One circuit, three races, all of them utterly different in nature. The wide, flowing layout with a long straight, fast corners, and multiple combinations of turns present very different challenges to Grand Prix racing's three different classes. For Moto3, escape is impossible, the race coming down to tactics and the ability to pick the right slipstream. In Moto2, it is possible to get away, but it's equally possible to chase an escaped rider down. And in MotoGP, the fast flicks make it possible to both defend attacks and launch your own counter attack. Mugello is a wonderful circuit, and it served up a spectacular portion of racing on Sunday.
We had expected Moto3 to be the race of the day, as it has been every Grand Prix this season. It certainly did not disappoint, but by the time the last few laps of the MotoGP race rolled around, we had forgotten all about Moto3. The Moto3 race was fantastic entertainment, but the MotoGP race at Mugello was one for the ages. The kind of race that fans will bring up over and over again, one to go along with Barcelona 2009, Laguna Seca 2008, even Silverstone 1979.
It took the return of the real Jorge Lorenzo to light a fire under the MotoGP race. Lorenzo had been looking stronger and stronger all weekend, and was coming to a track where he has previously dominated, and with tires which, he had been told, were identical to last year. Lorenzo's punishing cardio workout schedule now back on track and paying dividends. The fitness he lost when three operations during the off season forced him to abandon his normal training schedule cost him dearly.
Lorenzo's style looks effortless, but making it look effortless consumes a vast amount of strength and energy. Keeping the bike perfectly in line and sweeping majestically through corners requires constant tiny corrections and an iron grip on the bike. The 2014 Bridgestone rear tire has a tendency to spin more easily, which creates a more nervous feel. Added to that the increased nervousness of the Yamaha on 20 liters of fuel, rather than the 21 liters of 2013, and that's another factor upsetting the bike. Put all these things together, and they left Jorge Lorenzo struggling for breath, quite literally.
At Mugello, things started to slot into place for Lorenzo once again. Improved fitness was one of them – so much improved, that he had to have his leathers adjusted to fit his new, stronger body – but team manager Wilco Zeelenberg insisted it was much more than that. Adjustments to set up made the bike a little less nervous, a tire that gave him a better feeling at the hot, grippy track of Mugello than it had at circuits with cooler track temps, and revisions to the Yamaha that have greatly improved braking performance. Even the addition of 340mm brake discs helped, though it was much more in consistency than in performance.
All that, combined with his improved fitness, gave Lorenzo the edge he had been looking for. 'The control which he has with the bike now is better,' Zeelenberg said. 'In Le Mans and Jerez he had quite a good bike, but he could not push the whole race and control the bike the whole race.'
And what a race it provided. Lorenzo's start was a little wild and uncontrolled – nearly running into Dani Pedrosa on one side, then running into San Donato very hot and pushing Cal Crutchlow wide. It put him right behind Andrea Iannone, who had got off to a brilliant start, to the delight of the crowd. If there were any doubts left about Lorenzo's intentions after his brutal start, he dispensed with them as he passed Iannone, barging through at Scarperia on the first lap.
From there, it looked to be a classic Lorenzo performance at Mugello, the Movistar Yamaha rider pushing hard to make a break. That proved impossible, with Marc Marquez soon slotting in behind Lorenzo after dispensing with a feisty Iannone. For a long while it looked like we were in for another Marquez masterclass, with the championship leader waiting for his moment to strike. But the attack did not come. Marquez was having trouble just matching the pace of Lorenzo, especially on new tires.
The Repsol Honda man was also wary of his experience here last year, when he crashed out during the race. He had been cautious all weekend, and did not want to risk it all in the early laps trying to get past Lorenzo. As Lorenzo pushed, Marquez was starting to have trouble, the front tire threatening to fold on him in the middle of the race. With seven laps to go, as the tires started to wear, Marquez started to close on Lorenzo, but once again, thoughts of 2013 clouded his mind. This was the same point at which he crashed out last year, just after passing Pedrosa and closing on Lorenzo, and he had no intention of that happening again. 'I had the same feeling as last year, the rear felt a bit light, so I was a bit careful,' Marquez said.
Not so careful he wasn't prepared to attack, however. Marquez got the drive out of the final corner, and slid past along the straight. He had to work hard to get it stopped, though, as Lorenzo demonstrated just how much better the braking of the Yamaha M1 had become. Lorenzo chased Marquez down and returned the favor at the end of the next lap, drafting pass Marquez along the front straight. This time it was Lorenzo's turn to run wide, Marquez slipping underneath, but Lorenzo would not be denied, retaking the lead a few corners later.
It was the opening salvos of what turned into a full scale war. For the rest of the race, Marquez and Lorenzo swapped blows and places, neither holding the upper hand. Marquez' aggressive passing was returned with interest, Lorenzo showing the kind of fight he had not displayed since he was in the 250s. It is no secret that there is little love lost between the two Spaniards, and neither man was prepared to give the other any quarter. It made for a scintillating battle: hard, vicious, but entirely clean. Lorenzo made a couple of passes that drew admiration even from men wearing Honda shirts, and seemed set to break Marquez' victory streak.
In the end, Marquez seized control, though it took him all he had. It took him 'a great last lap,' Marquez said, but in the end, he prevailed. He passed Lorenzo on the straight going into the final lap, then held off the barrage of attacks which Lorenzo flung at him. The right line out of the final corner, and he took victory, his sixth in a row, making it a clean sweep of poles and wins so far this season. It was an impressive win, but it was very much the toughest of the year.
In the end, the win had been down to a gearing change, Marquez explained. His crew had altered sixth gear to make it run a little longer, allowing him to use the slipstream to his advantage. That speed advantage allowed him to first draft past Lorenzo, and then hold him off along the final straight.
It served as a warning to Marquez, however. Barcelona is another track where Yamahas have done well, and Lorenzo has won the last two in a row. In two weeks' time, Lorenzo will be even fitter, and put up even more of a fight. The prospect of yet another head-to-head battle is a mouthwatering prospect. On the evidence of Mugello, the era of total Marquez dominance is over, with the Repsol Honda man having to fight all the way from now on. Of course, that doesn't mean he will stop winning …
At Barcelona, the fearsome twosome could be joined by their factory teammates. Both Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa had their problems at Mugello which left them just short of Marquez and Lorenzo. Rossi's problems started during qualifying, and were compounded during warm up. Electing to try to use the soft front tire during qualifying turned out to be a mistake, as it produced more chatter than grip, dropping Rossi down to 10th on the grid in a highly competitive session. A problem with the gearbox caused him to miss a good chunk of morning warm up, and meant he couldn't test the set up change he had wanted to for the race.
Despite his difficulties, Rossi still had a very strong race. Two brilliant laps from the start put him up into 4th, and not far off Marquez. But he arrived on the back of Marquez just as the Spaniard got past Iannone, and dumping the Pramac Ducati rider between Marquez and Rossi. Rossi took another lap to get past Iannone, the Italian putting up a titanic fight, but by the time he was truly clear, Marquez was nearly six tenths ahead. It was just a fraction too far for Rossi to grab a slipstream and run with Lorenzo and Marquez, and the pair slowly slipped out of his grasp. Rossi was forced to settle for third.
It was still an outstanding result for the Italian, and led to emotional scenes on the podium. For the first time since 2009, Rossi was on the podium at Mugello on merit, and the track soon filled with an adoring crowd to pay tribute. The podium at Mugello, Rossi said, was 'the most emotional moment of the season.' In previous years, Rossi was called to the podium by the fans after those who had taken the podium by right had departed. Those years – especially the Ducati years – were always bitter sweet. Much of the bitterness was gone, though still there was remorse over a missed opportunity during qualifying.
Dani Pedrosa's problems came not from qualifying, but from the surgery he had to cure arm pump after Jerez. The arm is taking longer to heal that Pedrosa had anticipated, making it hard for Pedrosa to ride as he wanted. That meant that he found it hard to get past the group he got stuck in, and when he did, he did not have the pace to match the front runners. Pedrosa continues to struggle with the early part of the race, the team having switched strategies. Instead of trying to be fast early on and make a break, sacrificing pace at the end of the race, Pedrosa's team have rejigged the bike to be faster later in the race, giving up the rocket start and fast early laps which were always his trademark. It may be time to change strategies, Pedrosa hinted. 'It has been like this for six races,' he said.
Behind the top four, Pol Espargaro put in another solid performance to come home fifth. Espargaro was only partially satisfied, despite the fact that he was the first satellite machine and ahead of the Factory Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso. The younger Espargaro has made excellent progress in his first year, but is still lacking experience. At Mugello, he found himself in trouble trying to follow both the Ducati of Andrea Iannone and the Honda of Dani Pedrosa, running in too deep and then being way too slow in the middle of the corner, the point at which the Yamaha is strongest. Trying to copy the styles of totally different bikes had made him 'crazy', he said. It was another valuable lesson in his rookie year.
The Ducatis had a mixed day of it, making inroads on their performance from last year, but unable to maintain the pace all race. Andrea Iannone elicited the biggest cheers from the crowd, as he led the way early on in the race. He dropped down the field once his tire went off, eventually finishing in seventh, behind Andrea Dovizioso. Dovizioso was disappointed to be further back than he had hoped, his disappointment tempered only by the fact that they were over 3 seconds closer to the front than they were last year.
All of the Ducatis suffered grip problems, which Andrea Dovizioso put down to rubber laid down during the Moto2 race. It meant they didn't have the grip they had expected, making turning the bike more difficult than expected. The new engine parts, giving more power at the top end, had clearly been useful in the early laps, but the underlying problem remains, which is turning the bike.
Cal Crutchlow was less fortunate than his teammate, but not nearly as unfortunate as LCR Honda's Stefan Bradl. Crutchlow had had an issue with his front tire, with the tire pressure rising much faster than the other Ducati riders, despite starting with the same pressure. It mean the tire was rolling through corners, and eventually it caused him to lose the front and crash out. It was at a very unfortunate point, between Materassi and Borgo San Lorenzo, the bike coming back onto the track and taking out Bradl. That sent Bradl flying in a massive highside. It was the second he had had on Sunday, after a similarly huge crash during the warm up. Bradl was battered and bruised, but most of all relieved to come away without injury. Crutchlow had immediately apologized to Bradl for the incident, but there was not a lot he could do about it.
When the Moto3 race was done, we had not expected it to be bettered, the race turning into a classic Mugello slipstreaming battle. Romano Fenati came out top, following Alex Rins into the last corner and forcing the Spaniard to take the lead. It is a rule set in stone that the Moto3 rider who leads out of Bucine on the last lap is not going to win, as he can expect to have a mass of riders slip past him. Rins was lucky that it was only Fenati and Isaac Viñales, the Estrella Galicia rider still taking third. The result was close, just 0.011 separating the top three, and Viñales taking second on the basis of having posted a faster lap.
The biggest loser in Moto3 was Jack Miller, the Australian pulling too aggressive a move at Correntaio on the last lap. He tried to over take too many riders in one go, to make up for being swamped earlier in the lap. Unfortunately for Miller, Miguel Oliveira closed the line, leaving Miller nowhere to go. He stood the bike up, and as he did so he was hit by Alex Marquez, meaning that Miller, Marquez and Enea Bastianini all went down. Miller was handed two penalty points for his sins, a situation with which he was absolutely furious, despite accepting full blame. It was a big blow to Miller, who sees his lead in the championship cut to just five points. But it was also a blow to Bastianini, the Italian having had an excellent race in his rookie year.
The Moto2 race, by comparison, was a bit of a snoozer, despite Tito Rabat's fantastic recovery. He lost a lot of ground in the first couple of laps, but was soon hunting the two rookies, Jonas Folger and Luis Salom, down. There was an air of inevitability about Rabat's victory, and the 25 points he scored allowed him to extend his lead over teammate Mika Kallio.
Despite the slight lull during Moto2, Mugello served up a fantastic day's racing. The MotoGP race here promises much for the future, especially given that the next race is at Barcelona, a track with similar characteristics to Mugello. Every MotoGP fan in the world will have their fingers crossed for a repeat. Odds are good that they will get it.