There is more to Mugello than just MotoGP. Being so large and so fast, the track makes for great racing in all classes, though each with a decidedly different character. While the MotoGP race saw one rider escape and a tense game of cat-and-mouse behind, the Moto2 race was a game of chess with riders gaining and losing over twenty-one laps, and the Moto3 race turned into a spectacular battle, with the outcome uncertain to the end.
The first race of the day was probably the best. Polesitter Danny Kent had made his intentions clear, trying to make an early break and grind out laps which were simply too fast for the rest to follow. That worked at Austin and Argentina, where he could hold his advantage down the long, fast straights, but not at Mugello. The fast exit of Bucine means that a group always has an advantage, the lightweight Moto3 bikes slingshotting out of each other's slipstreams to hit speeds which would otherwise be impossible. At other tracks, a gap of half a second is sufficient to keep ahead in Moto3. At Mugello, you can lose that and much more down the fiercely fast straight.
Kent abandoned his attempt to make a break almost immediately, and switched tactics, dropping to the back of the group, which ebbed and flowed into two groups, then one, containing up to fifteen riders. The lead changed hands more times than there were fans in the stands, a new rider taking over every corner almost. Being Mugello, the front was replete with Italian riders. Romano Fenati, sporting a rather stunning special livery for his home round, Niccolo Antonelli, the youngsters Pecco Bagnaia and Enea Bastianini, all had their sights set on the podium, and most especially the top step.
Despite the lead changes, a few riders really stood out. All of the Italians were strong throughout, but Miguel Oliveira looked the most in control. The Portuguese rider tried taking charge of the race and making a break for it himself, but like Kent, he could not quite make the break. He looked strong, though, and was never far off the front. It was clear he was the man to beat, and chose the right time to push and the right line onto the front straight to take his first ever Moto3 victory, and the first victory by a Portuguese rider in the 66 years of Grand Prix racing history. It had been a long time coming, and was a weight off his shoulders, he said. Being the first Portuguese winner was special, but most of all, he dedicated the win to his father, who had inculcated his own passion for racing in his son, a tough task in a country with no real culture of motorcycle road racing.
Despite not winning, Danny Kent once again extended his lead in the championship. The Englishman had chosen a deliberate strategy of dropping to the back of the group, biding his time and saving his strength and his tires. It nearly caught him out, getting stuck in the second group at one point when the lead group split into two. "I was a bit worried of there being a crash in the leading group and when you fall back to 15th you start racing with different people than you're used to so I wanted to get back to sixth or seventh because it's a bit safer there and luckily we were able to secure another podium," Kent explained. He had the pace to get back to the front group, and then executed his plan of not exiting the final corner in the lead perfectly. Nine times out of ten, that would have been good enough for the win, but Miguel Oliveira proved it was possible. The Portuguese rider had been taking the measure of the front straight for a couple of laps, and got the perfect drive to hold off Kent, and a hard-charging Romano Fenati. Having one Italian on the podium was a crowd pleaser, but having Fenati leading three more Italians, with Bagnaia, Bastianini and Antonelli taking places four through six is an indication of how strong Italian racing is at the moment.
Bastianini's fifth place meant that Kent increased his championship lead from 37 to 46 points. Kent is adding consistency to blinding speed, and capitalizing on the failings of others. Fabio Quartararo fell for the second race running, dropping down to seventh in the championship, and Vazquez crashed too, losing valuable ground on his teammate.
It was an interesting weekend for the Leopard Racing team in more ways than one. The team's title sponsor, Leopard Energy drink, was feared to be a chimera, the kind of phantom product with which the energy drink market is saturated. But on Friday, a white van pulled into the paddock, and unloaded several trays of the drink. It exists, though whether you can buy it in a store near you is another question.
If the Moto3 race was a thriller, the Moto2 race was more of a slow burner, though the championship outcomes were eerily similar. Tito Rabat set out on a scorching pace, the old Rabat being back in form and capable of pushing beyond what the other riders could follow. All but Johann Zarco, that is, the Frenchman starting slowly and then making his way forward. Zarco's pace increased lap by lap, working his way forward past Xavier Simeon, then seeing Jonas Folger crash out in front of him. He stalked Domi Aegerter for a few laps, before slipping past him and then chasing Rabat.
The Frenchman inched closer to Rabat, but only caught him at the very end of the final lap. Zarco chose a line to try to attack for the win, but gambled wrong. He tried to go inside Rabat, and then take the lead before the line. Afterwards, he said the better strategy would have been to try to go outside and carry corner speed to take advantage of the slipstream, and try to outdrag Rabat to the line.
The win was important to Rabat, the Spaniard taking his first win since Misano last year. But Zarco's second place was even more significant, extending his lead to 31 points after Tom Luthi crashed out. Like Kent in Moto3, Zarco is winning by a combination of consistency, outright speed and taking advantage of the misfortune of his rivals.
Dominique Aegerter took the last slot on the podium, the Swiss rider finally having found a setting with the Kalex which gave him the confidence he had last year with the Suter. Sam Lowes finished in fourth, a decent finish after coming together with Simone Corsi on the second lap. Corsi had tried to outbrake Lowes round the outside of San Donato, but then closed the door on Lowes going into the corner. Lowes had nowhere to go, hitting the side of Corsi, Corsi crashing out of the race. It was judged a racing incident: Corsi was never really fully past Lowes, and should have known that Lowes was right there inside him.