Each MotoGP event has its own character. Ostensibly, most Grand Prix are the national races of a particular country. The Grand Prix of Great Britain. The Czech Grand Prix. The Grand Prix of The Americas. Most, however, are only the national Grand Prix by virtue of taking place in a particular country. A few, a very few, are much more than that. There are only really two races which fully embody the national character of the country which holds them though: the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, and of course, the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello.
This year, Mugello was rendered even more Italian by virtue of the fact that it started on the Festa della Repubblica, the day on which Italy celebrates its founding as a republic at the end of the Second World War. It was a moment for Italian teams and Italian riders to break out Tricolore-themed liveries and helmets. The Sky VR46 team added a tasteful green, white, and red pinstripe to their mainly black fairings. The Forward Racing team clad their bikes and riders in a particularly well-done green, white, and red fairing and leathers. Valentino Rossi added a homage to an Italian soccer legend which was only really comprehensible to those steeped in the Italian language and Italian sport.
The home crowds
The pressure on Italian riders to perform is immense. They lie awake at night imagining a thousand different ways to triumph, to win a race. They find extra motivation to train harder to prepare, to ride harder during practice, to race harder on Sunday. Valentino Rossi was a case in point: ten days ago, he was hospitalized with internal injuries after a motocross crash. He could barely conceive of even taking part in the race at Mugello, yet on Sunday, he started from the front row, with race pace in practice that gave him a genuine shot at the podium. And perhaps even more...
It's not just Italian riders. The Ducati grandstand fills with Ducatisti from around the world, many of whom have traveled the Passo della Futa, the glorious road which twists its way through the Tuscan hills from Ducati's factory in Bologna all the way to the circuit at Mugello, then on to Florence. It is the road where, legend has it, every Ducati road bike is tested to test it has the character which the Italian marque demands. Ducati fans come to Mugello hoping to celebrate a Ducati success.
To give themselves the best chance of living up to – or even exceeding – expectations, Ducati spent two days testing to prepare, including one day with factory riders Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo. They had no new parts to test, all they were doing was chasing a setup, something that would give them an advantage in front of their home crowds. Italy expects.
History in the making
At Mugello, Italy's expectations would be fulfilled. For the first time since 2014, when Romano Fenati won the Moto3 race, the Italian national anthem - Il Canto degli Italiani – rang out through the valley which cradles the track. It rang out not once, but three times, something which had not happened since 2008, when Simone Corsi, Marco Simoncelli, and Valentino Rossi won in 125s, 250s, and the MotoGP class respectively.
It got even better than that for Italy. Andrea Dovizioso became the first Italian rider to win a race on Italian soil on an Italian bike since Mattia Pasini on an Aprilia RSA 250 at Mugello in 2009. And he became the first Italian rider to win a race in the premier class in Italy on an Italian bike since Gianfranco Bonera at Imola, riding a 500cc MV Agusta. It was truly a historic day for Italy, in Italy.
Best of all was the fact that Mugello served up three utterly breathtaking races. The slipstream at Mugello meant that Moto3 turned into a mass brawl, with sixteen riders crossing the line to start the final lap within a second of each other. Andrea Migno turned out to be the smartest of the bunch, pushing hard on that final lap to make a break, taking only Fabio Di Giannantonio in his wake, but going hard enough to just edge home for the win.
Moto2 followed much the same path, this time with three riders battling it out for victory. In a stunning last lap, Tom Luthi passed Alex Márquez and Mattia Pasini into and through San Donato to take the lead, before Pasini passed first Márquez through Casanova and Savelli, then Luthi at Arrabbiata 1 in two of the finest moves you will see all season, then holding on to win again, his first since that day in 2009.
The people's favorite
And finally MotoGP. The premier class lived up to its name, bringing breathtaking early laps followed by a fierce and tense battle for victory in the latter stages. After Valentino Rossi faded from out of podium contention, as the aftermath of his motocross crash started to take its toll, the crowd swung behind the two Italians still left in the podium battle. In the end, Dovizioso prevailed, and Danilo Petrucci could not stay ahead of Maverick Viñales, but to cap a day of Italian success with a Ducati on the top step, ridden by an Italian, was everything the crowd could have asked for.
If the crowd were enthusiastic at the end of the race, they had far more mixed feelings at the start. Valentino Rossi fired into the lead on the first lap, but as the bikes came back around the circuit to fire down the front straight, Jorge Lorenzo used the rocketship power of the Desmosedici GP17 to blast into the lead. He couldn't quite hold on at San Donato, but as they climbed up through Luca and Poggio Secco, Lorenzo thrust his way rudely into the lead.
The crowd were uncertain whether to boo or cheer. Lorenzo is deeply unloved in this part of Italy: he has committed the unpardonable crime in the past of beating Valentino Rossi at Mugello on the same bike. But Lorenzo was riding a Ducati, and showing every sign of being able to bring the Italian factory their first win of 2017.
Not as fast as he looks
Looks proved to be deceiving. Lorenzo held on for another lap and a half, before Rossi put a decisive move on the Spaniard through Scarperia. The Ducati was pushed out wide, allowing both Rossi and his teammate Viñales to get past. From that point, Lorenzo gradually lost ground, eventually crossing the line in eighth.
Lorenzo was brutally honest about what happened in those early laps at Mugello. "I wasn't fast enough," he said. "I have more top speed and I was very brave, but I wasn’t fastest." His first flying laps were a 1'48.8 and a 1'48.6, where the others were quickly heading for the low 1'48s, and towards the high 1'47s. Lorenzo could not match the pace, and was dropped.
His problem, he explained later, was that he was still struggling to get the best from the bike. He was not using the strong point of the bike, failing to maximize the strength of the bike on corner entry and on the brakes, and trying to carry lean angle and corner speed, something which the Ducati simply did not want to do. The problem with the bike not wanting to turn needed to be fixed, Lorenzo said, but he also needed to fix his riding style, to brake later and deeper. Having learned to ride one way – carrying corner speed – for the past twenty years, it would take some time to adapt, Lorenzo said.
With Lorenzo gone, a three-way battle unfolded during the middle section of the race. Viñales led the way, while Dovizioso and Rossi sniped at each other behind the Spaniard, though there was really nothing to choose between the top three. Viñales seemed to have everything under control, but he was unable to withstand the onslaught of top speed the Ducati would unleash down the front straight.
On lap 14, Viñales' defenses failed. The Ducati came past along the front straight, then Dovizioso pushed a little harder to open a gap. Danilo Petrucci followed a lap later, and looked like he would chase Dovizioso down, but that proved illusory. Once his tires and his fitness went, Viñales was back, to take second from him, and then Rossi looked like he might think about taking the final podium spot from Petrucci.
"When I was fourth behind Maverick, Dovi and Valentino, I say, okay, you are fourth," Petrucci narrated in the press conference. "Wait the last lap. But after a moment I said, okay, it’s your home Grand Prix. Try. I try with Valentino. I pass him. Then after one lap I pass Maverick. But then I say, okay, there is left only one rider. Try with Dovi, but was not so easy. Was very, very close. Then for stay with him I finish my rear tire. I finish the breath, I finish my tire, I finish my head, and I say, manage to stay up."
Once Viñales got back past Petrucci with four laps to go, he started to believe he could still get the win. The Movistar Yamaha rider put in a supreme effort to cut the gap from 1.2 seconds to 0.8 seconds, but Dovizioso saw, and responded. On the penultimate lap, Dovizioso matched the pace of a rampaging Viñales, the Spaniard on a bike that was on the ragged edge of control. The Italian upped the pace once again, and Viñales couldn't follow, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, and that 20 points in the hand are worth more than risking a crash trying to salvage 25 points from the bush.
No question marks here
It was a remarkable win for Andrea Dovizioso. His third victory in MotoGP, but this one was by far the cleanest, and the most deserved. His previous wins, at Donington in 2009 and Sepang in 2016, were both taken in the wet. Victory at Mugello was taken in a dry race, and with no extenuating circumstances whatsoever. The weather was perfect for motorcycle racing, nobody crashed out, nor was anyone missing due to injury. This was Andrea Dovizioso simply riding faster than everyone else on the day.
Dovizioso's victory is just deserts for all the hard work Dovizioso has put into the project since joining in 2013. The Desmosedici has been developed very much based on the Italian's input, and he has remained patient while others have come and gone. After Dani Pedrosa, Dovizioso is probably the most underrated rider on the grid. Mugello 2017 showed exactly why.
It was also something of a comeback for Dovizioso. He had woken up at 4am in the morning vomiting and feeling terrible, having come down with some form of food poisoning. That had forced him to sit out the morning warm up, only rolling out to do a quick lap to check the bike over, then going out to do practice starts.
His pace had taken even him by surprise. "I was scared to lose the energy during the race," Dovizioso told the press conference. "But the reality was I was able to ride fast in a smooth way, that for me make a big difference during the race to stay behind Maverick. I understood his positive point and my positive point. Ten laps to the end I decide to overtake him but without a strategy. I saw, we are fourth. It’s better to be in front. We will see. But after I realize nobody have margin to be faster."
Saving his skin
For Viñales, Mugello was an exercise in damage limitation. He took home 20 points in the championship, after deciding that a sure 20 points beat the possibility of crashing out while chasing 25. His patience was rewarded: Viñales' lead in the championship grew from 17 points to 26, mainly because of what happened behind him. Dani Pedrosa, unable to get any kind of feeling in his tires, and struggling to gain control over the bike, crashed out of the race taking Cal Crutchlow with him.
That dropped Pedrosa from second in the championship to fifth, while race winner Dovizioso leapfrogged the rest to jump up into second. Viñales increased his gap over this teammate from 23 to 30 points, and his gap over Marc Márquez from 27 points to 37 points. Though Dovizioso's win made it four different winners in six MotoGP races this year, it is Viñales who is seeing luck run his way, and extending his championship lead.
If Andrea Dovizioso's win was a popular one, Danilo Petrucci's podium was just as big a hit with the crowds. Petrucci has shown his potential in the past, getting on the podium in the wet at Silverstone in 2015. But this podium meant more to him. "If anyone ask me what can you give for stay on the podium on Sunday? I say okay, I can sell my house for stay on the podium here," he said. He had crashed twice on Saturday, and had a lap time canceled during Q2 that would have put him on the front row. But he came through on Sunday, to triumph.
Petrucci's podium place meant Valentino Rossi had to settle for fourth. He was resigned, but content after the race. "For sure is a great shame for the podium, because it's always a more important target here at Mugello in front of all the crowd," Rossi said. "And sincerely, I believed I could do it, because in the practice I was quite fast. But inside of me, I knew that 23 laps would be difficult because I suffer more than normal, and during the practice, when you do four or five laps, you can recover, but all in a row is more difficult. Already eight laps to go I was finished, and I start to suffer more. And when you ride this bike and you are not at 100% in movement on the bike, everything becomes more difficult."
First you must finish
Alvaro Bautista crossed the line in fifth, delighted to get some points back on the board. After two DNFs in a row, both his own fault, his aim had been first just to finish the race. On Saturday, when we asked him about the fact that his pace looked good for the top five, Bautista replied that his objective was only to finish. So crossing the line in fifth, and holding off Marc Márquez in the attempt, gave the Spaniard a deep sense of satisfaction.
This fifth place was better than his fourth in Argentina, Bautista explained. He had inherited a couple of spots at Termas De Rio Hondo, he said, after both Márquez and Pedrosa had crashed out ahead of him. This result had been entirely earned.
That left Marc Márquez stuck in sixth place, and unable to do anything more. The problem was a familiar one: with a lack of acceleration and top speed, the Repsol Honda rider had been forced to rely on the exceptional braking ability of the RC213V. But the front tires which Michelin had brought to Mugello were not hard enough to support the massive loads the Honda places on them, and that had left Márquez struggling.
"When I was in the middle of the group I saw I was taking a lot of risks in the corners and two bikes overtook me on the straight at the same time," Márquez said. "It was difficult to manage that situation with the front tire. I went out with the medium because the right side was harder than the hard option; it was not mandatory but it was the only option I had. I was able to do twelve laps – more or less – on the hard and the tire was destroyed."
Cal Crutchlow was a little more vociferous in his complaint about the front Michelin. "It was always going to be difficult to beat the Ducatis here with the tire allocation," Crutchlow said. "The front tires were too soft for Dani. The hardest front tire was way too soft for Dani, so how are me and Marc feeling, and Jack? It was pointless to even turn up, especially when we have a last lap like that. We may as well have stayed at home because we were just chasing our tail all weekend with the front tire. I wonder when they'll start helping us as a manufacturer out because they seem to be helping everyone else out."
It is not entirely fair to allege some kind of conspiracy to allow the Ducatis to win at Mugello. It is true that the front tires do not suit the Hondas, but the issue is more that the Honda places extraordinary loads on the front tire, which none of the other manufacturers do. As a result, the tires Michelin brings are a happy medium between suiting the buttery smooth style of, say, Johann Zarco, and the harsh braking loads placed upon them by the Hondas. Michelin are building tires to suit the median, but the Honda is very much a 99th percentile bike when it comes to braking.
From Mugello, the circus packs up and heads to Barcelona, just a short week away. They arrive to something of an unknown, as the newly reconfigured chicane will have a major effect on the track. After three Italians taking the honors at their home Grand Prix at Mugello, would you bet against three Catalans doing the same at Montmelo?
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