And so the rookies conquered Mugello. After a motley crew topped the timesheets in the morning – Marc Márquez taking top spot, ahead of the Ducatis of Danilo Petrucci and Michele Pirro (Ducati's test rider, who is rapidly closing on a light year or so of laps around Mugello, and is immediately up to speed), followed by Fabio Quartararo, Aleix Espargaro, and Jack Miller – the rookies shone in the afternoon. Pecco Bagnaia sat atop the timesheets after FP2, fractionally ahead (0.046 seconds, ironically) of Fabio Quartararo, with Danilo Petrucci taking third, the first of the veterans to cross the line.
For Quartararo to head the timesheets is not much of a surprise. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider has consistently been fast, already having a pole and a fastest race lap to his name. But Bagnaia's name was something of a surprise. The Italian had been heavily tipped before the start of the season, but once racing got underway, he had slowly slipped back into obscurity. That is part of the learning process, figuring out what you need from the bike at each track, learning from your crew how to get the best out of your package, understanding how the bike behaves in a variety of conditions.
Bagnaia and his Pramac Ducati team had made a big step forward at Le Mans, the Italian said. And the lessons learned had been a big help at Mugello. "The nice thing was that I did not push so much," the Italian said on Friday afternoon. "The time came easier compared to other races and I’m really happy about that. I think the key was the work we made in Le Mans. Now we have something I wanted in the front and I think it will be easier to start in every circuit."
Home crowd help
The location helped too. Being in Italy, on a Ducati, at Mugello, as a VR46 Academy rider, it meant he had enormous support from the crowd. "The power and the energy of the people here push us a lot," Bagnaia said. "It is very nice to ride here. It is an amazing track, very fast and I really like it – more with the MotoGP – but we have to continue working in this direction for tomorrow. I think we are very close to finding my base to be constant in every session."
It is less of a surprise for Fabio Quartararo to be at the front, though the Frenchman was blown away by the sensation of speed at Mugello. The front straight at Mugello is fast on any bike: last year, the Moto2 machines were hitting over 290 km/h; on Friday afternoon, Nicolo Bulega hit 300.6 km/h on his Triumph-powered Kalex Moto2 machine, "a 100 km/h per cylinder" being the phrase bandied about among the Triumph staff at the track.
On Friday afternoon, Quartararo hit 337 km/h, quite a shock to the system. "Incredible!" he smiled. "This morning, the first lap on corner one was amazing. It is the first time I feel this on a MotoGP motorcycle. The feeling in the stomach and everything was crazy!"
Being at the front previously had given Quartararo a little more perspective on the whole situation. "I think everybody was with the soft tire, if I am not wrong, and the times were good," he explained. "We still need to see which part of the bike to improve and which part of the track there are still margins but I am happy about today because the lap time was fast and our pace is not so bad also."
Viva la revolucion?
Is this a revolution in the making, a new wave of talent crashing down upon the grid, ready to sweep the old order away? Fabio Quartararo once again tried to restore some perspective. "I think Pecco has done some laps here in Mugello with the VR46 Academy so, yes, I think this track is more smooth and the riding style does not change so much from Moto2."
Andrea Dovizioso explained why rookies like Bagnaia and Quartararo found it easy to be fast at Mugello. "For sure they have a big talent," the factory Ducati rider pointed out. "But I think it’s clear the reason why they’re fast here. You have to be smooth and fast in the middle of the corners; you don’t have to cut the middle of the corners like every MotoGP rider. For them it’s easier to go in that way. Maybe that’s reason why at some other tracks they weren’t fast like us. So this is the biggest reason. But for sure they don’t have a lot of experience so race-by-race they become stronger and stronger."
Dovizioso's point, which Quartararo endorsed, was that the riding style needed to go fast at Mugello is very similar to the style needed to succeed in Moto2. With relatively limited horsepower and acceleration, the key to going fast on a Moto2 machine is to brake early, release the brakes, and carry as much corner speed as possible, before accelerating on the edge of the tire. A MotoGP bike needs a different approach: braking late and deep into the corner, getting the bike stopped and turned, before getting the bike up on the fat part of the tire as quickly as possible so you can use the acceleration and horsepower of the 1000cc engine.
But at Mugello, with its long sweeping corners, the key to success is carrying corner speed and easing on the gas with the bike still at full lean. That is a far more natural style for a Moto2 rider, meaning they have much less to unlearn, and can rely on the instincts developed in the intermediate class.
This is also, perhaps, why Quartararo has made such an impact in MotoGP, much like Johann Zarco did when he first moved up to MotoGP back in 2017. The natural style of the Yamaha M1 is to carry corner speed and use the combination of agility and stability to good advantage. The Yamaha rewards braking early and releasing the brakes, and holding speed throughout the corner. It is, indeed, part of the issue the M1 has had since the switch to Michelin tires, as the Yamaha spends more time on the edge of the tire than most other bikes, using up edge grip more quickly.
But as Dovizioso said, "For sure they have a big talent." Riding a Yamaha may have made Fabio Quartararo's transition easier, but the Frenchman still finished ahead of Maverick Viñales (3 years in MotoGP, 5 victories), Franco Morbidelli (2 years in MotoGP), and Valentino Rossi (20 years in MotoGP, 89 victories). None of the other riders on a Yamaha went into the first day of practice at Mugello thinking they would give Quartararo an easy ride because he is a rookie. Everyone is flat out, pushing as hard as possible. Yet they all still finished behind the rookie Quartararo, who in turn finished behind the rookie Pecco Bagnaia.
Of course, it is only Friday, and there is still a lot of practice left to be done. Marc Márquez' position on the timesheets may only be a modest sixth place, but that belies the Spaniard's pace. The Repsol Honda rider set his fastest time on a soft rear tire, but it was at the start of a race run, rather than chasing a fast lap. The rest of the field, all the way down to Michele Pirro in thirteenth, had used a fresh set of tires in pursuit of a spot in Q2.
Márquez' choice was down to two factors. The main one being that he was still rather ill, having picked up the 'flu before the start of the weekend. "Today, we need to consider that we were not 100% with the setup, but I was also not at 100%," Márquez said. "I was riding in a strange way. I wasn't concentrated 100%, because I was sick, and it was difficult to understand everything."
Posting a quick lap while sick was not that difficult, as instinct takes over. The problem, Márquez explained, is that you quickly lose concentration. "When your physical condition is not 100% on the bike, especially when you have fever, you are able to be fast, because you have this instinct," he explained. "But the way to understand the bike, the way to concentrate, they way to be constant, is difficult. I'm a rider who can do all the laps at 100%, but today I just did some laps at 100%, then I slowed down to 80%, because I felt like my reactions and everything was slower than normal. Then it becomes dangerous, so experience says to slow down a little bit, it's only Friday, and tomorrow we will try to push in a different way, and it looks like the good thing is it's getting better already. Yesterday was the worst day, and today it was getting better, but it needs time."
Mugello has always been a difficult track for the Hondas, the bikes suffering with the front end. Last year, the tires Michelin brought did the Hondas no favors, suiting the other bikes far better. This year, though, neither Cal Crutchlow nor Marc Márquez felt there was any reason to complain.
"This year, the front tire allocation is better," Márquez said. "Michelin needs to cover everything, but in for me, my personal opinion, I would like another, harder tire in the front. But they brought this new tire, they call it 'S', that's not bad, it's not bad. But it's a little bit on the soft side. With the medium, we don't have graining, we had a lot of graining on the medium last year, and then it becomes dangerous. This year we don't have graining. It's softer, but like I said in Le Mans, we can also manage in a different way. Today we were able to manage, so tomorrow we will try to help this kind of tires with the setup."
The bikes which Márquez has to beat are the Ducatis, of course. Danilo Petrucci was fast throughout the day, but like Márquez, is suffering with the 'flu, so to finish top three in both practices was a bonus. Andrea Dovizioso missed out on Q2, though he has another chance on Saturday morning. Dovizioso is missing feeling from the front tire, he said, which meant he was less than happy.
"The lap time is faster than last year, but for everybody unfortunately," Dovizioso said. "Like we expected the competitors are a bit stronger than last year. We are quite fast and better than what the classification shows. I don’t have the feeling I want. So the situation is not bad but I’m not happy. The base is not how I want. I cannot ride like I want. We have to improve. We tried a different set-up in the afternoon and it was a big step. We found some positive things but the package is still not good enough. We have to find something and we have to see tomorrow morning if we can mix some of the things from the two set-ups. I’m struggling with the bike and not riding in the way I want. Not too bad, but we have the hardest practice tomorrow morning, then the race to be in the top ten."
Dovizioso is still looking for a better feeling on the front, he said, as well as some stability in changes of direction."Still I don’t have the perfect feeling on the front. This morning the conditions were quite bad compared to the afternoon. In the afternoon I felt better. But still the change of the direction, I’m not good at all. The connection with the rear when I enter the corners is not stable enough. I’m struggling but like I say, the lap time at the beginning was good. If we compare the pace we are there. But I am focused on my feeling more than the lap time."
Paolo Ciabatti had promised that Ducati would bring something to Mugello to help the riders on the Desmosedici GP19s to hold off the challenge of Márquez. And so a crowd gathered outside test rider Michele Pirro's garage on Friday morning, to see what Gigi Dall'Igna had cooked up. What he came up with was this, wheel covers over the rear wheel:
What do these rear wheel covers do? They bear more than a passing resemblance to the front wheel covers, and almost certainly play a similar role. The front wheel covers smooth the air from the front of the bike, removing the turbulence created by the spokes spinning in the wheel. That smoother air sticks to the lower fairing, and helps feed the swingarm spoiler, which does whatever it does. The addition of these wheel covers reduces turbulence at the rear as well as the front, taking the air off the lower fairing and moving it past the bike with as little disturbance as possible.
The idea is to reduce drag, and thereby increase to speed. That they brought this update to Mugello, with its 350 km/h straight (a feature of the next race in Barcelona as well) is hardly surprising. The aerodynamic benefits increase with the square of the speed, and so small gains are amplified at the very high speeds the bikes are doing. And Ducati is taking aerodynamics very seriously, as witnessed by the special exhibition at the Ducati Museum on the subject.
Test rider Michele Pirro was the only rider to try them on Friday, and was coy when asked about them, speaking only of the difficulty in discerning details. Andrea Dovizioso said there was no plan for him to try them on Saturday, but that is something we have heard before. We will see if they make an appearance on another bike – Jack Miller, perhaps, or else Danilo Petrucci – and whether Dovizioso gives them a whirl on Sunday morning.
Whether they work or not, Gigi Dall'Igna has once again given his rivals something to think about. MotoGP never sleeps. Especially not at Mugello.
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