Mugello is a spectacular setting. Even when it absolutely pours down, so badly that a river starts running through the Mugello paddock, the setting remains spectacular. It makes navigating the paddock without a life vest fairly treacherous, but at least the view is stunning. The rain looks set to stay for the duration, though the forecast appears to be improving day by day, but the riders need not fear a lack of wet track time.
As always, the riders waxed eloquent on the circuit, almost universal in their praise. Most entertaining simile of the day was from Bradley Smith, who compared Mugello to a motocross track: all undulating surfaces, blind crests and banked corners. He is right, of course, but it is not the first comparison that springs to mind when describing a track as physically large and magnificent as Mugello.
Former Moto2 rival Marc Marquez was the lone dissenting voice in the litany of praise heaped upon the iconic Italian circuit. Did he enjoy the circuit? "If you have a good set up, you enjoy it a lot," Marquez told the media. "But when you are struggling a lot, it is so difficult." The problem is that there are so many changes of direction, and so many fast, flowing corners that lead into one another, that if you have a problem in one corner, then you probably have the same problem in most of the corners around the track. "It's difficult, and you have to stay so concentrated," Marquez added, then joked that of course, if he won here, it would naturally be one of his favorite tracks.
2013 Mugello MotoGP Preview: Of Yamaha's Travails, Rossi's Hopes, Ducati's Dreams And Honda's Domination
Mugello is arguably MotoGP's crowning glory. The location is stunning, in the verdant hills of Tuscany, a few miles north of Florence, one of the most beautiful ancient cities in the world. The track itself is gorgeous, and beautifully laid out, rolling round the valley in which the circuit is set. It is one of the few tracks left at which a MotoGP bike can fully stretch its legs, even a 260+ horsepower fire-breathing 1000cc Honda RC213V. At the end of the front straight, as riders drift right then left for the slight kink of the pit lane exit just before the track drops off for the spectacular first corner at San Donato, the bikes approach the magical barrier of 350 km/h. An obstacle that has not yet been cleared, but one which must surely fall in the near future. A lap of the circuit passes in under 1'48, an average of 175 km/h, or nearly 110 mph. It is verily a temple of speed.
It may seem odd, then, that the fastest bike does not necessarily win at the circuit. Of the past ten editions of the race, seven have been won by Yamahas, a bike which has never been the fastest in a straight line. While speed is not the secret to the circuit, a glance at the list of winners over the years reveals exactly what is: Valentino Rossi has won seven times at the circuit in the premier class (as well as twice more in the support classes), Mick Doohan won here six times, Jorge Lorenzo won twice, and the list of one-time winners includes Dani Pedrosa, Kevin Schwantz, Loris Capirossi and Casey Stoner. To win at Mugello is simple: it is merely a matter of being one of the very best riders in the world.
With the recent leaked news of Suzuki's MotoGP test and Honda's press release discussing the test of their new Production Racer MotoGP machine, the first speculation of silly season is starting to appear. With so many seats already tied up - all four Honda seats, three Yamaha seats and one seat at Ducati - speculation is limited, though the imminent return of Suzuki to the fold opens up more seats for consideration.
One name is on everyone's lips, however. Cal Crutchlow is the current hot ticket in MotoGP, and rightly so. The best of the riders available, and the only rider so far to get anywhere near the current four MotoGP aliens, with a podium at Le Mans to go with two fifth places and a fourth. If there is one rider looking capable of breaking the hegemony on wins currently held by the front four, it is surely Cal Crutchlow. So where will Crutchlow be riding in 2014?
Jorge Lorenzo's disappointing performance at the French Grand Prix at Le Mans has been the cause of some debate. The factory Yamaha man finished a lowly seventh, his worst finish (other than DNFs) since his rookie season in 2008, and finishing off the podium for the first time since Indianapolis in 2011. To say this was an uncharacteristic performance from Lorenzo is something of an understatement.
So what went wrong? Immediately after the race, Lorenzo made it clear that he believed the problem was with his rear tire. He had had no grip whatsoever, and been unable to get any drive from his rear tire. He told the press afterwards that the only logical explanation he could think of for his problems was a defective rear tire. Lorenzo had been fast in the morning warm up, though it was a little drier then, and the set up used was very similar to then. In 2012, Lorenzo had won at Le Mans by a huge margin, so he could not understand why he was struggling so badly in France.
2013 Le Mans MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Of Titles, Shot Tires, Fast Students, And A Spaniard-Free Podium
Defending titles is not easy. In the last twenty years, only Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi have managed to win successive championships, despite both Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner winning twice. Why is it so hard? A lot of reasons. Nothing motivates a rider, a team or a factory like losing. Winning a championship requires a lot of hard work and talent, but also a smattering of luck, and at some point, luck runs out. Winning a title means always looking forward, eyes on the prize, while defending a title means looking back, at everyone out to get you. All these things combine to make winning the second title in a row much, much harder than winning the first one.
Jorge Lorenzo found this out the hard way in 2011, when he faced an unleashed Casey Stoner on the Honda RC212V. And now, after his second title in 2012, he's learning exactly the same lesson again, this time at the hands of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez on the Honda RC213V. At Le Mans, all of the above factors came together, working against Lorenzo to drop him down the field, and move him from just four points to seventeen points adrift of the new championship leader, Dani Pedrosa.
What happened? First and foremost, the Hondas happened. Dani Pedrosa rode a brilliant race to take his second win in a row. It was arguably one of the best races of his career: getting a fantastic start, managing the wet conditions brilliantly, and putting in a number of hard, precise attacks to gain positions. His pass at Garage Vert to take the lead for the final time was one of particular beauty: jamming the bike precisely inside Dovizioso on the first of the double right handers, holding the tighter line, then taking a clear lead through the second. From that point he was gone. Since the Sachsenring last year, Pedrosa has won nine of the last fifteen races, a strike rate of sixty percent. That's the kind of batting average you need to win a title.
2013 Le Mans MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Of Exceptional Rookies, Real Race Pace, And What It Takes To Be Champion
Marc Marquez is just starting to let the mask slip. Asked in the press conference about the fact that he will start from pole at Le Mans, despite this weekend being the first time he has ridden a MotoGP bike at the French track, Marquez admitted he always has to play down his chances ahead of each weekend. "On Thursday, I always need to say something similar," he said.
His modesty is very becoming, and throughout the preseason and the early races, he has continued to dampen down overly-inflated expectations. Yes, pole is nice. Yes, winning is fantastic. No, he is not even thinking of the title yet. But everything about Marc Marquez screams ambition, the desire to win, to do what it takes to beat his rivals and prove to everyone what he believes, that he is the best rider in the world, a (self-)belief that motivates every top level athlete.
The last-corner lunge inside Jorge Lorenzo at Jerez will be cited as evidence, but more than that, the desperate attempts in the preceding laps were proof enough, if proof were needed. Is Marc Marquez thinking of winning the MotoGP championship in his first year, a feat previously only achieved by Kenny Roberts? No, it is not chief among his concerns. Is he trying to win as many races as possible, an objective that will bring him the 2013 title if he succeeds? Of course he is. He may not be thinking about the championship, but he is definitely trying to win it.
2013 Le Mans MotoGP Friday Round Up: Of Four Fast Men, Improved Ducatis, Redding's Reign, And A Quota On Spaniards
So far, so good. That seems to be the story from the first day of practice at Le Mans. A full day of dry weather - except for the last few minutes of FP2 for the Moto3 class, where the rain turned briefly to hail, only to blow out again as quickly as it came - means that everyone had a chance to work on their race set up. With the top four separated by just 0.166 seconds, the top five are within a quarter of a second, and Alvaro Bautista, the man in ninth, is just over seven tenths from the fastest man Dani Pedrosa.
A good day too for the Hondas. Dani Pedrosa was immediately up to speed, as expected. Marc Marquez was also quick in the afternoon, which was less expected. Unlike Jerez and Austin, this was the first time he rode a MotoGP machine at Le Mans, and getting used to hauling a 260 hp, 160kg bike around the tight layout of the French track is a different proposition to riding a Moto2 bike with half the horsepower here. He took a morning to get used to the track, asked for a few changes to the base set up inherited from Casey Stoner, and then went and blitzed to second in the afternoon, 0.134 seconds off his teammate.
More important than Marquez' speed is his consistency, however. In the afternoon, he posted seven laps of 1'34, which looks to be the pace to expect for a dry race. Only two men did more, Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo having posted nine laps at that pace, with both men also consistently a tenth or two quicker than the Spanish rookie.
Where do you draw the line? That's the central question in the paddock at Le Mans. The last-corner incident at Jerez is still front and foremost in many riders' minds, though perhaps none more so than Jorge Lorenzo's. Jorge Lorenzo still believes that Marc Marquez should be penalized for the move he made at Jerez, while the rest of the world remains to be convinced.
The subject came up at a rider briefing held by Race Direction at Le Mans, after all of the riders had arrived at the track, but before the press conference was due to begin. The briefing had been convened to discuss other issues - what to do when races are red flagged, behavior on the grid, the procedure for restarts, and a host of other complicated but important details surrounding safety. The briefing was clearly needed, as Marc VDS rookie Livio Loi's post red flag crash at Jerez made clear, the youngster's lack of experience causing him problems.
It was inevitable that the subject of the clash between Marquez and Lorenzo would come up at a meeting such as this, and, depending on whose account you believe, it was inevitable that tempers would be frayed. Lorenzo was described on GPOne as being 'furious' with Race Direction over their refusal to penalize Marquez for his pass at Jerez, though in the press conference, Lorenzo played that report down. He stood by his assertion that Race Direction needed to penalize Marquez, and that he had left the meeting early because "I thought it was over, the briefing, and I leave. Someone has to leave first, so I was the first one to leave."
2013 Jerez MotoGP Post-Race Round Up, Part 2: Of Forgotten Winners, Worried Yamahas And New-found Optimism
At the post-race press conference, as he fielded question after question of his last-corner clash with Marc Marquez, and refused to give an answer, Jorge Lorenzo eventually came out with the slightly exasperated quip: "Now a lot of questions to me, and when I won in Qatar, no questions for me. It's a little bit strange." It is a common occurrence in sporting journalism, and makes clear that while the athletes believe they are involved in a purely sporting endeavor, the media understands that what they are involved is actually show business. The big story of the weekend is not necessarily who stands on the top step of the podium.
Which is a shame, as Dani Pedrosa's victory at Jerez was both well-deserved and deeply impressive. The Hondas has come to the track with a disadvantage from testing, and were expected to struggle against the mighty Yamahas. It did not quite turn out that way, the Hondas - and especially Pedrosa and his crew chief Mike Leitner - found the grip they needed to beat Jorge Lorenzo and the rampaging Yamaha hordes, despite the horribly greasy conditions of the hot Jerez track.
We'd been wondering how long it would last. Nobody had started a formal pool yet, but we knew that at some point in the season, Marc Marquez would try something which would generate a mountain of controversy. The question was not if, but when, surely.
It took three races, which is positively restrained measured by the standards of his 2012 Moto2 season. Then, he managed to embroil himself in controversy in the very first race when he ran Thomas Luthi off the track at the end of the straight at the beginning of the final lap.
Yet while Marquez' pass on Jorge Lorenzo is already generating enough print copy to wipe out a small forest, it is totally different from his move at Qatar in 2012. That was a cynical slide to the left which saw him edge Luthi off the track and out of contention. This was a dive up the inside of a gap left by Lorenzo in the final corner of the final lap, after Marquez had spent the previous five or six laps making it perfectly clear to Lorenzo that he was hell-bent on finishing ahead of him.