Mugello is many things: majestic, magical, magnificent. Beautifully set, with a natural flow unmatched almost anywhere else. It was made to host the fastest, most powerful motorcycles in the world, giving them room to stretch their legs and challenging the rider's skill and bravery, and the bike's handling, horsepower, and braking.
Unfortunately, this challenge is what makes Mugello so dangerous. During the afternoon session, Andrea Dovizioso hit 356 km/h on the Ducati Desmosedici GP18. Shortly after, his engine spewed a huge cloud of smoke at the end of the straight, causing the red flag to come out. A little while previously, the session had also been red flagged, after a huge, vicious crash by Michele Pirro just over the crest at the end of the straight, the fastest and most dangerous part of the track.
It made for some harrowing moments at Mugello. The track fell silent, a pall descending on pit lane as the teams feared the worst. Having learned their lesson at previous tragedies, Dorna were not showing either the crash or the rider on the ground. The mood only lifted when word reached us that Pirro was conscious, and moving his arms and legs. MotoGP dodged a bullet on Friday. But there are still rounds in the chamber.
What happened? Though Ducati were open about both the engine failure of Dovizioso and the crash of Pirro, they would not point to a cause until they had had a chance to study the data. The footage released by Dorna of Pirro's crash showed him locking the front after the crest before San Donato, and being flung high into the air. He came down with so much force he was knocked unconscious, which probably saved him from even more severe injury, as ragdolled down the tarmac and into the gravel.
A relieved Paolo Ciabatti told us afterwards that Pirro had come away remarkably unscathed from such a big crash. "Michele is luckily doing better than we expected after his horrific crash," the Ducati boss said. "I just spoke to Dr. Charte who is in contact with the doctors at the hospital Carreggi in Florence, and Davide Tardozzi is there as well. So the situation is that there is no neurological damage, nor spinal damage. He has a huge concussion and a lot of pain on the chest and on the lower part of the body. So the doctors will keep him there for a few more hours if not for the night, and I think most probably they will declare him unfit for the race."
Ciabatti described the sense of relief felt after a terrifying crash. "We are quite relieved after seeing the red flag, the images of the accident, the ambulances, the medical car with the doctor obviously, and he was unconscious laying face down in the gravel when they arrived there, so they were obviously quite scared. He had a dislocated shoulder, so when they put it back, it was so painful for him that he woke up! And luckily from there, the situation looked slightly better. And as I said, luckily it is not as bad as we could unfortunately expect."
Danilo Petrucci, who has known Pirro since they were in Superstock together, and were colleagues in the Italian Fiamme Oro police sports group last year, was upset by Pirro's crash. "I know him very, very well," Petrucci said. "He's one of my best friends here. He's always one of the first to congratulate me after a good race." Petrucci described in some detail what he saw. "I think the pads went wide. He tried to brake, but at the first touch, the pads come closer, then maybe he gets scared and tried to pull the brakes." That had caused the front to lock up.
The problem had probably started earlier, over the complicated crest at the end of the straight. "There is a crest, but on the top of the crest there is a bump, so it's like a double bump," Petrucci explained. "This means that the bike starts to wheelie, and then hits the bump, and the rear tire goes up for just a few seconds, and we are already on the limiter. And then the bike is very, very unstable. First of all, we go at 350 km/h with one wheel, and then there is the wall very, very close."
The fact that speeds were so high was what made it so terrifying, Petrucci said. "In that point, you hit the brake, and you have to brake very, very hard to stop the bike, and you don't have so much time to understand what has happened. Because you go the maximum speed of the championship there, so it's quite crazy. I think we have to talk in the safety commission, but when we are in a group on the first lap, it's very, very dangerous. Like Dovizioso last year, just for half a meter, he goes wide."
Nothing to fear but fear itself
It is a part of the track that terrifies even experienced MotoGP riders. "Every time you make that part of the track, I'm scared," Andrea Dovizioso said. "Every time. Because the power is more and everything becomes always more and more, and the jump there is - not dangerous, but on the limit. Every time I do over the bump, if you have the winglets or not, it makes a big difference. So everybody rides without it, and that's worse. But most of the riders have, so for them maybe it's not a problem." The wings made the bike more stable, but they also took around 10km/h off the top speed, a big disadvantage at Mugello.
Dovizioso also explained how that bump had become more difficult for him with the GP18. Last year's bike was a bit more stable, but the added agility of the GP18 had taken some of that stability away. The first time he had ridden the crest at the Mugello test a few weeks ago, Dovizioso had been terrified by the movement of the bike. He has been forced to change his line a little through there, to keep the bike slightly more upright when he started braking. Because at 350km/h, the small kink in that part of the straight because the world's fastest chicane, needing the bike to be leaned over significantly to cope with it.
Valentino Rossi expanded on the danger of that point in the track. "The braking for San Donato is a dangerous point because you go over the crest and you go very fast," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "You have always in that moment the bike doesn’t touch the ground. I think that the crash of Pirro is because on the bump which moved the front and he arrives at the braking without the brake because the pads open. It was scary because you go very fast so you have the feeling you are not able to brake, so you brake more, and after the power arrives and you lose control of the bike, I think, but I just saw it on the telephone. That’s my feeling. It is something that can happen especially when you go fast it can always be very dangerous. At this part you also have the hill, so it is dangerous."
Brembo has a system to prevent such incidents, which pushes the pads back into place if they get pushed apart when a bike shakes its head. Rossi knew about the system, but had not tried it enough to have a clear opinion of it. "Somebody said to me about this system but sincerely I don’t know if it helps," he said. "I think so, I hope so, but I don’t know why Pirro didn’t have it. I don’t know. In the last period this problem has happened fewer times so maybe Brembo has worked on it and it is okay."
The danger and the spectacle
Cal Crutchlow expressed his love-hate relationship with that point of the track. "You hold your breath going over it," Crutchlow said. "I don't really like it. It is a fantastic spectacle and a fantastic thing to say you do 350km/h, but not nice when you have to stop."
The bikes were getting faster for a number of reasons, despite the engine limitations, the restrictions on development, and the introduction of spec electronics, Crutchlow said. Exit speeds were higher, which meant the bikes are carrying more speed when they get to the end of the straight. "We are getting faster and faster for no reason," the LCR Honda rider explained. "At the end of this straight and with this jump, with our bikes - you know I am a massive fan of the TT so I will not complain we are riding fast on a dangerous jump because it is not. But I think with our bikes, our tires and how stiff they are and how absolutely on the limit we are…we will obviously speak about it. I was at the TT as a fan every year. This week we lost a guy I knew, Dan Kneen, and we are all very sad about that but we want to watch the TT go on and we cannot really complain about the jump at the end of this straight."
Having it in hand
In the end, the riders have the solution to the danger at the end of the straight in their own hands, Marc Márquez told the media. He backed off through that section, he said, preferring to lose a tenth of a second each lap than push and risk a huge crash that could put you out of action for several weeks, thereby missing out on races. "It is a fast point," Márquez said. "I crashed there in 2013 and I was very lucky. It is one of most difficult points of the championship. You are scared there sometimes but the rider puts the level of risk in the situation because if you close the gas then the bike is shaking less. Of course we were worried about Michele because we know how fast we go there."
"Yeah, I try to manage the risk," the Repsol Honda rider went on. "Of course during a fast lap and when I want to push then I keep it ‘full’ but during all weekend I play with the gas because it is safer. It means maybe losing one tenth a lap but you know that if you crash at that point you can lose two races. So I play a little bit." Of course, it is easier to back off at that point of the track when you are confident of making it up in the rest of the circuit, or even sacrificing points at Mugello in the certain knowledge you can extend a championship lead at Barcelona.
The second red flag occurred when Andrea Dovizioso's Ducati started pouring out smoke at the end of the straight. It was reminiscent of 2016, when Jorge Lorenzo blew an engine during warm up, then Valentino Rossi lost an engine in the race. That had been caused by the engine overrevving as the wheels lost contact with the ground over the bumps at the end of the straight, the electronics not able to react quickly enough to cut the power at that point in time.
But Ducati boss Paolo Ciabatti denied that this was a problem for the Desmosedici. "We have done it there a thousand times without problems, so I think we must look at the real reason, I don't think it's due to that small or huge bump which makes the bike lift a little bit from the asphalt." Nor was mileage on the engine an issue, according to Ciabatti. "I know that we were using here in principle the same engine from Le Mans, but I don't think that the engine had so much mileage that it would have a technical problem, but I don't know if it was a breakdown in the engine or some hoses or anything."
Danilo Petrucci, however, was far less certain. He had almost suffered the same fate at the same spot. "I got more or less the same problem with one bike but I was able to save the engine, because I was just lucky to close the throttle a little bit before and my engine goes into protection mode," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "But the problem is that in that point, where we keep the maximum speed, even the rear tire is not touching the ground, and then the revs go up two, three, four, five times."
With Pirro's crash and Dovizioso's engine blowing up, that crest at the end of the straight was certain to be a subject at Friday's Safety Commission. Whether that would actually help or not is a different matter. Cal Crutchlow was skeptical. "We did that before remember?" Crutchlow said. "They resurfaced it and it came back. It’s the heat. Sat in the valley it can be 50 degrees here in the summer then you ride on it and it’s like a jump."
No time to work
The two red flags made for a disrupted session of practice. That had left Andrea Dovizioso frustrated, but he expressed quite clearly how hard it had made things for everyone in MotoGP. "It's really bad for us today, because we didn't work," Dovizioso said. "We couldn't work. We had a problem with the engine, but apart from that, when we changed the bike, the tire we put on didn't work. For sure there was a problem. But it's very bad, because nobody has a lot of time to work on that, and if you lose two sessions – because this morning, the conditions were strange for everybody – and in this afternoon, we couldn't work."
The low grip at the track had made things complicated for the Ducatis, Danilo Petrucci had said. "It is not like last year, maybe last year we got something more," he explained. "This year we struggle a little bit with the tire. We started with a setting very similar to Le Mans, but we are just a little bit too slow, because I think the tires are harder than we expected, or maybe the asphalt is getting worse year by year, and we struggle a lot in Ducati when there is not so much traction on the asphalt. We understood this when the Hondas started to use the soft tire, and even the Suzuki, because usually they use always the hard or medium tire and this time they have been very fast with the soft, so it means we have been able to work for try to be as fast as them."
But Petrucci had not given up hope. "Anyway, in Le Mans we only found the setting in FP4. So we have still some time for sure in FP3, it's like a qualification. We have to check very well the data, because the bike of last year was very different to ride, we saw Jack very fast. So we have to understand why and we try to fix our problem."
What was the main problem? "It's like the bike is too rigid, and we are not making the suspension work, so immediately when we go into the corner, both front and rear tires start to slide, and the bike is very, very unstable when we release the brake. So we have to let the bike work a little bit more, because now we are only letting the tire work, and this makes us slide a lot."
Previously, the Yamahas had struggled with a lack of grip, but there was progress being made there also. A very satisfied Maverick Viñales was happy that the changes made at Barcelona were working at Mugello, including in the heat of the afternoon. The setup of the bike had changed, the Movistar Yamaha rider explained. "The basic setup is totally different. I mean, the bike is a little bit shorter and I felt better."
"We make the tires work in a different way and it’s better for me," Viñales told the media. "I’m quite light so the bike needs to go differently to Valentino and Johann, whose weight is more than mine. Actually today I felt really good. There are still some problems that we can improve but it’s much better than the other races with the confidence and the work we are doing the between the morning and the afternoon."
Surprisingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly – it was Andrea Iannone who had been fastest overall. The Italian was clearly on a mission after having lost his place in Suzuki. At first glance, it looked like Iannone was only quick over a single lap, but the Italian's race pace had looked pretty strong too. Of course, this is not the first time this has happened. In 2016, after being told that he would lose his seat at the factory Ducati team to make way for Jorge Lorenzo, he finished fastest on the first day, and ended the race weekend on the podium. It is remarkable what the motivation of needing a new contract can do to a rider. Iannone's raw talent and pure speed are suddenly back again. It should be fun to watch.
Gathering the background information for detailed articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.