crutchlow lost his patience with the situation, making it clear that Yamaha would have to choose who they want on their bike. "[Yamaha] have signed Pol, as far as I am aware. It's none of my business and I don’t really care, but one thing is for sure, I won’t ride under Pol Espargaro in my team. So I will be leaving, that’s clear. I won't ride there if he has a factory contract and I don't."
If there is a factory contract to be handed out by Yamaha, then Crutchlow he felt that he deserved it over Pol Espargaro, and on the basis of Espargaro's results, it is hard to fault his logic. Clearly, Yamaha are looking to address the prospect of long-term domination by Marc Marquez. While Jorge Lorenzo is currently at the peak of his ability, Yamaha have to look to the future to prevent Honda from walking off with MotoGP in the coming years. If that was Yamaha's aim, Crutchlow said, then they were looking in the wrong direction with Espargaro. "Marc's a different story, as I've said a million times," Crutchlow told journalists. "Pol Espargaro is no Marc Marquez. Not in any way, shape or form."
Crutchlow's future lies in the hands of Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis. It is Jarvis who has decided he wants to sign Espargaro, at least according to Crutchlow, and so it is up to Jarvis to choose whether he wants Espargaro or Crutchlow. If Jarvis decides against Crutchlow, then the Englishman can walk into a Suzuki contract almost straight away.
Jarvis' dilemma is twofold: does he sign young talent for the future, or does he prepare a rider capable of riding alongside Jorge Lorenzo when Valentino Rossi retires at the end of 2014? And what kind of rider does he want? Espargaro is a charming, friendly and popular figure, and unlikely to kick up a storm. Crutchlow, too, is charming, but his charm is more rakish, and has an edge that corporate entities can sometimes fear. Crutchlow's razor-sharp wit will always generate publicity for the company, but it will not always fit neatly inside the corporate message and image which companies like Yamaha like to project. Crutchlow has a hint of danger around him, and while that is very, very good for his popularity, it leaves him feared by PR managers up and down the paddock.
It also leaves him loved by Dorna, by Tech 3 team boss Herve Poncharal, and by the team's title sponsor Monster Energy. Crutchlow packs a significant political punch, and could cause severe problems for Yamaha if he decides to leave. If Crutchlow were to go to Suzuki, for example, then that could potentially have consequences for Monster, and their involvement with the Tech 3 squad, and maybe even the Yamaha factory team. It is a complex situation for all concerned, and not one which will be resolved easily.
Where Crutchlow ends up riding next year will not be decided this weekend, but clearly this will be a pivotal few days in the career of Cal Crutchlow. The series needs spiky characters like Crutchlow, capable of drawing casual fans in to the sport. The history of all professional sports is built on great rivalries, of clashes of personality and personal style, and it is precisely that which has been missing from the sport in the past couple of years. There has been much mutual respect, and displays of politeness, and fine words back and forth between MotoGP's protagonists. That leaves MotoGP with only the racing to entertain, and entertainment is what has been sorely missing from the racing virtually since the introduction of the 800cc MotoGP machines.
There is a lesson to be learned from the heyday of Valentino Rossi, and of the World Superbike series in the 1990s. Rossi understood that a hero needs a villain, and ensured that he always had one, to act as a counterfoil to the role of hero he had set out for himself. The World Superbike series in the '90s drew crowds larger than MotoGP - then still 500cc Grand Prix. Those crowds came to see riders who all clearly hated each other, and made no bones about it, Carl Fogarty, Aaron Slight, Scott Russell, Frankie Chili and John Kocinski never passing up an opportunity to denigrate each other in the press. It may not have been sportsmanlike, but it made for great entertainment, and drew crowds in at every level of the sport.
MotoGP, like all professional sports, is first and foremost entertainment. Without that entertainment value, fans will not watch it, and without fans, there is no money to pay for it, especially a technology-based sport which costs many millions of dollars. In the words of Barry Hearn, the promoter who turned Snooker, one of the dullest sports on the planet, into a media sensation, professional sports is a soap opera for men. Soap operas are built around characters, and if nothing else, Cal Crutchlow is a real character. We need more of his ilk, or MotoGP will fade out of existence. The sport simply cannot afford to be bland.