In a way, the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello may prove to be the very first post MotoGP round of the post-Rossi era. As a motorcycle racing venue, the Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello has everything going for it. The setting is stunning, nestling in a valley in the hills of Tuscany. The location is outstanding, a little more than an hour away from one of the greatest Renaissance cities in the world, stuffed to the gunnels with outstanding architecture and the finest art on the planet. The food is outstanding, as is the wine.
Then there's the race track. Together with Phillip Island, the last of the great motorcycling circuits where MotoGP bikes have the room to stretch their legs, yet where a rider can still make all the difference. The circuit rolls and flows around the valley, following the natural contours of the landscape.
It has a bit of everything: hard braking into Turn 1 after the fastest straight on the calendar, the approach on a crest where the bikes almost take flight. It has left-right and right-left combinations which offer opportunities to make a pass, but also lay yourself open to counterattack. It has high-speed kinks and fast uphill and downhill corners. And it has long, fast, flowing turns where carrying corner speed is crucial, and where the brave can truly make the difference.
No rest for the wickedly fast
The race also has a reputation for being raucous and loud. "Al Mugello, non si dorme", at Mugello, nobody sleeps. The atmosphere is wild, while still remaining festive and never descending into being grim. While you may end up with your belongings having mysteriously gone missing through a hole surreptitiously sliced into your tent, there is never the feeling that you might not survive the night.
As I said, it has everything going for it. But this race, in particular, was Valentino Rossi's home race. Misano may have been much closer to his home in Tavullia, Mugello is where his heart lay, his spiritual home. Traveling to Mugello was not visiting a race, it was making a pilgrimage to see Rossi race, and hope to see his genius delight the fans. On average, some 90,000 fans would turn up to worship in the Yellow Temple each year.
With this race so inextricably tied in with Valentino Rossi, the question is, how will it fare in 2022? So far, it is not looking positive. Expected attendance figures released by the Prefecture of Florence, the regional authority, are between 20,000 and 30,000. That is a massive hit for the Mugello circuit.
The economics of events
Why are the numbers down? The loss of Rossi is surely a factor. But ticket prices also play a major role here. One regular racegoer tweeted that the prices of tickets he had bought for Mugello, Barcelona, and Assen. Three-day passes in the grandstands at Barcelona and Assen were €90 and €170 respective. A two-day pass for the Materassi stand at Mugello was €240. General admission for MotoGP at Mugello is nearly double the price of the same ticket for F1 at Barcelona.
When circuits are asking more for MotoGP races than others are for F1, that looks like a failure of pricing. But it also illustrates the difficult balancing act which faces the circuits post Covid-19. Circuits lost a lot of money and burned through their financial reserves during the two years of being unable to stage major events. Now that some sense of normality has returned, they need to recoup their losses as quickly as possible. So they are trying to balance ticket price against attendance, to find the sweet spot which maximizes revenue and profit.
Le Mans charged €90 for a three-day ticket for the French Grand Prix. The same general admission ticket for Mugello is €150 on the circuit's website. Le Mans managed to draw a capacity crowd of 110,000 at those prices. Mugello can't even attract a quarter of that crowd. That suggests that Le Mans could have charged more and made even more money, while Mugello could have made more money by dropping the price.
Price definition is one of the most difficult parts of economic theory. Pricing tickets for events is even harder, given that each event is subject to a unique set of circumstances which shape the common experience of attending a race. The recent departure of a legend of the sport is just another of those factors which make it so hard to set an effective price. And so it looks like the hills and grandstands will be sparsely populated.
Which is a shame, because the track usually produces fantastic racing. Despite the fact that it produces the highest top speeds of the year, there are a lot of ways to go fast around the circuit. If you can carry corner speed, you can open a gap ahead of the straight. If you have top speed and acceleration, then you can use the straight to close the gap you lost through the corners.
So it should come as no surprise that Yamaha and Ducati have won eight of the last nine races held at the circuit. Yamaha riders have used the corner speed and acceleration of the M1 to win five editions, Ducati riders used the horsepower and acceleration to win three races. Only Marc Marquez spoiled the fun briefly in 2014, but it has been a Yamaha and Ducati dominance for most of the last decade.
It looks like being another Yamaha vs Ducati battle this weekend, though the chance of interlopers is high. Both Aprilia and Suzuki have made huge progress in the past year, and the combination of corner speed and horsepower both bikes have will give them the tools they need to take the fight to the favorites. And both teams have a lot at stake: after Suzuki's shock withdrawal from MotoGP three and a half weeks ago, Alex Rins and Joan Mir are keen to prove to the Hamamatsu factory how foolish their decision is. Things didn't go their way at Le Mans, both riders crashing out of the race, after a weekend full of distractions.
There is reason for optimism at Mugello, however. The Suzuki GSX-RR should be almost perfectly suited to the Mugello track. Suzuki seem to have found the exact balance of agility, horsepower, and corner speed which Mugello demands. And both Rins and Mir have shown pace here in the past. 2019 was just such an example, when Alex Rins stunned the Ducati riders by riding around the outside of them in places nobody had thought possible.
The other home heroes
Aprilia, too, have a chance to shine. Aleix Espargaro has been on the podium for the last three races, and sits second in the championship. After suffering through long years of development, Aprilia have finally built an RS-GP which will accelerate, brake, turn, and most crucially, stay in one piece to the end of the race. Espargaro has momentum on his side, and is clearly in a very good place mentally. The mistakes and frustrations are a thing of the past, and it would not be a surprise to see the Spaniard challenging for the win.
Which makes the enigma that is Maverick Viñales all the more confusing. After the first races of this year, Viñales seemed to find his way around the Aprilia RS-GP, and has been showing the speed to match the pace of his teammate. But Viñales continues to struggle with qualifying, with finding the extra half a second to get into Q2 and start from the front two rows. He also struggles with the starts and with overtaking, meaning his race is usually doomed even before he gets to the grid.
The big question at Mugello is whether Fabio Quartararo can stand his ground against the Ducati onslaught. The Frenchman leads the championship, showing that the Yamaha M1 is a competitive enough bike. But the fact that everyone else on the bike is struggling to get into the points makes plain just how special what Quartararo is doing. The bike can be made to go fast, but only if you are willing to take it to the limit, and accelerate on the edge of the tire in a very precise and specific way. So far, a trick that only Quartararo has been able to demonstrate.
The highest prize
The problem the reigning champion faces is that he is up against a veritable armada of Ducatis at Mugello. You could pick any one of five Ducati riders and make a strong case for them winning at Ducati's home grand prix. Pecco Bagnaia has been outstanding since Argentina, though an unforced error at Le Mans saw him throw away valuable points in the championship.
Bagnaia looked to be favorite at Mugello last year, but the moment of silence for Jason Dupasquier, who died after a crash during qualifying for Moto3, deeply upset the Italian, along with other riders, and caused him to lose his concentration and crash out while leading the race. But it was clear that the speed was there for the Italian.
Then there's Enea Bastianini. The most successful Ducati rider of 2022 has a double advantage for Mugello, in that he is also on last year's bike, a machine for which Ducati have a vast amount of data around the Tuscan track. Bastianini's MotoGP debut at the track was disastrous, the Italian crashing into the back of Johann Zarco at the end of the warm up lap, swapped bikes and then crashed on lap 1. He is a much more composed character in 2022, so a repeat of that is unlikely.
Johann Zarco finished fourth at Mugello last year, and best Ducati. Zarco is having a solid season, if not spectacular, but should be strong at the Italian track. Jack Miller has been quick around Mugello, but has also had an unfortunate tendency to end the race in the gravel. This year, Miller has been far more stable, and this could be his best chance of a result. He is also fighting for a spot inside Ducati, and a strong result at Mugello will be his best case for Ducati keeping him in Pramac, for example. Especially if Jorge Martin's run of poor form and back luck continues. We know how fast Martin can be, as two poles and two front row starts so far this year have demonstrated. But he needs to start converting that into results.
Of course, this all assumes that the weather is stable and we have a dry race. That is not looking to be the case at the moment, but the forecast, like so many races this year, is highly changeable. For the sake of the spectacle, we should hope for a dry race in sunny conditions. And for the sake of the circuit, and the crowds, as well.
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