"Mugello is a fantastic track," Valentino Rossi told the pre-event press conference at Mugello, a sentiment echoed by every single rider and just about everyone in the paddock. "When you ride the feeling is great." It really is a magical place, and a magical experience.
But it is not without its dangers, chief among them the brow of the hill the riders take at over 350 km/h just before they have to brake. "It's also an old style track," Rossi said "So in some points it's also dangerous because you are very fast, not a lot of space around and the braking for the first corner is at the limit. It's very good to ride, but if you arrive at 340 or 350 km/h, it starts to be dangerous because of the jump, the hill. So maybe we have to modify a little bit, but I think it's not very easy. Maybe we try to arrive at little bit slower. Or we try to cut a little bit the jump and make it a bit more flat, if it’s possible."
It is a constant topic in the Safety Commission, where the riders meet with FIM and Dorna officials to discuss how to make the racing safer and better. Marc Márquez explained that the end of the straight, where the track snakes right and left up a slight incline, until reaching the brow of the hill before plunging down towards San Donato, the first corner, was something under continuous discussion. The wall on the left is too close, the crest itself is dangerous, and speeds generally are very high at that point of the track.
The layout hasn't changed since the beginning, Rossi said. "The track remains the same. It's not easy, usually you have a lot of tracks with a long history but with more modifications. Mugello is Mugello from the 70s."
So slowly but surely, modifications will have to be made. "We already spoke about it in the Safety Commission," Márquez told the press conference. "Because it's a very nice circuit, one of the circuits that follows a natural layout and this is really nice to ride. But the only critical point is the end of the straight. We were thinking and already from 2013 to 2014, we change the wall, because I was very close there, and we were speaking about trying to make the uphill [to the crest on the straight] in a different way."
The problem, Márquez explained, is that the bikes are going so fast that they are becoming hard to control, and then just before you start to brake for the first corner, the track drops away. "Now you have the uphill, then you start the downhill at the point where we brake, and then the bikes are shaking there," Márquez said. "We were thinking and speaking about it, but we know that the bikes every year are faster and faster and for me in the future we need to do something there. We need to make that area more flat, because if it's more flat it will be safer, and the show will be the same."
Andrea Dovizioso agreed. "I think it's one really nice part of this track but we are on the limit," the factory Ducati rider said. "I mean, I think still it's OK, but we are really on the limit. But it also depends on the rules, the winglets change a lot in the way you have to handle it, and the reaction of the bike. That affects it a lot in that place, so that has a bigger effect than the track. But if the bikes are improving and improving, the speed will be higher, I think we are really, really on the limit."
Finding the limits
If the point of motorcycle racing – or any elite sport – is to seek continuous improvement, that brings with it severe limitations. In ten years, the pole record has been cut by 2 seconds, and the race lap record by 2.5 seconds (in actual fact, that change took just 5 years, Marc Márquez' race lap record from 2013 still unchallenged). Top speeds have increased from 342 km/h to 355 km/h, and those are just the official top speeds. Cal Crutchlow speculated that we might see the 360 km/h barrier broken officially this weekend, as the bikes keep getting faster.
How fast will we be going in another ten years, when the riders line up in 2029? Will top speeds be topping 370 km/h? If Brembo's brakes improve, if chassis design gets better, if aero packages become ever more finely tuned, how fast will the riders being going over the crest? And where will they be braking? The trouble with pushing the limits is that sometimes you find them, and you don't like what you find when you get there.
Stickier tires for Honda?
Back to 2019, and how the championship might shake out. This is a key race for the Hondas, especially given Marc Márquez' slightly worrying record here. One win, one second place, a sixth, and three crashes. Put another way, Márquez' chances of finishing a race at Mugello are equivalent to a coin toss.
The problem has always been that the Honda riders have had to push the front end to be competitive. And that has required them to use the hardest compound of front tire, to withstand the stresses of braking. But the hardest compound has the least grip, and the combination of less grip and more stress does not always have a happy ending.
Takaaki Nakagami, facing tackling Mugello on a 2018-spec Honda RC213V, had looked at what happened in 2018. "I understand that last year, the Hondas had no choice, they had to go directly to the hard option. But it was too soft, and everybody struggled with braking stability." The lower than usual temperatures predicted might be the saving of him, the LCR Honda rider said. "For us, cooler temperatures are maybe better, for the front tire. But I don't know. Sunday is going to be a little warmer than these two days, so I don't know. We have to really take care of the front tire."
The good news for Honda is that Michelin are using the newer compound on the hard front tire, which has the stability of the old hard front, but a little bit more grip. That may keep them from washing out the front at the many fast, sweeping, downhill sections.
Managing tires to keep them in their optimum range is a tricky business. Fabio Quartararo explained that his poor start at his home race in Le Mans was probably down to him letting the tires cool down too much on the warm up lap. "I think my warm up lap was too slow, and I didn't warm up my rear and front tires so well," the Frenchman said. "So I made a bad start, no grip in the first part of the start, and in the first corner I was catching Maverick a lot, I put too much brake, I lost the front, and I lost too many positions."
Tire temperature may also be at the heart of Suzuki's qualifying problems. Though the data was hard to decipher, Joan Mir said he suspected that it may be an inability to warm the tires properly during qualifying that prevented them from extracting maximum performance from the tires.
"We are trying to find a solution for the qualifying, because sometimes I am able to be fast, but we don't know why. And then another time I'm not able to push. So it's a bit strange," Mir told us. "We have to see, but it looks like it could be the front tire that is not warm enough sometimes, and that's why also the problems that I had in Le Mans were more critical for this, because it was colder."
What does that mean for Mugello? With cooler temperatures predicted on Saturday, both Joan Mir and Alex Rins could face a tricky qualifying. Which would be a shame, because the Suzuki should suit Mugello perfectly, able to turn well, and with enough acceleration in the higher gears that they can be fast enough to at least stick with the Hondas and Ducatis down the front straight.
At Aprilia, things are not going as well as might be hoped. After Le Mans, Andrea Iannone expressed some criticism of Aleix Espargaro's working methods, saying that he hadn't been able to develop the bike in his three seasons at the Italian factory. But Iannone told Espargaro that his quotes had been taken out of context, Espargaro told the press.
"I read something that I was not working in the right direction to improve the bike," Aleix Espargaro said on Thursday. "You know, I didn’t really understand because we really have normal relations. I didn’t understand why he said that. He said to me at lunchtime today, ‘It’s bull****, I never said that, I’m really sorry, somebody invented it.’ I said, ‘OK, I don’t really care, no problem.’ I give my best. I always give the best info to the engineers and this is the maximum I can do. The problems we are both having are the same; we are struggling to stop the bike in the first part and a lot of problems in the acceleration phase. There is no grip at all. The only difference is I am a lot more fast."
The problem, Espargaro said, was that Aprilia was simply not reacting fast enough. "I try to be positive. But as soon as possible… Everyone is improving a lot. My brother had a test at Jerez [with KTM]. Everybody tested on Monday and then KTM tested again new things on Wednesday. They tested also at Le Mans and we saw the super race my brother did at Le Mans."
Compared to KTM, Aprilia were not bringing anything new, according to Aleix Espargaro. "We are not reacting. We have nothing new. This bike is the ’17 bike version 2. We are back and far from our rivals. I said many times this season I don’t know how to go faster. I have no idea, I cannot. As soon as they can bring new things it will be more than welcome."
His hope, Espargaro said, was the fact that more of Aprilia's engineers who would be at the track would get a chance to get more direct feedback. "We have some engineers that normally don’t travel; they just work in Noale. They can listen to us here because Noale is close. I think it could be interesting because they have a lot of reports, a lot of info, of my feelings. But to be at track, to see me and take the scooter around the track to see how the bike reacts is always interesting."
Aprilia's problem is it seems to be stuck in a vicious circle. A modest budget means making progress is difficult, and riders start complaining. Complaining riders sour the atmosphere, and that doesn't help motivate engineers. And a sour atmosphere and a lesser performing bike doesn't make it easy to attract the very highest level riders to the project.
But Aleix Espargaro had some hope that the arrival of new Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola would start to pay off soon. "I have to say that I’m really happy with the arrival of Massimo," he said. "It was something we were missing. He’s doing a really great job. But he’s not a magician. Every time I ask him and I push him the answer is the same: ‘I need more time. It’s difficult for you to still be positive because it’s been three years like this, but for me it’s five months. It’s more time.’ I try to be more positive and give more time to him." At some point, though, patience will run out, on all sides.
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