For sheer, stunning beauty, it is hard to beat Mugello. 'Nestling in the Tuscan hills' is an overused cliché precisely because it is so very true. The Mugello circuit runs along both sides of a beautiful Tuscan valley, swooping up and down the hillsides as it flows along the natural contours of the land. Like Phillip Island, and like Assen once was, it is a truly natural circuit. It does not feel designed, it feels as if it was left there by the raw overwhelming natural forces which hewed the landscape from the limestone mountains, discovered by a man with a passion for speed, who then proceeded to lay asphalt where the hand of nature dictated.
It is fast, flowing and challenging. It demands every ounce of speed from a bike, and courage from a rider. It lacks any really tight corners, keeping hard acceleration in low gears to a minimum. Corners flow together in a natural progression, with a long series of left-right and right-left combination corners. The riders call them chicanes, which they are only in the very strictest sense of the word. In reality, they are way, way too fast to be what fans call chicanes, more like high-speed changes of direction. What they do is allow riders to line up a pass through one part of a turn, and the rider being passed to counter attack through the second part of the corner. That makes for great racing.
There was not much talk of the beauty of the track on Thursday, though. After the build up of rumor and intrigue at Le Mans, the banks have burst on the rider market, and a flood of signings have been announced, with more possible over the next few days.
Maverick Viñales was the first domino to fall, signing for Yamaha over the weekend, the deal announced on Thursday morning. He had made his decision quickly after Le Mans, the Spaniard said, though the podium he scored in France had given him pause for thought. The hardest part of the decision was telling Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio. "It was the most difficult phone call of my life," Viñales said after the press conference.
It had been a hunger for success which had driven him to make the switch to Yamaha. Though the thought of following in the footsteps of Kevin Schwantz and becoming a legend had been appealing, but to become a legend, first you need to win races. "If you only finish fourth and fifth, you are not a legend," Viñales said. He had moved to Yamaha because he wanted a shot at the championship, and despite the fact that Suzuki had made a lot of progress, the Yamaha is clearly capable of winning right now.
That drive is what Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis singled out as the biggest reason he had signed Viñales. "He has only one desire, which is to become world champion," Jarvis told the press on Thursday. "He is not here to be a star, he is not here I don't think because of the money. He took a decision to join Yamaha, which I think was probably less favorable economically. So basically, he has a burning desire to be a world champion, to be the very best in the sport that he has chosen to be in. For me, that is the most important thing of all, and let's hope that we can help him to achieve that goal."
Viñales signing had opened the floodgates to the other factory seats. Earlier in the week, Dani Pedrosa signed on for another two years at Repsol Honda, despite having been in talks with Yamaha. Pedrosa, however, was Yamaha's second choice, Yamaha having decided on a strategy to sign a young rider for the future, rather than the fastest rider available on the market. Pedrosa himself was satisfied to still be with Honda. "History is important," Pedrosa told the press conference. After such a long time in the Repsol Honda team (this is his eleventh season in Repsol colors), there was more value in staying than in leaving.
The departure of Viñales opened the door to Andrea Iannone. Iannone was not happy to leave Ducati after four seasons, but was pleased with the opportunity he had been given at Suzuki. There was an option to stay at Ducati, Iannone said, but he had not been satisfied with the conditions offered to him. That had made the choice to go to Suzuki easier to make.
Iannone's arrival had come as a shock to Aleix Espargaro, and a concern. A very disappointed elder Espargaro had learned of Iannone's signing before he had even started to discuss renewing his own contract with Suzuki. "I’m a little bit sad because I thought that I was more valuable to Suzuki," Espargaro said. "I feel that I deserved a little bit more respect."
A dispassionate view of the future
He was somber about his chances of staying with Suzuki. "I heard Zarco, I heard Rins. If they want a younger rider, and with 26 years old I am old, I don’t know…" Espargaro told the media. All he could do was focus on getting results, and make the decision as hard as possible for Suzuki. Did such uncertainty put a lot of pressure on him? "We live with this pressure as always," he said. "Your value is the last race, the last result."
The buzz around the paddock has Alex Rins taking the place of Aleix Espargaro. That fits in with Suzuki's strategy so far, of having an experienced rider alongside an up-and-coming youngster with a lot of potential. In this scenario, Andrea Iannone is the experienced rider, taking over the role of Aleix Espargaro, while Alex Rins is the promising youngster. The question is how Suzuki will prevent a repeat of the Viñales saga, and stop Rins from leaving at the end of his first contract. The obvious answer is to tie him in to a long contract. But just how long a contract is Rins willing to accept?
Who can beat Lorenzo?
But enough of the off-track shenanigans, there is also racing to be savored. At Mugello, Jorge Lorenzo is the man to beat. Since 2009, the Movistar Yamaha rider has finished either first or second, including a total of four wins. He also won here last year, the track suiting him down to the ground. Mugello is flowing, and all about carrying a lot of corner speed. That is where Lorenzo excels, when he has the tires which can do that.
He does at Mugello. Michelin have once again brought the tire with the softer middle section, and slightly softer construction, which provides a big more grip than the harder construction brought in for Austin and Jerez. That was the tire which brought Lorenzo his biggest margin of victory of his career at Le Mans. There is good reason for everyone not named Lorenzo to be very afraid.
But Lorenzo could face serious competition this year. Not least from his teammate Valentino Rossi. The Italian once reigned supreme at the Tuscan circuit, winning here an incredible seven times in a row between 2002 and 2008. Life got tougher at what Rossi regards as his real home race – Mugello is his spiritual home, despite being further from Tavullia than Misano, where he also rides more often – since then, the race being dominated by Spaniards. But Rossi is stronger than ever this year, not least because of the return of the Michelin tires.
Life is easier at the front
Above all, Rossi has improved his qualifying. In five races, Rossi has started from the front row three times and the second row once, Le Mans being the first time that he has started from row three. That has left Rossi with less work to do at the start of the race, and given him a win and two podiums from three races. It is hard to imagine a race where Rossi starts more motivated than Mugello. Jorge Lorenzo had better look out.
He had also better look out for the Ducatis. The Italians have tested at the track prior to Le Mans, at the circuit which is closest to their Borgo Panigale base. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone have reason to be motivated, Dovizioso to prove that Ducati made the right choice in keeping him over Iannone, while Iannone is out to prove the opposite. If there were a track where Ducati might cause an upset, Mugello is surely it.
One of the things which Ducati were testing before Le Mans was a new aerodynamics package. Expect new winglets, and perhaps even a redesigned fairing for this weekend's event. Ducati have clearly bought into the concept of aerodynamics, and are now seeking every possible advantage. This is what is causing the deadlock in the MSMA, with Honda leading the charge against the winglets, Ducati flat out refusing to have the winglets banned.
Oh woe is HRC!
As for Honda, Mugello should at least be less like torture than Le Mans was. In France, Every Honda but Dani Pedrosa hit the floor, the front tire giving up in face of the onslaught of hard braking the RC213V engenders. Things should be better at Mugello, as there are fewer spots where hard acceleration is what counts. The Honda still merely spins its rear wheel (until it hooks up, of course, at which point it starts to wheelie really badly) rather than providing forward drive. That tempts riders into compensating by trying to brake as late and as deep as possible, leading to the spate of crashes.
There should be less of that this year from the Hondas, though caution is still very much advised. Marc Márquez crashed out towards the end of the race, losing the battle with the front tire. While Michelin are still working on the front, you have to believe there will be front end crashes this weekend. Crashes just like Márquez' from last year, perhaps.
Dark horse of the weekend are surely Suzuki. Both Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro are highly motivated for different reasons. Viñales is still chasing his first win in MotoGP, and a place in history winning on a Suzuki. Aleix Espargaro is keen to show that he deserves to keep his place at Suzuki, by scoring as many points as possible each race.
Espargaro also let slip that Suzuki has a bunch of new parts to test at Mugello. What those parts are, Espargaro was loath to tell, but they will surely be aimed at creating more rear grip. That is what Espargaro and Viñales keep complaining about as the biggest challenge facing the Japanese bike maker at the moment.
But Mugello is a track which truly suits the Suzuki, its agility making it ideal for the flowing nature of the circuit. If ever there were a track that might throw up a surprise, Mugello is it.
Even Aprilia are getting in on the game. The Italian factory have brought a mass of new parts for Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl to test, and use at the Mugello Grand Prix. Aprilia are making steady progress, but they are out of the limelight, aiming for regular top ten finishes instead victory. Yet Aprilia have done an outstanding job in the last few months, their bikes slowly making headway and closing the gap to the front. For Bautista & Bradl, they have much to prove.
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