The 2016 Italian Grand Prix at Mugello was many things, but above all, it was memorable. It's not just that the three races ended up with incredibly close finishes – the margin of victory in Moto3 was just 0.038, and that was the largest winning margin of the three races – but how they were won, and what happened along the way that will leave them indelibly imprinted on the memories of race fans. There was drama, a bucketful of heartbreak, and plenty of chaos and confusion thrown into the mix. If there was a script for Sunday, it was torn up and rewritten a dozen times or more before the day was over.
The drama started during morning warm up. As the final seconds of the MotoGP session ticked away, Jorge Lorenzo suddenly pulled over and white smoke started pouring out of the exhaust of his Movistar Yamaha. His engine had suffered a catastrophic failure. This was a worry, as it was a relatively new engine, first introduced at Jerez, with twelve sessions of practice and two races on it. The other two engines Lorenzo had already used had 21 and 23 sessions of practice on them, and had also been used for two races each (including the flag-to-flag race at Argentina).
Though the engine allocation has been increased from five to seven engines for 2016, losing engine #3 at just the sixth race of the season could end up cutting things rather fine by the time we reach Valencia. Losing an engine so soon before a race seemed like a stroke of incredibly bad luck for Lorenzo. In fact, it would prove to be exactly the opposite.
Clouds and silver linings
"We’ve been very lucky today about the engine, because one lap less in the warm up, we wouldn’t break in the warm up but just in the race with the same engine," Lorenzo told the press conference after the race. Lorenzo had solid evidence to base that judgment on. Because on lap 9 of the MotoGP race, Valentino Rossi's #3 engine suffered exactly the same fate. Lorenzo may have lost an engine for the rest of the season, but Rossi lost an engine and a certain podium. And given just how comfortable Rossi looked chasing Lorenzo, a real possibility to take a win at his spiritual home for the first time since 2008, after some long and very painful years.
Just how painful the engine failure was for Rossi was obvious as he pulled to the side of the track. His engine had faltered a couple times in the second sector, Rossi losing nearly eight seconds and dropping a handful of places. Then the engine cut out completely, and as he coasted to the side of the track, a massive cloud of white smoke erupted from his exhaust.
Rossi was distraught. For the first time since he broke his leg in Mugello, he did not go to the podium to greet the cheering crowds, something he had done during the hard times at Ducati, and his first year back at Yamaha, when he had not earned the podium by right. He had believed he had victory within his grasp for the first time in years, and had been shattered by having it snatched so cruelly away.
He was not alone in his belief: "Wilco [Zeelenberg] told me that in the TV, it looks like Rossi stayed quite comfortable behind me," Lorenzo told the press conference. For five of the eight laps Rossi completed, the gap between him and Lorenzo was less than a tenth of a second as they crossed the line. The biggest advantage Lorenzo held at the end of each of those laps was just 0.140. Rossi was very much in the hunt until his engine lunched itself.
"For sure I can fight for the victory at Mugello," Rossi told the media afterwards. "That is - more than a target - one of my dreams in the last ten years. Because the last victory was 2008. Today in the race I was very fast. And I was behind Lorenzo, but sincerely I think that I had a little bit better pace compared to him, so I can for sure try to attack and try to make my race." It was not to be.
The fact that two Yamaha engines destroyed themselves in just one day – an unheard of occurrence, and something I cannot recall in my ten years of writing about MotoGP – raises two important questions. Firstly, how did it happen, and secondly, why didn't both Rossi and Lorenzo use new engines just to be safe?
First, the possible cause. Mugello is a tough track for engines, as the bikes spend a lot of time accelerating in high gear with a lot of throttle. Then there is the front straight, where the bike reach 350 km/h officially, and over 360 km/h on the data. Rossi spent his eight laps tucked in behind Lorenzo along the straight, the radiator of his M1 receiving a lot less cooling air as he was being sucked along in the draft.
And then there is the hump at the end of the straight, taken pretty much at full throttle in sixth gear. Both wheels come off the deck at that point in the track, the rear much more so than the front, as this image captured by Tony Goldsmith clearly shows. At that point in the track, the engines are already pretty close to maximum revs. When the rear wheel comes free of the tarmac, there is nothing to prevent it spinning freely, and allowing the engine to rev freely well beyond its designed maximum. It may only be for a fraction of a second, but the accumulative effect could be to expose any design flaws in the engine.
Careful what you ask for
That may well be the case. Lin Jarvis told MCN's Simon Patterson that the engines are to be sent back to Japan for examination. They believe the issue is with the top end, something which aligns with the fact that there was no oil in the belly pan of either Lorenzo's or Rossi's bike, which is usually caused by the bottom end letting got. Jarvis also told Patterson that they would have a fix for the issue at Barcelona.
Though the engines are sealed, and the design fixed, this is still theoretically possible. If Yamaha submit the change to the MSMA, and the manufacturers universally agree, and MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge approves the change, then Yamaha can introduce revised parts to deal with the issue.
Whether such a request would be accepted is open to question: such changes are only allowed on the grounds of safety, and may not have any effect on performance. The other manufacturers could point to the Tech 3 Yamahas of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro, which did not suffer the same problem, as their engines are forced to use a lower rev limit, a measure imposed by Yamaha to ensure the reliability of Tech 3's M1 bikes. If Yamaha's problems can be solved by cutting fifty or a hundred revs off the limit, then is there really any need for new parts?
A decision on Yamaha's request should be made quickly. Should HRC be feeling Machiavellian – a state not unknown among Honda top brass – then they may decide to reject it. After all, they are stuck with an engine which is too aggressive to accelerate cleanly (as Marc Márquez being swamped by Lorenzo to the line so ably demonstrated), so why should Yamaha be allowed to change their engine, when all they need to do is cut revs, and thereby power? That would introduce a brand new and rather fascinating dynamic into the championship.
Why not change the engine?
To the second part of the question. If Jorge Lorenzo's engine blew up in the morning, why did Yamaha not take the precaution of swapping out Rossi's engine, which had similar mileage on it to the unit which blew up on Lorenzo's bike? Surely it is better to be safe than sorry?
The problem was that Yamaha had no clear picture of what the problem was, with it happening so shortly before the race was due to start. Rossi and his team had had some concerns, he told the media. "We were a little bit worried because usually it [engines blowing up] don't happen," Rossi said. "But our engine had less kilometers than Jorge's, so we could fit the fresh engine for Sunday like in Jerez, like in Le Mans. It was too tight the time to open the engine and try to understand what happened, so we continue with our program and were unlucky."
In theory, they could have used a completely fresh engine, taking engine #4. But there are no guarantees that a new engine would not have done the same as the #3 engine which blew up. The #3 engine was nowhere near its maximum mileage, and so the problem could not have been caused by normal wear and tear.
The long shadow
Rossi's retirement was bad for the race in several different ways. Firstly, it robbed the crowds of what was lining up to be a scintillating battle between two bitter rivals, and the match up we have been looking forward to all year. With Marc Márquez rapidly approaching, it would likely have developed into a three-way fight, between Valentino Rossi and the two men he accused of conspiring to steal the title from him in 2015. A mouthwatering prospect indeed.
It also leaves Rossi down 37 points to his teammate and the championship leader. Of course, we are only one third of the way through the season, and there are still twelve races left to run with a maximum of 300 points still at stake. Rossi's title challenge is far from over, but it has suffered a serious setback. Still, if there is one thing that is clear in 2016, it is that a lot can happen, and tides can quickly turn in the championship.
Perhaps the saddest part of Rossi's retirement from the race is that it overshadowed what turned out to be one of the toughest battles for the win and one of the very best last laps in recent memory. Marc Márquez had been hanging behind Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, attempting to hunt them down. After Rossi's engine blew, Márquez started to close on Lorenzo, and by lap 15, the Repsol Honda rider was maneuvering himself into a position to strike.
Márquez once again found himself conflicted. The lesson he learned last year was that if he wanted to contend for the title, he had to learn when to settle for a podium, rather than going all out for the win, and risking a crash. But like the scorpion perched upon the back of the frog, he cannot deny his nature, and with five laps to go, Márquez started to believe he could win the race.
Márquez started to attack, and Lorenzo fended off the unwelcome advances of the Repsol Honda. On lap 20, Márquez went through at Scarperia, but ran wide, Lorenzo taking over the lead once again. Two laps later, he attacked at San Donato, the first corner, but once again he ran wide. On the last lap, the race exploded, Márquez attacking at San Donato, then getting through at Poggio Seco.
But Lorenzo was not done yet. The Movistar Yamaha rider harked back to his days in 250s, and launched a counter attack on Márquez at Biondetti, the same place he attacked Alex De Angelis back in 2005. Lorenzo got through in a breathtaking move, but Márquez struck straight back, the pair balancing on a dual knife edge of grip and sanity.
The Spaniard led into the final corner at Bucine, but Lorenzo knew where the Yamaha was stronger than the Honda, and he outdragged Márquez to the line. Lorenzo took victory by just 0.019 seconds, the seventh smallest margin in the history of the premier class.
Fan myths have no basis in history
That last lap put to bed a persistent myth about Jorge Lorenzo. Some fans claim that though Lorenzo is a fast rider, he is not capable of the kind of close-quarters battle which crowds adore. If such fans had watched Lorenzo in 250s, they would know that he can give as good as he gets. But even in MotoGP there are plenty of instances of Lorenzo not shying away from a fight.
Though Lorenzo lost out to Valentino Rossi in the utterly superb battle at Barcelona in 2009, he fought Rossi all the way to the line, the Italian only triumphing with an audacious move in the final corner. Last year, Lorenzo fought hard at Phillip Island in the thrilling four-way battle with Rossi, Márquez, and Andrea Iannone. At Sepang, Lorenzo showed himself capable of daring moves when he passed two Ducatis in a single attempt.
Lorenzo is more than able to fight, but, as he pointed out in the press conference, why would he if there are more efficient ways of winning? "If you start well and you have a great first lap and second lap, why you are not going to take this strong point as benefit?" Lorenzo asked rhetorically. "As demonstrated today, I can win with not the best pace and not starting in the pole position."
Helped by Honda
Lorenzo's victory was aided and abetted in no small part by HRC. The Honda RC213V's weakness was once again painfully exposed, Lorenzo's M1 blasting easily past Marc Márquez' Repsol Honda, after Márquez had spent five laps completely overriding the bike and taking massive risks to try to win the race. Márquez deflected a question over whether he felt that Honda had cost him victory. "When I arrive in Parc Fermé, Nakamoto, all the Honda staff say thanks for the race, because they know that we are struggling," he said.
Yet Márquez did lay out where the problem was. "I did a really good last lap, like normally always face to face with another rider always I'm strong," Márquez said. "But this time I lose on the straight. Never happen. The only two times that happened was here and also Qatar this year. But in the end we know that is our weak point in the moment, but we will improve in the future."
Saving the honor of Italy was Andrea Iannone, but the factory Ducati rider was intensely disappointed. A problem with the clutch had meant that the Italian had got a truly terrible start from the front row of the grid, dropping down to eight on the first lap. From there, he picked his way forward to end up in third, though still nearly five seconds behind the leaders.
Iannone was happy about the podium, but he felt he had been capable of much more. "Unfortunately, the start today for me is a very big problem," the Italian said. "I have a very big disappointment because I think in this weekend we have a very good possibility." Iannone had pictured himself battling for the win, and had set the fastest lap of the race on the final lap, just shy of the outright lap record. His pace was good enough to be involved in the fight for victory. A clutch problem off the start had prevented that.
A similar issue had affected Maverick Viñales. The Suzuki rider was truly disconsolate, after an electronics problem off the line had seen him go backwards at the start. He did not know what had caused the problem, but it felt like he had hit the pit limiter, he said. "I don't know what it was, the bike started to cut out, and everybody overtook me," Viñales told MotoGP.com. "I started good, I was at the side of Marc, and then everyone passed me."
The power had come back after he had changed gear, and he was back on the pace. His problem was that he was already down in eleventh, with a lot of work to do. He battled valiantly on, but he used up his tires too much to fight his way forward to sixth. "Obviously I'm sad, because I think I could fight for the podium this race," Viñales told us. "Then, after I overtake all the riders, I make the same pace as Jorge and Marc. Sure with a good start I can be there. Anyway, I stressed a lot the tires in the first laps, trying to overtake, trying to accelerate good, I destroyed the tires more than I was winning positions."
The bright side
Worthy of note was also the battle between Bradley Smith and Danilo Petrucci. Smith was both happy and relieved that he was back to the level he had been in 2015, now that he and his team had finally got a handle on the bike and on the Michelins. Petrucci was happy to score such a strong result in just his second race of the season, and still lacking strength in his right arm, and the hand he broke during testing. He pointed to his leathers and the gap there was between the sleeve and his arm. That was the biggest issue he faced, and what he must now address.
All of this talk of engines, overtaking, and disappointment overshadows a rather important point. For the first time this year, we are not talking about tires, and whether Michelin have done a good job or not. The MotoGP race was run at a new record pace (1 second faster than the previous fastest race), and riders came up short of the pole and lap record by just a few hundredths. Of the crashes which happened during the race, none were related to tires. It was what you might call a perfectly normal race weekend. The scale of that triumph for Michelin should not be underestimated.
Supporting the support classes
There were two more races at Mugello, and both were more than worthy of mention. The Moto3 race was the typical kind of insanity you expect at Mugello, a massive group fighting for victory all the way to the line. There were plenty of surprises and disappointments in the group, but the eventual victor was perhaps the least surprising thing about the race. Brad Binder won his third race in a row, and has cemented his lead in the championship.
There was plenty for the Italian crowd to cheer for, and to commiserate with. Romano Fenati had a problem with his chain, and after looking strong for most of the race, was forced to pull out. But two Italians stood on the podium besides Binder. Fabio Di Giannantonio, the 17-year-old rookie, rode a superb race to take his first podium. And Pecco Bagnaia, who has been a force on the Mahindra, put the bike into third.
The Moto2 race was both utterly bizarre and rather thrilling, Johann Zarco holding off Lorenzo Baldassarri to take his second win of the year. Sam Lowes' third position was enough to secure the lead in the championship again, though he was upset that the race had been restarted, as he was leading at the time.
The Moto2 race had become a 10-lap sprint, after chaos with a quick restart procedure, teams not following the rules, sending riders out when the shouldn't, and Race Direction not responding correctly to the challenges they faced. That, however, probably deserves a chapter of its own, and will have to wait for another day.
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