Every year at Mugello, Valentino Rossi and Italian designer Aldo Drudi come up with a special helmet design for Rossi's helmet. They vary in originality and ingenuity: my own personal favorite by far was the helmet from 2008, which featured Rossi's face on the top, wide-eyed with the terror he felt braking for the first corner at San Donato, one of the highest speed approaches on the calendar. Others have varied from the obscure and personal, to the entertaining or passionate. Most people have their own personal favorite, a few curmudgeons find the whole idea rather pointless.
Rossi's helmet for this year features a simple design, based on a pun in Italian. His AGV Pista GP helmet is yellow, featuring an outline of the Mugello circuit, and the word "MUGIALLO" around the front. "Mugiallo" is a play on the words Mugello, the name of the circuit, and "giallo", the Italian word for yellow. Rossi's tribal color is yellow, his fans call themselves "Il popolo giallo", or The Yellow People. The press release from Dainese described it as a tribute to the circuit, and to Rossi's fans.
Is that what it means to Rossi himself, though? On Saturday, Rossi made his helmet look more like an act of appropriation than a tribute. Rossi's searing qualifying lap laid bare his intentions: Valentino Rossi laid claim to the Mugello circuit. He came here to win.
Planning ahead and seizing opportunities
Can he do it? The auspices are good for a Rossi victory. While others tiptoed around during a wet FP1, Rossi went out and did nothing but practice starts, improving one of his weaker points. When the track dried, and throughout the rest of free practice, Rossi built up his pace, working on a set up which will work in the race. When qualifying came around, he found a strategy which allowed him to ride the way he wanted, and used it to bag pole.
That strategy? To wait until pit lane had cleared, then head out to a relatively empty track. As it happened, that was exactly the strategy as Maverick Viñales, the pair of them circulating within sight of each other. On their first run, Viñales followed Rossi, the Suzuki rider getting up into second behind a brilliant lap from Andrea Iannone on the factory Ducati. After two laps, Viñales headed back into the pits, while Rossi stayed out for one more lap.
Viñales spent nearly two minutes more than Rossi in the pits, which meant that the two of them headed out together again. This time, Viñales led the way, Rossi using the Suzuki as a target, and chasing the young Spaniard all the way to the line. With that reference, the Italian veteran smashed past Iannone, taking pole position by a tenth of a second.
Viñales was not done, however. Now on his second flying lap, and the clock running out, Viñales picked up the pace. At the first intermediate split, the Suzuki rider was eight hundredths of a second faster than Rossi, an advantage he extended through the second split to nearly a tenth of a second. Viñales fared less well in the second half of the track, losing eight hundredths in the third split, still leaving him a fraction ahead of Rossi. But last section of the track, from Biondetti through Bucine all the way to the line, proved costly for the Spaniard. He lost over a tenth of a second, and was demoted into second place.
Rossi's pole, and the way in which he took it, led Jorge Lorenzo to start pondering a conspiracy. Was it a coincidence that Rossi and Viñales just happened to find each other on track? "Well if it's a coincidence, it's a coincidence which has been repeated five or six times," Lorenzo said. "So to have so many repeated coincidences... But it could be. Who knows?" Marc Márquez was less cryptic in his response. "I was watching the practice and I saw that Viñales did the time behind Valentino and then the opposite. It looks like they speak and they organize."
Rossi naturally denied the accusation, joking that he was very scared they would send a note home to his mother for copying from another student. More forcefully, he told the Italian media that Lorenzo should have the decency not to talk about riders conspiring together, once again bringing up his own conspiracy that Lorenzo and Márquez had worked together to prevent Rossi from winning the 2015 championship.
Coincidences both exist, and recur
Was there really a conspiracy between Rossi and Viñales? It is unlikely that any agreement exists to work together during qualifying. Motorcycle racing is an individual sport, with each rider working for themselves. As Marc Márquez put it, "in the end everyone do his own strategy." At best, any alliance is merely temporary, exploiting opportunities which present themselves. Sometimes, individual rider strategies coincide, two riders choosing the same approach, and deciding not to actively hinder each other.
The most likely explanation for Rossi and Viñales hitting the track at the same time is that they both have little desire to leave the pits early and get caught up in traffic. At a track like Mugello, with a lap of around 1'47, if you wait for a minute, almost everyone has gone, and most of the bikes are round the other side of the circuit. That gives you a clear track to try to push on, and with little risk of coming across other riders waiting for a tow.
Of course, two riders who choose the same strategy may find themselves sharing a piece of track. Their affinity with one another will decide what happens next: if they can tolerate each other, then they may end up helping each other to a fast time. If they are sworn enemies, then the lap will be aborted immediately. Rossi and Viñales clearly like and respect each other. But if Rossi had come across Jorge Lorenzo or Marc Márquez – or vice versa – then there would have been no tows given nor claimed.
Accepting a tow
Sometimes, qualifying strategies leave no room for modification. With Mugello being a 1'47 lap, Jorge Lorenzo's two-stop strategy, with a front tire change planned for the final exit, left no time for improvisation. So when Lorenzo found Iannone following him out of the pits at the very start of the session, there was nothing Lorenzo could do. If he aborted the first lap, he would still only have two laps in which to set a quick time. Better to persevere, and stick to the plan at hand.
At tracks with a shorter lap, a little more flexibility is possible. Lorenzo can then wait in the garage for a while – or as he did at Phillip Island last year, walk out to the bike, to persuade his rivals to exit the pits, then go back inside and wait for the track to clear. That is not possible at Mugello, however.
In the end, the usual suspects are all on the first two rows of the grid. The two Movistar Yamahas are on the first and second rows, Rossi on pole and Lorenzo starting from fifth. The Repsol Honda of Marc Márquez is in the mix, the Spaniard sitting in fourth. Two Suzukis set in second and sixth, Viñales being strong in Q2, Aleix Espargaro excellent in both qualifying sessions, having made his way forward during Q1.
It will be close
Espargaro felt a little aggrieved after qualifying in sixth, for two reasons. Firstly, because his time in Q1 was already better than his Q2 time. Secondly, that he lost time when Marc Márquez ran wide and nearly lost the bike altogether, costing him several tenths of a second, and ruining his chance of a lap that would have been good enough for the front row.
What does all this mean for the race? On Friday, you would have said that Jorge Lorenzo held the race in his hands, the Movistar Yamaha rider quickly finding a strong setting. His problem, he said, was that others had caught up and even passed him, the improvements made by everyone else on the grid collectively better than the improvements found by Jorge Lorenzo and his team.
Now, there seem to be four or five riders, perhaps even more, who have excellent race pace. On paper, Andrea Iannone was fastest during FP4, and consistently so. Maverick Viñales is pretty close, as are Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez. But Valentino Rossi looks most ominous, not so much for his outright pace, as for the fact that he finds something even more special on Sunday, with the adrenaline of a race coursing through his veins.
Rossi's second pole of the year is also a sign of improving qualifying once again. In the six race starts this year, Rossi already has two poles, and he has appeared on the front row four times in total. Rossi is already just one front-row start down on 2015, and we are only just six races into the season.
Investment in the future
Rossi's helmet was to send out a message, not just about his own ownership of the Mugello track, but also of the VR46 Riders Academy. In the Moto3 and Moto2 classes, his riders did well too. Romano Fenati took pole, having shown competitive pace all weekend. Andrea Migno grabbed second, following close on the heels of his teammate. Pecco Bagnaia had done well to finish second, but his lap time was canceled for running the track, and he was demoted to eight.
In the Moto2 class, Lorenzo Baldassarri will start from third, his first ever front row start. He sits behind Sam Lowes and Taka Nakagami, the Englishman pretty much unstoppable on Saturday. He had concentrated on hard tires and race pace during much of qualifying, and if he can break clear, it is hard to see who can stop Lowes. His main rivals, Johann Zarco and Alex Rins, are well down the order at the moment, and will start from sixth and ninth respectively.
In a way, Rossi's greatest achievement at Mugello this weekend is not his own pole position, but the incredible strength of Italian racing. The future looked very bleak just a few years ago, with little Italian talent coming up through the ranks. Rossi has invested his own time and money to turn that around, to great success. Young Italian riders are now back at the front in both Moto2 and Moto3, and taking on the Spanish supremacy to great effect. Rossi picked up where the Italian federation had let the situation slide, and almost singlehandedly saved Italian racing from a long period in the doldrums.
On Sunday, Rossi looks set to reap the rewards. Not only is he arguably the favorite to win the MotoGP race, though the battle looks to be fierce with Márquez, Lorenzo, Iannone and the Suzukis. But the riders who have come through the VR46 Riders Academy look like being favorites for the Moto3 race, and in contention for Moto2. On Sunday, Mugello will not only color yellow, but also green, white, and red. Probably with a Union Jack thrown in for good effect.
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