There are a lot of things that make Mugello special. Its location, in the heart of Tuscany, a sumptuously beautiful part of the world; its layout, fast, flowing, winding naturally up and round the valley it is set in. The wide open nature of the track, all third and fourth gear combinations which require the perfect combination of intelligence, talent and sheer courage that make it close to the perfect test of skill. It is fast, it is flowing, and it is undulating.
Even the front straight isn't really a straight, but a rolling sinew of asphalt that winds down to the first corner. You come down out of the last turn, hammer on the gas, shifting up to sixth as you go, and ride up the rise towards the crest. Drift right then left through the slight kink in the straight which becomes something resembling a 330 km/h chicane, then just as your front wheel floats free over the crest, you need to get it back down again and get on the brakes for the first corner, the 90 km/h San Donato. The straight and the braking area are immensely difficult to get right, and a simple error can leave you hurtling into the gravel. Or, in the case of Marc Marquez, drifting towards a wall.
Each rider has their own technique, but subtlety is the key to getting it right. Jorge Lorenzo told the press that he does not really brake over the crest nor use rear brake to keep the front down, but instead rolls off the throttle a fraction. This puts the front tire back in contact with the tarmac, and allows him to brake at full force for San Donato. Dani Pedrosa's technique is slightly different, but achieves the same result. "You never really hit the brake at once," he said, "you squeeze and put the pressure a little after."
It is a skill you only really need to master once you hit MotoGP. The Moto2 bikes hit around 280 km/h at the fastest point on the track. Rookies coming into MotoGP from Moto2 suddenly find themselves hurtling towards San Donato 50 to 60 km/h faster, riders regularly exceeding 340 km/h along the front straight. It is not something which is mastered in a single session. Cal Crutchlow is in his third season in the class, and is still getting to grips with Mugello, and especially with turn one. "It's a really tough track, and every year it's the same, it's difficult," he said on Friday. "I think [Mugello] is a real experience track. It's got so many tricks of the trade, and I haven't got them down to a tee yet." Braking for San Donato was something he was still struggling with. "The brake point, I think a little bit of inconsistency in the braking zone," was his reply to the question of where he was having the most problems.
Marc Marquez found out the hard way just how difficult the braking zone for San Donato can be. The Repsol Honda rookie hit 339.5 km/h along the front straight as crested the rise. As he hit the brakes, he grabbed just a little too much brake too early, before the front tire had regained full grip on the tarmac. He locked the front at 337 km/h, the front end folding, but Marquez almost miraculously got the front end back again. His efforts left his bike heading off at an oblique angle to his original direction, and drifting quickly off the track, on to the grass and toward the wall. After a hundred meters, and after the bike had scrubbed off about 60 km/h, he was forced to bail, laying the bike down to avoid hitting the wall. He was dragged along through the grass and then the gravel, barely grazing the wall before tumbling to a halt in the gravel.
It looked horrific. It looked like the kind of crash that ends with very, very serious injury, especially as he was dragged so very close to the wall. But a combination of Marquez' astonishing reflexes and excellent luck meant he was only banged up, with some bruising on his elbow, a nasty graze on his chin and a neck strain from where his helmet was pushed back. His most visible injury is his chin, which is now quite badly swollen. "He looks like Michael Schumacher now," HRC Team Principal Livio Suppo joked with Israeli TV presenter Tammy Gorali. The fact that Honda's team boss is able to joke about Marquez' injury tells you all you need to know about just how lightly Marquez escaped. It is not yet 100% certain that he will ride again on Saturday, needing a night's rest before he will know just how badly the other bruising - especially his arm and his elbow - will affect him.
The real question, though, is just what the wall at that point at the circuit is doing quite so close to the circuit. On an ordinary straight, even a high-speed one like Barcelona or Qatar, having walls close to the track is not a problem, for only the most freakish of accidents would see a bike or rider getting anywhere near the wall. But at Mugello, where the fast kink narrows the track to a place you have to thread the needle, that point of the circuit is a place where crashes can happen. Having a wall so close to the track is downright dangerous, as the riders have pointed out in the MotoGP Safety Commission for many years. Both Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi told reporters that they had raised the issue in the Safety Commission, but each time they did, they were told it was not possible.
It is not the first time a nasty accident has happened at that point. When the rear tire of Shinya Nakano's Kawasaki MotoGP bike blew out in 2004, the Japanese rider was sent tumbling along the asphalt and almost hit the same point. Though both Nakano's crash and the Marquez incident are unusual, having two incidents is a sign that something needs to be done. Pushing the wall back 10 meters or so past the crest would offer a clear benefit at Mugello.
Before Marquez' crash grabbed the headlines, all the talk was of Yamaha's domination at the Italian circuit. Though the morning session took place on a wet track, the rain which looked like hampering the weekend held off all day, leaving the afternoon session of practice to take place on a dry track. In front of his home crowd, Valentino Rossi's determination to put on a decent display shone through. Rossi pushed hard, but came up just short in the end, Jorge Lorenzo just nipping ahead of him in the last few minutes of the session. Cal Crutchlow's third place meant that Yamaha had a clean sweep.
That looks good for now, yet neither Valentino Rossi nor Cal Crutchlow were entirely happy. The rain had left the track green and lacking in grip, conditions under which the Yamahas perform best. These are also the conditions in which the Hondas suffer most, lacking the grip that gives them real drive. If the track stays dry and grip returns, then the Hondas will get up to speed and be back at the front again, Crutchlow said, and that would wipe out Yamaha's advantage.
Rossi, too, was concerned. He was happy about his performance, and happy with his feeling on the bike. The balance was good, and the braking issues which he had been having were slightly improved, but he feared what would happen on Saturday. "In other races, like Le Mans, I was very strong on Friday but it looks like we suffer more on Saturday," Rossi said. Their rivals made big steps forward on the Saturday, while Rossi struggled to many any improvement at all. What did he need to be able to be at the front on Saturday for qualifying, and through the race? "Maybe another second." Given the track conditions on Friday, a second is not impossible, but it could well be a big ask.
Both the Hondas and the Ducatis are hoping for more grip, as it will allow them to exploit their superior drive. The Ducatis did rather well on Friday, despite the relative lack of grip. Nicky Hayden ended the afternoon in fourth, while Andrea Dovizioso was not so far behind in seventh. It was a disappointed and frustrated Dovizioso who spoke to the press, however, and his frustration was aimed entirely at himself. He had made what he regarded as a "stupid mistake" on Friday morning, and had a rather painful tumble at Turn One. This had exacerbated a neck problem he suffers with occasionally, leaving him unable to lift his head up properly, especially when tucked behind the fairing of the Desmosedici. The long and fast straight at Mugello presented an almost insurmountable problem, as he was having to drop his head and look down every second or so, to relieve the strain in his neck.
That could make racing dangerous, if he continues to suffer the same issues, but he was determined to race if at all possible. "You think at Mugello I am going to watch the race from the box?" he said.
If he did decide not to race, he would not be the only rider watching from the pit box. Bradley Smith had a big highside - he got "a bit giddy" on a fresh set of tires, and they were bit him - and got his left hand trapped under the bike. He now has a nasty wound on his little finger that will need a skin graft as quickly as possible. Smith will be seeing if he can ride the bike on Saturday, before making a decision on whether to race on Sunday.
Ben Spies, too, is struggling to be fit enough to race. Though his shoulder had held up well during rehab, riding a MotoGP bike at Mugello was another thing altogether, he had discovered to his dismay. The weakness in his right shoulder meant that the fast changes of direction were difficult. Braking in a straight line was now manageable, an improvement from Austin, but the fast left-right combinations were hard. Maintaining the subtle control of brake and throttle while flinging the bike from left to right or vice versa was proving much more difficult than expected. He was to have meetings with the team on Friday night to discuss whether or not he will continue. Shoulder injuries are extremely difficult to manage, and take an awful long time to heal. Spies' doctors have advised him that it will take another two months to recover completely, but Spies is keen to get back to racing as soon as possible. Sunday at Mugello may yet prove to be too soon.