On the day after the Italian Grand Prix, the MotoGP riders were back testing at Mugello. This time, however, it was only the factory riders who remained, to give the Michelin tires another run out. The last time they took to the track on the Michelins was at Sepang, and Michelin had brought the latest iteration of their tires to test.
Due to the commercial sensitivities involved, there was no official timing, and the riders were not allowed to speak to the media about the test. Unsurprisingly: Bridgestone hold the single tire contract for the 2015 season, having spent a lot of money for the privilege, so they do not want Michelin stealing their PR thunder. Nor do Michelin really want to be subject the intense scrutiny which official timing would impose while they are still in the middle of their development program.
That does not mean that the small band of journalists who stayed at the test did not learn anything, however. Michelin had brought four front tires to the test, and the factory men spent the morning and the early afternoon selecting their favorite from the four. The plan was for the riders to then try that tire in a full race simulation, to see how the tire stood up to a race distance of 23 laps.
That plan was quickly canceled. There had been no falls during the morning and early afternoon, but on the first laps of his long run, Jorge Lorenzo crashed out at Materassi. Once the track was cleared, it was the turn of Marc Márquez to go out, but on the second lap of his run, he too crashed, this time at Arrabbiata 1. With the debris of the Repsol Honda out of the way, Valentino Rossi followed, the Italian falling at Correntaio. At that point, the plan was abandoned.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after Sunday's race at Mugello:
Mugello is always a little magical, but packed to the rafters with delirious fans, it becomes something greater than just a race track. Over 90,000 fans turned up in Tuscany on Sunday, up 20% from last year on the back of the renaissance of Valentino Rossi and of Ducati, complete with two Italian riders. Something special was always going to happen here.
It certainly did, but perhaps not in the way the fans had hoped. Valentino Rossi did not score the dream victory in front of the ecstatic yellow hordes which packed the hillsides, nor did Ducati finally get the elusive win they have been chasing since 2010. But the MotoGP was packed with excitement and incident, the Moto3 race was a typical Mugello classic, and even Moto2 had some tension down to the final lap. Those who came got their money's worth.
The MotoGP race may have ended much as you might have predicted based on pace in practice, but the journey to Jorge Lorenzo’s third utterly dominant win in a row was a lot more intriguing than the results suggest, with drama right from the start. Literally: Andrea Iannone made what looked at first glance like a jump start – though not as blatant as Karel Abraham's – and Marc Márquez threaded the needle from thirteenth on the grid to make up seven places before the exit of the first corner. And did so surgically and cleanly.
But first that Iannone start. So convinced that the Italian had jumped the gun were HRC that they sent someone up to Race Direction to complain that they were not doing their job. Race Director Mike Webb was able to show them that they were doing just that, by going through the footage. He explained to me the process: there are high-speed cameras on each row and on the lights, capturing the start at a rate of several hundred frames a second. After the start, a dedicated official responsible for all of the video reviews goes over the starts, and checks for a jump start. If one is spotted, such as Karel Abraham's lurch forward, then a penalty is issued. That must be done within the first four laps, to make it fairer on the offender.
Over the past two years, Marc Márquez and his team have proven to be a master of strategy. They have found a number of innovations, most notably the two-stop, three-run strategy during qualifying, and the bunny hop bike swap during flag-to-flag races. Santi Hernandez has earned his reputation as a brilliant crew chief, and as a strategist capable of finding advantages in places where other teams simply haven't thought of looking.
So for Márquez to first miss out on going straight to Q2, and then make a fatal error again in Q1 leaving him in thirteenth is frankly shocking. Two major blunders in one day is unlike Márquez' side of the Repsol Honda garage, and their worst mistake since Phillip Island in 2013, where they miscounted laps for the compulsory pit stop and Márquez found himself disqualified.
What caused them to mess up like this? Concern about the championship, and then a touch of hubris. Márquez spent FP3 working on set up for used tires, looking at pace later on in the race. That meant he had little time at the end of the session to push for a fast lap, and found himself bumped out of the top ten as the pace hotted up. He missed out on Q2 by a very narrow margin: just 0.009 separated him from Maverick Viñales in tenth, and less than a hundredth of a second from Bradley Smith in a very safe eighth spot.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after qualifying at Mugello:
Andrea Dovizioso took the top spot in FP4 on his final lap in the session Saturday at the Mugello circuit. Dani Pedrosa, who led much of the session, came in fourth-fastest with Jorge Lorenzo in third as riders did their final set-up sorting before qualifying.
Rossi, who lingered mid pack for much of the session, set a fast lap late to grab fourth. Right behind him was Marc Marquez who crashed early in the session but recovered to finish the session in fifth. Cal Crutchlow held on for sixth fastest.
Jorge Lorenzo has smashed the lap record at Mugello to set the fastest time during FP3, taking nearly half a second off Dani Pedrosa's pole record at the track. Lorenzo dominated the session, setting a blistering pace in the mid 1'47s, clearly a cut above the rest. Lorenzo finished ahead of a gaggle of Ducatis, Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso also under the pole record, but by hundredths rather than tenths of a second. The flying Ducatis also managed to put Michele Pirro behind them, the Ducati test rider using a tow from Dovizioso to snatch 4th spot in a hectic and thrilling final few minutes.
What did we learn from the first day of practice at Mugello? We learned that Jorge Lorenzo is still at the same steamroller pace he was at Jerez and Le Mans. That Valentino Rossi is following a plan, rather than chasing a lap time. That the Ducatis are fast, almost obscenely so, and that's before they put their special Mugello engine in. That Aleix Espargaro is one tough son of a gun. That the Hondas are still fast, when the conditions are right. And that Mugello might just be one of the places the conditions are likely to be right.
Why would the Honda be good at Mugello when it was so bad at Le Mans? Marc Márquez explained in a little more detail after practice on Friday. The biggest problem of the Honda RC213V is the aggressive nature of its engine, both in acceleration and braking. In braking, the bike is sliding more than the riders want it to, and in acceleration, the riders are having to fight the bike's willingness to wheelie and spin out of the corner. Because Mugello is such a fast track (more of that later), the teams have to gear the bikes longer, both for the main straight and for the more flowing corners. Longer gearing means that the engine has to work harder to try to lift the front wheel, taming the power a little. "It looks like here the character of the engine is smoother, also because the final sprocket is longer and then the gearbox is longer," Márquez told us. "The bike is pushing less, the corners are faster and don’t have that big acceleration and that helps us."
This is in part why the problems weren't spotted at Sepang. "In Valencia when we did the test after the race I said, if it feels like this we will have problems next year," Márquez said. With a lot of tight corners which need to be geared rather short, and colder temperatures meaning denser air, allowing more oxygen into the engine, and producing more power, the engine was at its most aggressive. When they went to the Sepang tests, where Honda had brought new chassis and the latest revision of the engine, the bike felt a lot better.