The paradox of the motorcycle racer is that every race is a big race, yet no race is more important than any other. The pressure on the MotoGP elite is so great that they have to perform at their maximum at every circuit, every weekend. Every race is like a championship decider, not just the race which decides the championship. There may be extra pressure at a home race, or on a special occasion, or when a title is at stake, but the riders cannot let it get to them. There is too much at stake to be overawed by the occasion.
Still, Mugello 2014 is a very big race indeed. It is Valentino Rossi's 300th Grand Prix, and a chance for him to return to the podium on merit again, and not just because the crowds were calling his name. It is the best hope of a Jorge Lorenzo revival, the Yamaha man having won the last three races in a row at the spectacular Tuscan track. It is the best hope for Ducati, the Italian factory having run well here in the past. And it is the first realistic chance for Marc Marquez to fail, the Spaniard has never found the track an easy one, though it did not stop him winning there.
Valentino Rossi heads into the race weekend more optimistic than he has been in years. Though Misano is closer to Rossi's home in Tavullia – it is literally walking distance, though it is a long walk indeed – Mugello is the Italian's spiritual home, the track he loves most in the world.
And rightly so: it is a jewel, in every aspect except possible safety – more of that later – cradled in a valley between two hillsides. It is a fast track – Brembo data shows that the MotoGP bikes reach 363 kilometers per hour, though the official Dorna record is still 349 km/h, held by Dani Pedrosa. Veteran journalist and TV commentator Dennis Noyes has spent time digging up the real top speeds at various tracks, and the discrepancy between the officially stated top speeds and the actual top speeds is down to how they are measured. The official top speed is an average over a distance of 30 meters, but a lot can happen in that distance. Riders start braking, and the average plummets, whereas peak speeds measured on data are more accurate. Those peaks are staggeringly fast.
But Mugello is about far more than just sheer speed. Like all great race tracks, it flows, the corners run into one another with a logic of their own. This has a downside: get one corner wrong and you end up off line for the next, losing time for a long way around the track. You cannot afford to let your concentration lapse for a second. The long series of corner combinations offer plenty of passing opportunities, with the fast chicanes being known by their combinations, not the names of the individual corners. Luco/Poggio Seco, Materassi/Borgo San Lorenzo, and the grandaddy of them all, Casanova/Savelli. Even the double right at back of the circuit – Arrabbiata 1 and 2 – share a name, and a line. Brake deeper into one part of the combination, or turn in earlier, and you can attack in the second part. If someone attacks in the first turn of the combination, you can counter attack in the second. The flowing track makes for great racing.
It is a track almost made for the style of Valentino Rossi. The Italian loves the flowing corners, but he also loves an opportunity to attack. For the first time since 2009, Rossi may end up on the podium on merit, rather than because he was called there by the crowd after the official podium ceremonies were finished. The leg he broke at Mugello was the low point of his career, and the two years at Ducati had been a struggle. His race in 2013 ended after just three corners, in a clash with Alvaro Bautista. With Rossi clearly the best Yamaha rider of the moment, he is hungry for a result.
He has so much motivation to do well. It is his 300th Grand Prix start on Sunday, a fact which made him unhappy, he joked, as it means he is old. Despite his age, Rossi is delighted with his start to 2014, and his return to being competitive. He has finished second in three of the five races this season, and is only in third in the championship because of a tire problem at Austin. Take away Marc Marquez – something which every other rider on the grid would dearly like to do – and Rossi would have more wins that Dani Pedrosa, and be engaged in a titanic battle for the title.
So Rossi starts in optimistic mood at Mugello, but his optimism was somewhat tempered after he watched the video from Le Mans. After the race in France, Rossi had felt he was close to being able to give Marquez a run for his money. After he had watched the race on video, that optimism had faded, Rossi joked. He had thought Marquez had come back from sixth or so. He had not been aware that the Repsol Honda man had been way down in 11th at one point, and had lost a huge amount of ground in just a couple of corners.
In his favor, Rossi – and Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo – is the fact that Mugello has traditionally been a Yamaha track. Rossi was quick to point out that Jerez and Qatar were supposed to be Yamaha tracks as well, but they had turned out to be Marquez tracks. Stopping the unstoppable world champion is going to be hard at Mugello.
Though Jorge Lorenzo is not as outwardly optimistic, he has solid grounds for hope. His form has been slowly improving since the disastrous start to the season, but he has still not managed to put everything together over a race weekend. At Mugello, Lorenzo starts with a couple of strikes in his favor, for a change. First of all, Mugello is the first circuit where he should be able to work with the tires. The tires Bridgestone have brought should be closer to what Lorenzo can use. The hard rear tire is the improved version with a little more edge grip, and the medium tire is almost – but not quite – identical to the tires used in 2013. That year, Lorenzo ran away with the race after Marquez crashed out chasing the Yamaha man.
Lorenzo has won at Mugello for the past three years in a row, and so he both knows and loves the circuit. He has tires he can use for a change, which will give him a confidence boost. If he can put together a strong weekend – practice fast, qualify on the front row, get a great start and run at the front from the beginning – Mugello could be the place where Lorenzo starts to exorcise the demons which have haunted him this year. Maybe beating Marquez is a little too much to ask just yet, but finishing with him in sight would be a big step forward.
The Yamahas have another thing going for them at Mugello. The Italian track is the first place where the 340mm front brake discs can be used now that the Grand Prix Commission has approved them at all circuits. It is a move both Lorenzo and Rossi welcomed, as the Yamahas have struggled especially with braking. The problem, Bradley Smith explained, was that with the 320mm discs, increasing brake pressure didn't improve braking distances. If you squeezed the brakes harder, you merely put more heat into the discs, and would destroy them faster. With the 340mm discs, more brake pressure would translate to more braking power without the brakes overheating.
The problem is that as engine braking has evolved, this has created new challenges for the brakes. Engine braking is now set up to be more like a two stroke: very little engine brake to allow the rider to modulate the brakes using the lever. This has meant that riders can brake later and further into the corner, and this has in turn increased the stress on the brakes. The bigger discs are needed to dissipate the heat created by those stresses. The situation is especially hard in the opening laps of the race, Smith explained. Battling with other riders means you can't choose ideal braking points and modulate braking yourself. You have to brake hard to hold off other riders, or attack them, or just avoid them, meaning applying maximum brake force in one go. Add in the lack of cooling while slipstreaming, and you have a recipe for problems.
All that may help the Yamaha men, but will it help them beat him? At the moment, nobody looks even close, Marquez having moved the game on. The Repsol Honda man faces the toughest challenge of the season so far, with bad memories of 2013. First, he had the monster crash on Friday, forced to leap off the bike at over 300 km/h when he locked the front at the end of the straight. He was banged up by that crash, dislocating his shoulder and injuring his chin. It didn't stop him qualifying on the second row, and then moving forward during the race to start chasing down Jorge Lorenzo for the lead. Marquez made another mistake in the race, crashing out at Savelli after passing Dani Pedrosa. It was the only time all year that he made a mistake during the race and scored a DNF. In the press conference, Marquez let slip a little of his technique for handling disappointment. He preferred to focus on what he had learned from the Mugello race, rather than worrying too much about what went wrong. He had been going very well until he crashed out, and finding that feeling again would be a priority.
How do you explain Marquez' phenomenal success? At Le Mans, some sections of the Italian media had jumped on the torductor the Honda uses, the torque sensor fitted to the output shaft. Marquez dismissed that entirely, saying that Honda had been using the system for years. Though he did not give an explanation for his speed, it is possible that his advantage is in braking, and techniques learned in Moto2.
Marquez has been using the rear wheel to brake, by sliding the bike into the corner. He is balancing the bike on the front wheel under braking, turning the bike in with the rear wheel still in the air, then bringing the rear down while leaned over. He then uses engine braking to help slow the bike and get the bike turned. Using the fat surface of the rear Bridgestone surely aids braking a lot, more than relying on the relatively small surface of the front tire.
Marquez is not the only rider using Moto2 techniques, however. Pol Espargaro explained that he had been given official leeway to explore rear wheel braking by Yamaha's MotoGP project leader Kouichi Tsuji. Tsuji had first told Espargaro that sliding the rear wheel under braking was not the way to go fast on the Yamaha, but Espargaro had asked to experiment with the style. If it wasn't working by mid-season, the younger Espargaro argued, then he could always change his style to keep the wheels more in line, the way that Jorge Lorenzo was doing.
So far, the results were encouraging, but the Yamaha is not completely suited to that style. The Honda is more like a Moto2 machine, Espargaro explained, while the Yamaha needs to be ridden much more smoothly. Having more engine brake was allowing him to brake deeper and later, he said, but it also meant he was losing too much speed in the middle of the corner, traditionally the point where the Yamaha is strongest. But Espargaro was convinced that with some work, he could find a decent compromise.
Yamaha's change of heart marks a shift in attitude inside Yamaha and inside MotoGP as well. The arrival of Marquez has created a new template, and every aspect of his riding is coming under scrutiny. If Marquez is so fast using the Moto2 braking style, why shouldn't other riders be the same? Just last year, such thoughts were almost taboo. Bradley Smith said that last year, he had been told very firmly by Yamaha that he would have to change his style to be more like Jorge Lorenzo's, keeping the wheels in line and not sliding the rear. This year, Marquez has changed everyone's thinking: if it works for him, could it work for us?
This, above all, is bad news for Jorge Lorenzo. If Yamaha start moving away from a focus on outright corner speed, and more to creating a bike that is happier when moving around more, the Lorenzo will find it harder to adapt. All his life he has been taught to chase corner speed, in search of the fastest way around the track. Theoretically, he is right, the faster you go in the corners, the less speed you lose on corner entry, and less speed you need to find on corner exit. However, Marc Marquez has also shown that with a more point-and-squirt style, you can find multiple ways of going fast, rather than just worshiping at the altar of apex speed. In racing, you always have to adapt or die.
At Mugello, Lorenzo has a shot at redemption. He will need to seize it with both hands.