It's hard to overstate just how important motorcycling is both to Italian culture and the Italian economy. Originally adopted as cheap transport, Italians almost literally grow up on two wheels, transported about as children on Vespas before graduating to small-capacity Aprilias, Piaggios, Vespas, Derbis, Gileras and even Yamahas, Suzukis and Hondas when they hit their mid-teens. Eventually, as Italians grow older, they end up with either a Piaggio or a Suzuki Burgman to commute on, or a Ducati Monster, or perhaps a Triumph Speed Triple to cruise the country's city streets and beautiful beachfronts.
This passion has produced hundreds of businesses scattered around the north of the country. The old centers of boot and saddlemaking turned their skills with leather to gloves, boots and protective clothing, while the dozens of motorcycle manufacturers - now reduced to just a handful - spawned a vibrant industry building parts and accessories for every conceivable shape or form of two-wheeled vehicle. The chances are that if you own or ride a motorcycle, you have something Italian either attached to or associated with it, be it Brembo brakes, Marchesini wheels, Alpinestars leathers, Sidi boots, Nolan helmets, Arrow or Termignoni exhausts, or Pirelli tires. Or perhaps you just own a Moto Guzzi, an Aprilia, a Moto Morini or a Ducati. Motorcycling without Italy is simply inconceivable.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello is an event that captivates both the hearts and the minds of the Italian people. Mugello and the Italian Grand Prix are at the heart of Italy, both physically and metaphorically. The breathtaking track, surrounded by the beautiful, bucolic Tuscan hills, lies in a fold of Italy's Apennine mountains, just north of Florence. Glorious winding roads thread through the surrounding mountains, and at each mountain pass or major crossroads, there's a cafe where you can stop for a coffee and a bite to eat. In every one of these establishments hangs a shrine to motorcycling: helmets, leathers, signed photos of Italian motorcycling legends - Valentino Rossi, Giacomo Agostini, Marco Lucchinelli, Luca Cadalora - cards, folders, maps, gloves; All the regalia of motorcycling hang here. And as you sit nursing your espresso, your reverie is interrupted every couple of minutes by the rumble, roar or shriek of bikes as they chase that perfect zen moment of motorcycling, dancing to the rhythm of the Passo Sambuca, or the Passo di Raticosa, or the legendary Passo di Futa.
On The Road
It is no coincidence that this latter pass leads from Borgo Panigale, a nondescript outer suburb of Bologna, through the outskirts of the city, then south towards Florence, up and over some of the most magnificent motorcycling roads on the planet, before arriving some 80 kilometers later in the village of Scarperia, past that town's beautiful bell tower, and then down winding, tiny local roads until a giant red crash helmet marks the entrance to the Mugello circuit. In Borgo Panigale, Ducati builds the motorcycles it sells to support its racing habit, then tests those bikes on that illustrious pass, on the grounds that if a motorcycle performs well on the Passo di Futa, it will perform well on any road on the planet.
The one motorcycle which Ducati has not tested over the Passo di Futa - or at least, not that they will admit to - is the Desmosedici GP9. Instead, the weapon that won the 2007 championship for Casey Stoner and the Bologna factory is tested mainly just over the other side of the Passo di Futa, at the Mugello circuit. But the Mugello track has all the elements you will find on the Futa pass and more: The 320 km/h front straight kinks, then dips right at the point you need to get hard on the brakes to slow the bike up for the double apex right hander at San Donato. The track then climbs up through a series of left-right flicks before heading over the blind crest into Casanova, and down towards the double right of Arrabbiata 1 and 2.
Once again, the track winds up the hill like a mountain road, twisting through Scarperia and Palagio, before dropping down the long hairpin of Correntaio towards the final Bucine hairpin. Like Jerez' final Ducados hairpin, this is a place a race can be lost and won, with room to pass both on the way in and on the way out. If you're still battling for the lead when the last lap comes around, this is the place you roll the dice. But as any gambler will tell you, rolling the dice won't guarantee you the result you want, and you're as likely to come away from the Bucine corner empty handed as you are to cross the line in the lead.
With Ducati using Mugello - owned by Ferrari, their brethren in Italian motor racing - as a private test track, you would expect that the factory would have racked up a pile of wins here. But you'd be wrong: Ducati have been on the podium at Mugello every year except 2004, and have looked capable of winning almost every year, but not once have they managed to get on the top step.
This Spot Taken
The trouble at Mugello, you see, is that the top step of the podium has a "reserved" sign on it. For the past 7 years, a certain Valentino Rossi has turned up at the Tuscan track, laid his towel out on the step marked with a #1, and returned an hour later to claim what is rightfully his. Rossi may be used to winning, but his record at Mugello is astonishing, not having lost a race since crashing out in 2001.
What is even more impressive is that Rossi has won here almost regardless of the capabilities of his machinery: He won in 2003 aboard the all-conquering Honda RC211V, but also in 2004 in his first year aboard the previously struggling Yamaha. He won here in 2005, the year he dominated the class taking 11 wins in a single season, but also in 2007, the year that Yamaha got the M1 so horribly wrong, down on power and acceleration at a track where horsepower plays a huge role. Even Rossi's loss here in 2001 he puts down to the bad luck created by racing a bike with a special paint scheme, something he has refused to do ever since.
With his name already penciled in the space marked "winner" on the results sheet, Valentino Rossi is going to take some stopping. But this year, The Doctor finally faces the kind of competition which might just be able to put an end to his incredible winning streak. Ducati's Casey Stoner, Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa and Fiat Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo have all shown themselves to be remarkably tough competitors this year, and pose the strongest challenge that Rossi has ever faced.
If the rabidly partisan crowd - Mugello is just a couple of hours away from Rossi's home town of Tavullia - is to accept a Rossi defeat, then it can only come from either an Italian rider, or an Italian motorcycle. Which leaves Casey Stoner as the only acceptable option, and probably the most likely. Stoner pushed Rossi hard here last year, on a bike which was still under par, coming off poor results at both Jerez and Le Mans. This year, Stoner has been much more competitive at the two tracks the Ducati struggled at most, and the Australian World Champion is also much calmer and much stronger mentally. The Ducati remains the fastest bike on the grid - though only just, and the dismal results by the rest of the Ducati riders mark it as almost impossible to ride quickly - and if the bike is this good this early, Stoner will push Rossi to the very limit.
#99 Says No #99
The other man prime candidate to prevent Valentino Rossi from taking win #99 will be the man bearing #99 on the front of his fairing. Jorge Lorenzo has grown in stature since his rookie season last year, and leads the championship after taking two wins from four races. The only blemish on his record is his DNF at Jerez, crashing out of 4th while closing on Casey Stoner. If he hadn't lost the front in Spain, Lorenzo's lead would be 17 points rather than just the one. At Mugello, Lorenzo will have to keep his head and use the knowledge that his bike is the equal of Rossi's to stay close to the Italian, before pouncing at the end. Rossi won't let his team mate run away from him, so Lorenzo's best chance is to let Rossi do the work, then snatch victory in the final few laps.
If anyone is going to run away with victory in Italy, it could well be Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard is still struggling with a painful knee and subsequent lack of fitness, as well as complaining about the uncompetitiveness of Honda's latest iteration of the RC212V. But Pedrosa's rivals are taking his complaints less and less seriously, as the tough little Spaniard is proving to be a very hard man to beat. Though he is yet to take victory this season, Pedrosa has been there or thereabouts since the second race of the year, after almost being knocked into the gravel by Alex de Angelis at Qatar, and losing ground in the desert. On current form, Pedrosa is due a win, and if it doesn't come at Mugello, it's almost certain to come in front of his home crowd in Barcelona in two weeks' time.
As Mugello is Ducati's test track, the remaining Ducatis will be under careful scrutiny here, and under great pressure to improve on the miserable results so far. Best placed rider so far is Mika Kallio, on the satellite Pramac squad. The Finn got the year off to an excellent start, with a brace of 8th places at Qatar and Motegi, but his season has gone rapidly downhill since then. A technical problem halted his progress in Spain, then a bizarre crash in Le Mans gave him another blank score. Ducati is looking to Kallio as proof that the Desmosedici GP9 isn't impossible to ride, and so will be looking for another decent finish here in Italy.
If Not Here, Where?
The pressure on his team mate will be even greater. Niccolo Canepa was drafted into the Pramac Ducati squad after a year as Ducati's test rider, and in that capacity has done hundreds, if not thousands of laps of this track. Canepa has struggled so far this year, finding it difficult to deal with the pressures of being a Grand Prix racer and learning new tracks. But if there is one track where Canepa should be competitive, it is here, a track he knows well and is capable of lapping at a strong pace. Finishing last or near to last will not be good enough for Canepa at Mugello, and a place in or near the top 10 will be required if he is to be given a chance to stay in MotoGP.
Ironically, the man feeling the least pressure could be Casey Stoner's Marlboro Ducati team mate Nicky Hayden. Hayden started work with his new crew chief Juan Martinez at Le Mans, and Mugello will be a chance to build on that weekend. More importantly, perhaps, Hayden might get three full and uninterrupted sessions of practice, and a chance to get back some of the seat time he has so badly needed this year, either through accident, injury, regulation changes or just plain bad weather. Three hours of dry practice, together with a crew chief he can communicate with easily and freely should help the American finally gain some ground on the rest of the field. There won't be any miracles at Mugello, but at least Nicky Hayden might start to look like his old self again in Italy.
Ducati's biggest misfortune is the fact that Sete Gibernau will be missing at Mugello. The Spanish veteran broke his left collarbone for the umpteenth time at Le Mans, and is sitting in Barcelona hoping to be fit for his home Grand Prix in two weeks' time. But the Hayden crew chief change was part of a bigger reshuffle aimed at making all of the Ducatis competitive, not just the one ridden by an Australian former MotoGP champion. To do this effectively, Ducati need all the track time they can get, and Gibernau's data would have been a welcome addition to this.
As for the other Italian riders, only one man looks capable of disrupting the Fantastic Four's party. Andrea Dovizioso came perilously close to taking his first podium of the year at Le Mans, before Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa cruelly snatched it from him on the very last lap. Like Pedrosa, Dovizioso has been complaining of the substandard RC212V, but that hasn't stopped the quiet Italian from being consistently competitive. Dovi continues to grow in his role as a factory rider, learning and improving all the time. He is due a visit to the podium, and Mugello might just give him that little extra motivation that he needs to finally get on the box.
Home Sweet Home
Of the remaining Italians, the rider showing the most promise so far is also the biggest surprise of the series. Marco Melandri, consigned to the wastebasket of history after Kawasaki announced their withdrawal from the series, has taken the defunct ZXRR Ninja and made it more competitive than it has ever been, taking his and Kawasaki's first podium since 2007. Melandri has been pleading with Kawasaki to provide more development for the bike, but so far to no avail. His Le Mans podium might help swing opinion in Akashi, and if it does, then Melandri will be a serious threat once again. Until then, the Italian will have to be content to wait for the leaders to make a mistake, and seize the opportunity.
Loris Capirossi is in a similar situation, though at least he knows that the Suzuki will be receiving new upgrades soon, rather than just vainly hoping for them. After a strong preseason, Suzuki have lagged behind again, down on power compared to the rest of the field, and even behind Kawasaki in the constructors standings. Capirex has an excellent record at Mugello, but until Suzuki finds more power for the GSV-R, he won't be able to make himself a permanent fixture in the top 5.
At Mugello last year, Alex de Angelis demonstrated his ability by finishing 4th, his best finish so far. But all that year, he also showed his penchant for destroying equipment, slinging his Gresini Honda into the gravel on numerous occasions. So far this season, de Angelis has proven to be much more consistent, and capable of staying firmly seated, rather than headed for the gravel. Sadly, de Angelis' consistency has mainly been finishing in the bottom half of the field, with the exception of Qatar. The man from San Marino will have to hope to rekindle some of his Mugello Magic from last year, or he is likely to find himself on the transfer shortlist for next season.
De Angelis' Gresini team mate continues his struggle with the spec Bridgestone tires, the flyweight Toni Elias still having problems getting heat into the stiff spec tires. Elias underwent surgery for arm pump just prior to Le Mans, where he rode with little strength in his arms. Now closer to recovering his fitness, Elias will have a chance to work on his setup problems once again and find a solution to his tire troubles. Elias is a proven race winner, but unless he finds a setup that works he could be the first victim of the single tire rule.
Winners And Losers
Over in the Tech 3 Yamaha garage, the riders face contrasting fortunes with the standard Bridgestones. Colin Edwards has taken to them like a duck to water, the super-sticky front giving him the confidence to ride as he pleases. Edwards has been strong almost everywhere so far this year, but his history at Mugello is not good. A 5th place is the best result he has had at the Tuscan track, the mitigating factor being that it was last year that he scored that best result. Over the past few days, Edwards has been linked to a switch back to the World Superbike series with Aprilia, but the Texan still has unfinished business in MotoGP, as he is yet to score his first win in the series. It won't come at Mugello, but if he can run close to the leaders, he will gain confidence going towards Assen and Laguna Seca, the two tracks he might finally bag that elusive victory.
While Edwards revels in the new-found levels of grip with the front Bridgestone, James Toseland struggles with a lack of grip at the rear. The Briton has suffered from a lack of practice time and dented confidence after two big crashes during the preseason, and is still coming to terms with the spec tires. At Le Mans, Toseland had a steady, quiet race, slowly building his confidence once again. A repeat of last year's outstanding 6th place finish at Mugello is extremely unlikely for the Yorkshireman, but he'd probably settle for a full set of uninterrupted practice sessions and a solid finish in the top 10. If it stays dry - and it looks like it probably will during practice - Toseland should be able to build his confidence, and build on his results.
Though he will deny it publicly, the final English speaker in the paddock would probably prefer it if it didn't stay dry on race day at Mugello. Chris Vermeulen has a very indifferent record at the Italian track, and coupled to the Suzuki's lack of horsepower, without a rain shower, that record looks set to continue. But though the weather forecast looks good for Friday and Saturday, the forecast is for rain on race day, so Vermeulen could yet get a chance to shine at Mugello.
Frenchman Randy de Puniet will not be best pleased if it does turn damp. The Frenchman had a miserable race at his home Grand Prix at a rainy Le Mans two weeks ago, after a promising start to the season. De Puniet has at last unlearned his nasty habit of throwing racing motorcycles through the gravel traps, suffering his first fall of the season during practice at Le Mans. If he can stay aboard again at Mugello, the Frenchman might finally start to realize some of the potential he has shown over the years.
The Team Scot garage may well be a hive of interest this weekend, but the buzz will not be about where Yuki Takahashi might finish on Sunday. Rumors persist that Hungarian 250 rider Gabor Talmacsi, who split with the Aspar team last week, could bring much-needed sponsorship into the team and take Takahashi's spare bike. Dorna would surely look kindly on any such move, as it would allow them to test the water for the proposed one-bike-per-rider rule for 2010 and see how it works in practice. But Aspar boss Jorge Martinez may yet prevent any such deal from happening, as the Hungarian will need Martinez' blessing if he is to ride again this season. If Talmacsi's manager Stefano Favaro is seen spending a lot of time in the Team Scot garage or hospitality suite, then the Japanese rider could soon find himself with one fewer RC212V, and one extra team mate.
The Scene Is Set
The Mugello circuit, close to the heart of the Italian motorcycle industry, also sees MotoGP get into the heart of the motorcycle racing season. For the next two months, MotoGP tours a host of classic tracks packed with race-crazy fans. Mugello is the opening scene at the start of a drama-filled action sequence of racing. Set in the heart of the beautiful Tuscan hills, and packed with cast of tens of thousands of bike-mad race fans, that opening scene could not have a better backdrop than Mugello.