Imagine you find yourself at the start of a 40 minute session of track time, at one of the greatest racing circuits in the world, sat astride one of the most sophisticated racing motorcycles in the world, with the Tuscan sun beating down from clear skies, and the hillsides echoing to the roar of tens of thousands of delirious fans. What would you do?
If you're a Moto3 rider competing at the Italian Grand Prix, then the answer is simple: you sit in your pit box for five minutes, then pootle out into pit lane, spending all your time looking backwards. You are finally persuaded to head out of pit lane over the crest and down towards one of the most challenging corners of the season, so you potter around at a miserable 30 km/h, constantly looking behind you in the hope of finding a faster rider coming up behind you at speed. You repeat this for the full session, interspersed with the odd hot lap.
The situation got so bad that in one of the hospitality units after the day was over, one person came over to us and asked if the Moto3 qualifying session had been red-flagged. They had been working through the session, and had noticed that the track had gone completely quiet. But it was not red flags which stopped the action, it was the desperate search for exactly the right tow. The trouble is, when all 31 Moto3 riders are waiting for a tow, there is no one left to be giving them.
'T is better to be hung for a sheep than a lamb
The violation of Moto3's rule prohibiting riding slowly had been violated so flagrantly that as of late Saturday night, it is still unclear who is to be starting where on the grid on Sunday. After all, if 31 riders break the rules, then 31 riders have to be put to the back of the grid. But putting everyone to the back of the grid means you end up with everyone in the same place again.
So far, only three penalties have been handed out, including to pole setter Jorge Martin. But those were handed out for violations of the riding slowly rule during FP3. Heaven knows what Race Direction will do for qualifying.
The bitter irony was that after the session was over, the riders interviewed about their position all said that there wasn't much difference qualifying on the front row or on the fourth row. The slipstream is so important at Mugello that the most likely scenario in the race is that a massive group of fifteen riders or so will battle for the win all the way to the line. Victory will eventually be decided by whoever manages to position themselves in about sixth position on the entry to Bucine, as they will be best placed to catapult themselves to the win from behind the group.
How to solve the problem of towing in Moto3? Race Direction have tried just about everything in their power to curb the practice, so far without effect. Both riders and teams are guilty of creating this state of affairs, teams placing pressure on riders to secure a good grid position. Perhaps something as extreme as a one-race ban may have to be considered. It would punish both rider and team, and definitely grab their attention. It would be a massive overreaction, of course, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
I thought he was injured?
Moto3 qualifying was in stark contrast to MotoGP. The premier class conjured up a fascinating day of practice, topped off by a couple of thrilling qualifying sessions. Add in a fair few surprises, and you had all the ingredients for something a little bit special on Saturday, setting MotoGP up for a truly classic race on Sunday.
Making the weekend even more special is a return to form for Valentino Rossi. After his motocross crash last week, there had been credible rumors that the Italian was far too injured to race. Gossip had it that he would turn up, turn a couple of laps to keep the crowds coming, then pull out of the race. As late as Tuesday, even Rossi had been doubtful he would fit to race. When he walked into the Yamaha hospitality unit on Thursday, he looked stiff and awkward. When he got off the bike at the end of FP1 on Friday morning, he grimaced with pain. Things were not looking promising.
That all changed on Saturday. Rossi had been faster on Friday afternoon after some physiotherapy and painkillers. He made a huge improvement on Saturday, and was immediately formidable. Fastest in FP3 on Saturday morning, within a few hundredths of the outright lap record. Second in FP4 on Saturday afternoon, with very strong pace. Then ending qualifying in second place, and looking like he could have had a decent shot at grabbing pole. It was an outstanding performance from the Italian.
"It was a difficult week starting from last Thursday," Rossi said. "Very tough. I did the crash in the training and sincerely until Tuesday I think that for me it was impossible to race. I was very, very sad. So, to be here when I arrive in Mugello Wednesday night when my condition coming better is like a gift to stay here. I have to give the maximum for make a good race and also or all the fans."
He was better on Saturday than on Friday, he said, and able to ride without pain. He still needed a lot of time to recover after racing, but that was only to be expected. But having found a solid setup, improving physically each day, and buoyed by the prospect of 100,000 fans covering the hillsides in a sea of yellow, Rossi found extra inspiration.
Yamahas setting the pace
Both Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow tipped Rossi as favorite for the race on Sunday. Márquez tipped the two Movistar Yamaha riders to be battling for the win, just as they were at Le Mans. Crutchlow believed it was Johann Zarco who had the real pace, with Rossi a close second. But Rossi starts from the front row, while Zarco found himself stranded three rows further back, in eleventh.
Zarco had missed out on passage to Q2 when he struggled on Saturday morning. He continued to work on race pace in FP3, but got caught short when he didn't put in a quick lap at the end to ensure a spot in the top ten. That meant he had to go through Q1, and the way he did that displayed real chutzpah and nerve. He waited in his garage for the first part of the session, then went out for the second half of Q1, and put in a set of blistering laps. He earned easy passage to Q2, along with Danilo Petrucci.
But the effort required to put in such a fast lap in Q1 cost him dearly in Q2. "When you give all your energy to do this lap time on your limit to crash in all corners, it’s difficult to give the same energy again on second qualifying," he said. When asked if waiting until the second half of Q1 had been a risky strategy, Zarco was clear. "I should have done exactly the same in Q2," he said. "Typical from human side that when you are on the limit, taking a lot of risks, then you are doing well. Q1, it was the decision to wait, see how they are and then push on the last moments. I think if I analyze, to be able to give the same energy late in Q2 it could be a solution."
Pole belonged to Maverick Viñales, however, the Spaniard taking his third pole in six races. The Movistar Yamaha rider is back to his old tricks, laying down a strong pace during FP3 and FP4, and confident enough to take pole comfortably on his last qualifying lap. His crash on Friday had left him nervous, and with strapped up forearms bruised from catching his fall. But slow improvement in FP3, then more in FP4 restore his confidence, and leaves him ready for whatever comes on Sunday.
How he holds himself if he finds himself battling with his teammate will likely prove decisive. He gave a foretaste of that in the press conference, when he was asked what it would be like to be fighting for Rossi in front such massive support for his teammate. Viñales carefully glossed over the question, answering with platitudes about strong rivals and how physical a track Mugello is.
Ducati's dark horses
The dark horses at Mugello are in the first place the Ducatis. Andrea Dovizioso took third, and the final spot on the front row of the grid, with another solid performance. The asset of the Desmosedici is the horsepower of the bike, putting them at the top of the speed charts some 10km/h faster than their main rivals.
All three factory Ducati riders could be a factor on Sunday. Dovizioso has shown his pace all weekend, as has test rider Michele Pirro. Jorge Lorenzo took an extra day to get up to speed, as has often been the case this year. But Lorenzo's pace was much better than his qualifying position looks. He was only a tenth or so off in terms of race pace, but when it came to qualifying, the Yamahas were capable of knocking a second off their times, where he could only manage half a second. The main aim, Lorenzo said, was to cut the deficit to the winner, more than worrying specifically about the podium.
Michele Pirro could cause a surprise or two on Sunday. As Ducati's official test rider, he has thousands of laps around Mugello, and so has a step on everyone else on the grid. Even so, to have someone this quick as a test rider makes a huge difference to Ducati. Lorenzo lavished praise on the Italian. "I’m really happy for him," Lorenzo replied when asked if he minded Pirro finishing ahead of him. "If I had some riders I would like to finish in front of me, this is Michele. I would prefer to finish in front of him, but Michele finishes in front of me, I’m OK with that and happy for him. He’s doing a great job for the team. He’s the best test rider with difference and also he’s a good guy to work with. Tomorrow, if he’s able to stay there and he can be consistent he can do a good race and he can be happy and this for sure will make his morale higher."
The importance of a good test rider cannot be overstated. While the KTM RC16 MotoGP bike is still a work in progress, everyone in the project is surprised at exactly how quickly the bike is advancing. Both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro make sure to mention every time just how important KTM test rider Mika Kallio is to the project, and what a difference he makes too.
Getting the wrong tow
Though the Yamahas and Ducatis look strongest, the Hondas are not too far behind. Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa start from sixth and fifth respectively, and Márquez could have been even further forward if he hadn't run into Johann Zarco on his final hot lap. Yet Márquez said the blame for that lay entirely with him, rather than with Zarco.
He was using the Frenchman as a target to aim for, and hoping to get a slipstream along the final straight, as the slipstream made a big difference to the final lap time. "It was my fault," Márquez said. "Johann was pushing all his lap. I tried to take him to have some reference in the slipstream on the straight because with Honda we feel a lot when we have some slipstream and we improve a lot the lap time. It was my fault because I start the lap too close to Johann and immediately at the third or fourth corner I was behind him. I didn’t make the best strategy."
What can we expect on Sunday? The two factory Yamahas giving it their all for victory. Three factory Ducatis using their blistering speed to more than make up what they are losing in the corners. Two Repsol Hondas trying to race smart and take advantage of the slipstream from faster bikes, then outdo them on the brakes. Cal Crutchlow reckoned there were probably seven riders all pretty close on race pace. It could be a great day of racing on Sunday. And if Valentino Rossi were to win, which seems all too possible, a great night of partying in Mugello afterwards. At Mugello, we do not sleep, the fans say. If Rossi wins, they won't be sleeping for a week afterwards either.
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