2014 Mugello Saturday Round Up: Signs Of Marquez' Weakness, The Importance Of Equipment, And The Rocketship Ducati
Knowing that not everyone is in a position to watch qualifying and races when they are live, we try to operate a no-spoilers policy for at least a few hours after the event. No results in headlines, nor on the MotoMatters Twitter feed. But as the mighty motorcycle racing Twitter personality SofaRacer put it today, ' I know you don't like to Tweet spoilers David. But 'Márquez on pole' and 'Márquez wins' technically, erm, aren't.' To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Marc Marquez took his sixth pole of the season, and his seventh pole in a row on Sunday. Marquez remains invincible, even at what he regards as his worst track of the year.
His advantage is rather modest, though. With just 0.180 seconds over the man in second place – the surprising Andrea Iannone – it is Marquez' smallest advantage of the season, if we discount Qatar, where he was basically riding with a broken leg. You get the sense that Marquez is holding something back, almost being cautious, after being bitten several times by the track last year, including a massive crash in free practice and then sliding out of the race. It makes him almost vulnerable for the first time. His race pace is still fast, but he has others – Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, even the Ducatis of Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso – all on roughly the same pace.
But luck plays a big part in motorcycle racing, and as ever, luck seems to be swinging Marquez' way. All the way throughout free practice, Valentino Rossi looked like a genuine threat, the Movistar Yamaha man determined to challenge Marquez for the win at his home race, and his 300th Grand Prix to boot. But a wrong tire choice on his second qualifying run left him struggling with chatter. Rossi and his crew gambled that the softer front tire would give him more grip on his time attack, but along with the grip came large amounts of chatter. Unable to improve, he dropped down to tenth on the grid. The only consolation, Rossi said, was that there are worse places to be down in tenth than Mugello. 'If you had to pick one track to start from the fourth row, Mugello is good because there are a lot of places to overtake,' Rossi said. But he needs to get past riders quickly and not get held up, and ideally, he needs someone to hold up Marquez too, if he is to challenge for victory. Rossi's real problem was the fact that the times are so close: the time he set in qualifying was just half a second off that of Marquez, pretty close for a 1'47 lap. Unfortunately for Rossi, there are eight other riders crammed between himself and the pole sitter.
Dani Pedrosa was the other rider who found pace on Saturday, and looked perhaps the strongest of Marquez' challengers. But it was bad luck that thwarted Pedrosa's shot at pole, the Repsol Honda man accidentally switching engine mapping modes to the least powerful. He did not notice it until he did his practice start at the end of the session, Pedrosa told the media, when he finally looked at his dashboard. He had seen his times were not where they should have been, but had not realized that the problem was with his engine mapping. Fourth place on the grid should be close enough for Pedrosa, though he still has to work on his starts. The change of strategy – moving the balance of the bike to be better in the latter stages of the race, instead of the early part – has robbed him of the advantage he had in earlier years.
The real surprise of the day was the return to form of Jorge Lorenzo. Overnight adjustments to his leathers by Alpinestars, to compensate for Lorenzo's added muscle mass from training, made a big improvement. The tightness was gone, he was comfortable again, and could focus on riding again. He ended up in third, a quarter of a second behind Marquez. It is his third front row start of the season, but this time, he is sounding happier and more confident than he has so far this year. His physical fitness is nearly back at 100%, very important at such a physically demanding track as Mugello. Lorenzo needs to redeem his season, and Mugello, a track where he has won for the last three years, is a good place to start.
That adjustments to gear can make such a big difference may seem surprising, but given how much focus a rider needs, even the smallest distraction – a tightness in in arms or legs, new, stiff gloves, even something as trivial as a lumpy seam – can have an impact on performance. I was given a guided tour of the Alpinestars truck-cum-workshop this afternoon, and was told the lengths the company go to make their riders comfortable. A seamstress is there ready to make whatever adjustments are necessary, as the suits are tailored to each rider's body. A change in training regime, often due to injury or illness, can cause a rider's body to change enough that their leathers don't fit perfectly. A team of assistants run back and forth to the Alpinestars truck with feedback from the riders, ready to make adjustments where needed.
Between Marquez and Lorenzo sits Andrea Iannone, the Pramac Ducati rider finally getting his first podium in MotoGP. Iannone has shown flashes of real speed this season, and is always strong at Mugello. His problem has been his consistency, with too many crashes, and a tendency to be fast one session, and slow the next. His main concern at Mugello was not to fall off in front of his home crowd, as he has done for the past two races.
With Cal Crutchlow in sixth – his best qualifying with Ducati – the Ducatis are looking strong. Upgraded engine parts adding more power have turned the bike into what Cal Crutchlow described as 'a rocket'. Iannone broke the official top speed record during practice, posting 349.6 km/h, and taking the record from Dani Pedrosa. His real top speed, according to Brembo, was closer to 361 km/h, the discrepancy down to the way the official speed is measured.
The problem the Ducatis have is that they cannot make their tires last. After six laps, performance starts to drop, making competing for a podium very difficult. Initial race pace would be strong, Andrea Dovizioso said, but after that it would be difficult. To an extent, this is the penalty Ducati pay for the concessions they have. With only the two softer compounds of the Open class at their disposal, they cannot experiment with a harder tire to try to make the bike last. They also still have a lot of work to do on their software, one of the reasons they are at loggerheads with Honda in the MSMA. Honda want to freeze all software development from next year, ahead of the switch to spec software in 2016. Ducati are adamant they cannot afford to stop development at the moment.
If qualifying in MotoGP was a short, intense battle, the fight was drawn out longer in Moto3. Jack Miller and Alex Rins fought over pole, with Rins coming up with a blistering lap mid session to secure pole comfortably. Jack Miller's counter attack was thwarted by traffic, with nearly twenty riders all hanging around on the line waiting for fast riders to come by. The situation has become very dangerous, and has been raised in the Safety Commission. The problem is that apportioning blame and meting out punishment is very tricky in these circumstances, though no doubt Race Direction will keep trying to find a way to put a stop to the practice.
It left Miller positively enraged, with riders both following him and getting in his way when he went for a fast lap. A couple of times he was fast in the first sections, before running into traffic later on. Whether it cost him pole position is debatable, but it certainly lost him time. Miller's talent is being noticed, however, and the Australian will be moving up to Moto2 in 2015. He will be riding for one of the top teams in the Moto2 class, with an announcement likely to come some time around Barcelona.
In Moto2, Tito Rabat's reign continues, the Spaniard taking his fourth pole of the season. Biggest surprise in the intermediate class was Sam Lowes, securing his first front row start at a track he has never raced at before. Lowes explained that he had a few new parts which dropped the bike lower at the rear, and allowed him to be a bit more comfortable. A new approach in the team, with more meetings, has created a little more harmony, and Lowes has immediately reaped the benefits. Starting from the front row, rather than mid pack, Lowes has a good shot at his podium in the class.
If the weather holds – and it should, with only a small chance of a shower on Sunday – there should be three great races at Mugello. There could be a real Italian classic coming on.