Motorcycle racing is a sport haunted by injustice. Chance lies waiting at every corner, turning a dream race into a nightmare, where engines can blow, tires can tear themselves apart, or an overcooked corner can end in the gravel traps. But sometimes, Fate takes a step aside, and races turn into a direct reflection of the real strengths in the paddock. That this should happen at Mugello seemed only fitting: great races belong at great racetracks.
That Mugello had the potential to turn into a great race was shown in the 250 race, where a group of 5 riders battled for the win almost to the wire, Jorge Lorenzo finally taking an epic win, and demonstrating his credentials for entry to the senior class next season. That the main title contenders were bent on making it a great race was a given. Two Ducatis, in their gorgeous anniversary livery, sat on the front row, driving an already excitable Italian crowd into absolute frenzy. Beside the Ducatis on the front row sat The Doctor Valentino Rossi, his chatter problems seemingly cured by the new chassis debuted at Le Mans. Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden sat in fourth, knowing that he had his work cut out to defend his lead in the championship, with Rossi's Italian compatriot Marco Melandri sitting directly behind Rossi in sixth.
At the sixth race of the year, with roughly one third of the season gone, and with three rounds coming up on three consecutive weekends 14 days from now, everyone knew we were getting into the guts of the title fight. A good result here was crucial, to take momentum into the grueling three-week stretch that is to come.
Hail To The Chief
As the lights went out, the pack leapt off the line, the crowd becoming ecstatic as the red, silver and green Ducati took the lead into the first corner, the yellow Camel Yamaha bearing #46 hot on its tail. The excitement was followed by a ripple of disappointment, as the Italian masses realised that it was the "wrong" Ducati in the lead, bearing Spaniard Sete Gibernau. But by the second corner, the disappointment made way for elation, as Valentino Rossi barged through to capture the lead. Meanwhile, the "right" Ducati, the Italian bike bearing an Italian rider, was languishing down in eighth place, Loris Capirossi having got off to a terrible start.
By contrast, Shinya Nakano had a fantastic start on the Kawasaki, sitting right in Gibernau's tailpipe in third, leading a charging Marco Melandri and another great starter Casey Stoner down the hill away from Poggio Secco. The question remained whether he could hang on to third spot, and cast off his image as a fast starter who fades as the race progresses. As the bikes crossed the line at the end of the first lap, Nakano's reputation seemed once again justified, having lost a spot to Melandri round the southern end of the track, and being outbraked at the end of the straight by the young Australian Stoner.
Behind Nakano, Nicky Hayden and team mate Dani Pedrosa were engaged in a fierce battle for sixth, a reflection of their battle for position within the Repsol Honda hierarchy. It would be several laps before this one was settled one way or another. Behind the HRC pair, and Loris Capirossi, Kenny Roberts Junior was showing that the new chassis that Team KR had provided for the Honda V5 engine was a major improvement over the previous version, holding down a promising ninth place. Fellow American John Hopkins followed, failing to capitalize on the great grid position he'd put his Rizla Suzuki in during qualifying. Another American with a new chassis was down in thirteenth, Colin Edwards having decided on using the new chassis Valentino Rossi was riding after a poor qualifying session on Saturday. On the grid, he seemed confident he'd found a good set up with the new frame, but any chance of proving his point was ruined, as he ran wide and into the gravel on lap 2, rejoining at the rear of the race. He was eventually to finish in 12th, after a strong ride making up for the ground he lost.
Back at the front of the race, Rossi's determination to pull out a win was showing. Proof that he was pushing as hard as possible came in the second lap, as he ran a little wide through the Palagio left-hander, kicking up dirt outside the kerbstones, and allowing Sete Gibernau to take back the lead. Rossi settled in behind Gibernau, to regain his composure and await his chance. Melandri was right on Rossi's tail, passing him briefly, before losing back out again. Completing the group was Casey Stoner, making a strong impression, and pushing Melandri hard.
Let Me Through, I'm The Doctor
By lap five, Rossi had retaken the lead, after swapping back and forth with Gibernau, and the front group had grown to six members, Pedrosa and Hayden joining the front runners, their personal feud not yet finally settled. The fight was fierce at the front, with no one expecting any quarter to be given. Melandri, in particular, was vehement in not taking prisoners, putting a series of extremely tough moves on almost everyone in the group. The battle for third was starting to take its toll on the group, allowing Rossi and Gibernau to slip away, picking up a narrow lead.
As the riders passed the stripe at the end of lap 8, Casey Stoner dealt decisively with Melandri, who'd been holding the following group up a fraction, pulling out of the Fortuna Honda rider's slipstream to dive into the San Donato right-hander in third. Stoner's determination was to prove his downfall, however. In his rush to make up the 1.2 seconds lost to Rossi and Gibernau, he opened the gas too early coming over the Poggio Secco rise, losing the rear spectacularly, the bike spinning end over end to its expensive demise. Stoner was lucky to get up and walk away, to pay a visit to the Clinica Mobile for treatment on an injured hand.
By this time, the Kentucky Kid had settled the HRC rivalry in his favor, finally managing to make the pass he'd put on Pedrosa stick, and move on to dispatch Melandri back to fourth. Loris Capirossi had also joined the fray by now, making good on his poor start to join the front runners, moving past Melandri into fourth by lap 11. At the front, Sete Gibernau seemed to be rehearsing the move he would be making on the last lap, slipstreaming The Doctor out of the long Bucine left-hander and along the final straight, but he never seemed able to get past Rossi, the Yamaha's top speed, a weakness in previous seasons, no longer in doubt.
After sneaking past Nicky Hayden, Loris Capirossi was quick to close down the two leaders, taking a whopping 8/10ths off the gap on lap 13. Once he'd arrived, however, the leading six reassembled, with Rossi leading Gibernau, Capirossi, Hayden, Melandri and Pedrosa. Battle was once again joined, with tussles on almost every corner. Rossi, who had seemed superb, was showing the strain of keeping the chasing pack behind him, outbraking himself and running wide on lap 15, losing 4 places in the process, leaving Gibernau in the lead. The Spaniard's lap was to last for less than a lap, however, the crowd emitting a huge cheer as Loris Capirossi passed his team mate onto the starting straight.
This was the start of a remarkable slide for Gibernau, losing five places and over two and a half seconds in just two laps. Though he recovered his lap times, and was running as fast as the front group, he never managed to rejoin them, finally finishing a lonely fifth. The man he did manage to pass was Marco Melandri, whose effort to pass Nicky Hayden proved too much, leaving him running extremely wide, rejoining five seconds down on the leaders.
And Then There Were Three
With four riders left at the front, two of them Italians, the scene was set for a memorable finale. And the crowd were not to be disappointed. Capirossi led into the final laps, with Rossi pushing him every step of the way, and Nicky Hayden hot on their heels. Dani Pedrosa was losing contact, and moving out of contention for the podium. The top three were inseparable, Rossi and Hayden constantly probing for gaps to poke their bikes through to pass Capirossi for the lead, but Capirex and The Doctor kept slamming the door shut at every attempt. On the penultimate lap, Rossi finally managed to get past his fellow Italian, slipping inside at Materassi to take the lead. Coming back over start and finish, Capirossi pulled out of Rossi's slipstream to get his bike a tire's width ahead, but with a lap to go, this move wouldn't count.
But The Doctor had decided that he was going to win this one. His last lap was scorching, building a half-second cushion between himself and Capirossi, who was caught up keeping Hayden in third, to take a truly epic win. Capirossi kept second over the line, and a magnificent Hayden taking third. Pedrosa, who had faded a little over the last couple of laps, finished two seconds down in fourth, ahead of a strong Gibernau on the Ducati. A disappointed Melandri was sixth, the victim of his own eagerness.
Behind the front group, another great battle had played itself out over the course of race. Toni Elias, Kenny Roberts Jr, Makoto Tamada, John Hopkins and Shinya Nakano had been all over each other all race long. As they crossed the line, Melandri's Fortuna Honda team mate Elias came out on top, taking seventh ahead of an excellent performance by Kenny Roberts Jr on the new Team KR bike, Makoto Tamada in ninth, Suzuki's John Hopkins in tenth, and Shinya Nakano in eleventh. Colin Edwards followed a long way behind in 12th, a decent recovery after a bad mistake. Nakano's Kawasaki team mate Randy de Puniet ended 13th, followed by Australian Suzuki rider Chris Vermeulen on his first outing to Mugello, with Carlos Checa taking the final point for fifteenth. Ellison and the lapped Cardoso finished up the field, Cardoso's team mate Hoffman having pulled out of the race on lap 8.
Normal Service Has Been Resumed. Kind of.
After a run of freak failures and surprising results, Mugello turned out more or less as everyone would have expected at the start of the season. Valentino Rossi demonstrated why he is the world champion, taking a crucial win when he needed it. Loris Capirossi pushed his Ducati to the very limit to try and put an Italian rider on an Italian bike on the top step. And Nicky Hayden rode an impressive and calculating race, only gambling what he could afford to lose. But the result sheet belies what really happened: On any given lap, the race winner was almost impossible to predict, the title contenders pushing each other to the very limit, and sometimes beyond, to take the win at Mugello.
Rossi looked almost as relieved and emotional on the cool down lap as he did after winning on his first outing at Yamaha at Welkom in South Africa. This win meant more to him than even he realised, and it was exactly what he needed to get his title defense back on track. But he had to fight for it every inch of the way. Capirossi returned to blistering form, after a couple of poor outings, looking once again like a credible championship contender. Nicky Hayden put in another strong, sensible, champion's race, defending his lead without taking stupid risks. Back on the podium after missing out at Le Mans, he again looked slightly disappointed, the desire to win one getting stronger every race, and especially after races like Mugello, where he ran at the front and threatened all race long.
Even the class rookies behaved just as expected. Pedrosa ran hard and came close, but faded towards the end, seemingly justifying the predictions of his pre-season critics that he couldn't last a whole race. But he looked fresh and frustrated in the post-race interviews, and not like a man with nothing left. Fellow rookie Casey Stoner also stayed true to form, running very fast, riding very hard and looking like a real threat, before making a mistake and crashing out, something he has built up a reputation for in the lower classes. And Melandri stayed true to his fickle form, winning races one week while ending in the middle orders the next.
What Mugello does make clear is that with the arrival of the young guns, and the departure of the old guard, MotoGP has received a shot in the arm this season. With today's race at Mugello and the race at Istanbul, racing fans have been treated to two of the greatest MotoGP races for a very long time. The fans really have been the winner in 2006, and with Valentino Rossi back in the title race, and Capirossi and Hayden tied for points at the top of the table, things are just going to get better.