"This morning was not Mugello weather," joked Pramac Ducati team manager Francesco Guidotti when we went to speak to him on Friday evening. It was cold, wet, and overcast, with a track still damp from the overnight rain. The Tuscan sun stayed hidden behind the clouds, lending no hand in burning off any water on the track. It was that horrible half-and-half weather that teams and riders fear so much, a completely lost session in terms of preparing for the race.
It was also precisely the kind of conditions that had prompted the return of intermediate tires. Fearing empty tracks – and consequently, dead TV time – Dorna had asked Michelin to produce tires that might tempt riders out on track, give TV viewers something to watch, and TV commentators something to talk about.
It didn't really work. At the start of MotoGP FP1, a group of riders went out on the hard wet tires, switching to intermediates as the track started to dry out a little. But it was still only about half the field, the rest preferring to remain safely ensconced in the pits, only venturing out at the end of the session to do a test start or two. Why, fans and journalists alike asked, did the riders not make use of the tools they had been given?
Risk vs reward
The answer is simple: the risk of injury is still too high when qualifying and race day is set to be sunny and dry. "I didn't try [the intermediates]," Pol Espargaro explained. "It looks like the weather this weekend is going to be dry. Plus, FP1 for me was not important." With nothing at stake, it was simply not worth the risk. It might have been different if it was FP3 after a couple of wet sessions, or during qualifying. "So if it's FP1, and you make a crash, first day, first practice, on a tire you don't know …"
This was also the reason Jorge Lorenzo spent all his time in the garage, not exiting at all in the dry. The risks did not weigh up against the benefits, despite having struggled in the past in this kind of half-and-half conditions. "At this moment I don't want to take too much risk to have an injury or crash, because these bikes are so powerful and so heavy. When you are on slicks with water you have to be so careful," he told reporters. Though the conditions offered an opportunity to learn more about riding when grip is variable, the rewards would be minimal at best, Lorenzo explained. "I think 98 percent of the races are in dry or wet conditions and in these conditions we are fast, we are able to fight for the world championship. For us, it was not worth it today and that's why we stay in the box."
There were some who took the risk, among them Bradley Smith. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider saw an opportunity to gain experience which could end up standing him in good stead at some point in the future. "The top championship guys didn’t see the risk. But for someone like me, who is still finding my feet a little bit, it’s important," Smith said.
"In a race scenario, if you were sat there and you had to go with a slick, a wet, or an intermediate, it would be interesting to see if someone started a race with the wet and pitted with a slick, and someone else started with an intermediate and stayed out all race - how those type of scenarios would pan out," Smith mused. "So for me it is worth doing because you don’t know when you are ever going to be in that position and we’ve gained more information than the people who were sat inside the garage. Maybe it’ll pay off this year, but maybe in the future. I’m not sure."
Not a problem, an opportunity
The rider who made best use of the damp conditions was someone who did not even appear on the timesheets. Valentino Rossi made nine exits during the damp FP1 session, though he never completed a fully timed lap. On at least seven of those nine exits, Rossi did a practice start, as he both honed one of the weakest areas of his riding, and tested settings and new parts for the clutch.
The fully seamless gearbox means that the only time the clutch is used is during the start, changing the role the clutch plays in racing, and placing different demands on it. Limited testing and restrictions on practice starts mean that opportunities to test clutch settings are few and far between.
With the track in no condition to provide a useful set up for the race, Rossi and his team had turned their attention to the starts. "We tried to do some practice with the starts, because this year we are not fantastic at the starts," Rossi explained. "We tried to improve and to modify some settings, some different stuff. At the end this morning the clutch stay the same, but we tried some different master cylinder."
A champion's work never ceases
Rossi's strategy is a testament both to how committed he is to still learning and improving, and to how intelligent he and his team are when it comes to seeing opportunities. Where other riders bemoaned the lack of useful track time, Rossi and his crew saw a chance to improve an area they are weak in, and actually do some development on the bike. There are times when great champions show what marks them out from merely strong riders. This was clearly one of them.
At the end of a long season, a small improvement in his starts could be the difference between winning another championship and once again coming up a few points short for Valentino Rossi. Understand that, and being willing to put in every possible effort at the venerable age of 37 is what marks out his greatness.
Sun at last
The weather gods were more kindly inclined in the afternoon, the sun shining and the track drying completely. That provided Andrea Iannone with an opportunity to grab the headlines for Ducati at their home track, the Italian ending the day nearly half a second faster than second place man Jorge Lorenzo. Though Lorenzo and Rossi praised Iannone's fast lap, they were both quick to point out that the Ducati man had set his fast lap on fresh rubber. That, Lorenzo said, was worth at least half a second over used tires.
Take Iannone's quick lap out of the equation, and you are left with the usual suspects, the two Movistar Yamahas and Marc Márquez on the Repsol Honda showing the strongest pace. Differences between them were small, though Lorenzo's pace was both more consistent and perhaps a fraction quicker than the other two.
Rossi's main struggle was in the last third of the track, from the second Arrabbiata corner all the way to the finish line. The biggest issue is a lack of rear traction on corner exit, a particular problem at Bucine, the final corner leading on to the straight. "I have to wait too long before I open the throttle," Rossi said. "In the last corner I lose too much."
Honda in the doldrums
A lack of acceleration is what is costing Marc Márquez, but the Spaniard finds some way of riding round the chronic deficiencies of the Honda RC213V. Acceleration is less of an issue at Mugello than it was at Le Mans two weeks ago, but it is still there. "I know we are still losing in acceleration," Márquez told the media, "we need to concentrate, especially in the stability on the exit of the corners."
If Márquez was diplomatic, teammate Dani Pedrosa was a lot more blunt. The bike was not turning well through Mugello's many combination corners, it had no rear grip, and it could not carry any corner speed, Pedrosa told reporters. "It's a struggle to find a good compromise on the track," Pedrosa said, "especially because here, after one turn there is another. Once you’re out of the line or pushing too much to recover some time, you’re going to sacrifice the next turn and lose even more."
Pedrosa had struggled to keep up with Aleix Espargaro on the Suzuki, he explained. "I was completely out of the bike, hanging out, trying to make it turn into the last turn, making the correct line to exit. He was just cruising to the inside, cutting meters on me with almost no effort. It is clear we are not turning and not having corner speed with the correct turning. We are losing a lot of time. Here we have a lot big turns. We need to improve."
When asked what he would change to make a perfect bike for him, Pedrosa was blunt. "Obviously I would ask for an improvement in the engine, the chassis. And we need somehow to make the electronics work better for us."
The Honda RC213V still has one strong point, Pedrosa said, and that was in braking. The problem at Mugello is that there is only one point at the track where you can gain a lot of time on the brakes, and that is at Turn 1, San Donato. It is going to be a long weekend for the Honda riders, struggling to compete.
The permanent pain of competing
Also struggling to be competitive was Andrea Dovizioso, the factory Ducati rider suffering a recurrence of an old neck injury which he had suffered in a crash in 2005. As he had been pulling on his helmet, he felt a tweak, and his neck had locked, preventing him from looking back behind him properly. Some physiotherapy had helped a little, but the pain was still there in the afternoon. He had had a similar problem in 2013, though luckily for him, the situation had improved by the time the race came around on Sunday. Dovizioso was very much hoping for something similar this weekend.
Though his neck flaring up was inconvenient at a race track, this masks the daily problems motorcycle racers face with injury. "From 2005 I live with this problem every day," Dovizioso said. "Also every time when I go to sleep, I am thinking about that. Normally when I crash, it most of the time happen, also at Le Mans, I had that. It was a little bit different, but the week after Le Mans I had a big problem. I did all the therapy, I have a really good person at home working that. But it's something you can't fix, it will be always like this for ever."
At the press conference on Thursday, Danilo Petrucci had made reference to the same thing. When asked how his hand was healing up, the Pramac Ducati rider had joked about having a weather vane in his hand. He could predict the weather from the pain in his hand, and he knew that it would be good weather this weekend, Petrucci quipped, because the pain was starting to subside.
This is the less glamorous side of motorcycle racing, one which fans rarely get to see. The steady accumulation of injuries from crashes slowly takes its toll on the bodies of the young warriors. Constant crashes mean wrists and shoulders take a beating, with most MotoGP riders having some degree of arthritis in both joints by the time they hit their late twenties.
Many riders suffer similar problems to Dovizioso, crashes having tweaked the spinal column and the muscles and tendons which support it, causing their backs or necks to lock up. One of the reasons Casey Stoner will remain retired is because of a persistent neck problem, caused during a crash earlier in his career. Like Dovizioso, Stoner is sometimes incapable of looking behind him, a major disadvantage when it comes to racing.
When you race, you are always carrying an injury, from either a recent fall or one more distant. But what racers don't think about is that they will be carrying that injury, and in pain from it, for the rest of their lives. Motorcycle racers are made of very tough stuff indeed. Perhaps a little too tough for their own good.
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